We Are Still A Nation At Risk

If there’s anything more depressing than reading another news story about just how badly our nation is falling behind other nations educationally, it’s reading the public comments that try to excuse-ify it all away.

In this case, I’m talking about the National Public Radio piece about a newly released federal study on PIAAC, the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which looks at the skills adults need to do everyday tasks, whether it’s at work or in their social lives.

We’re just average when it comes to literacy, but we’re dead last on technology skills, and on math, the study found that Americans with a high school diploma performed about the same as high school dropouts in other industrialized countries.

“Clearly, we have some work to do in this country,” Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the government’s National Center for Education Statistics, said in the story. “We have young people coming out of high school—or not graduating from high school—that are struggling with everyday competencies.”

Work to do, indeed. But that kind of earnest call to action was just so hard to find in the 1,004 comments—yep, one thousand and four—that followed this online story.

You have your blame-everything-on-charters-and-evil-philanthropists conspiracy theorists:

“The only time our country seems to care if our kids are being educated is when some politician blathers on about some stupid study showing how we are so far behind while he/she takes kickbacks from the charter or voucher movements.”


“Many of the billionaires backing charter schools fed at the trough of public monies for years. Now they want all of it.”

Then there are your blame-everything-on-the-minority kids-and-their-screwed-up-parents bigots…

Teachers can’ t punish kids because we have their home life is messed up or they are a minority. Students can take over a classroom with their antics, endanger other students, and completely disrupt any learning. I’ve had administrators tell me that black kids or Hispanic kids can’t help being bad so we have to just talk with them.”

Or those who embrace the soft bigotry of no expectations (for those-other-kids, but-not-mine):

“One definitely doesn’t need calculus to flip burgers or unclog toilets. The society does need a lot of unskilled jobs done, always did, always will. These unskilled jobs are more likely than not to be also unpleasant and low paid, yet are necessary. One of school system functions therefore is to separate students into the ones who go on to colleges, and the ones channeled into careers not requiring high level of skills and knowledge.”

All it takes is a cursory read of this story to realize this isn’t about charters or calculus or crappy parenting: This is about an education system that hasn’t evolved in decades, and about GROWN ADULTS (age 18-64) who do not have the basic skills they need to succeed in a modern economy—unless, of course, they are our younger Americans who graduated from college or graduate school. Those are the ones who scored above their peers with similar degrees in other developed countries.

Here’s an example of that everyday kind of math task: You go to the store and there’s a sale. Buy one, get the second half off. So if you buy two, how much do you pay?

Not calculus right? A fractions problem we adults should have mastered in grade school. But the average high school graduate could not answer this problem correctly.

Americans performed even more poorly when it comes to technology skills. We’re in last place behind Poland. This isn’t about writing code or even creating a pivot table in an Excel spreadsheet. These are basic technology tasks: “using email, buying and returning items online, using a drop-down menu, naming a file on a computer or sending a text message.”

I read these studies sometimes, with these alarming and dispiriting findings, and I wonder: Could this be our new “A Nation at Risk”? Is this what it will take to wake us up as parents and educators? To shake us out of our collective complacency? To convince us that this is not just a “privatizing problem” or “parenting problem” –that there is something fundamentally flawed in the status quo of our K-12 education?

How much longer are we going to get ass-whupped academically by Japan, Canada, Estonia (and Finland, of course) before we decide it’s time to re-think the way we educate our children, train our teachers, organize our districts, and fund our schools equitably? 

Thankfully, buried in that hot, messy scroll of comments is a little wisdom from a gentleman named Bill:

“Coming up with a viable solution takes effort.
Selling that solution to the masses takes more effort.
Putting the solution into practice takes even more effort.

The time for criticism is over. We had over three decades worth of criticisms. Unfortunately it’s easier for people to feel involved simply by criticizing on the Internet while in reality they accomplish nothing and the status quo in their own community continues unabated.”

Amen, Bill.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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