Failing Reports on U.S. Schools

Two recent reports on high school seniors unveil disturbing results.

A study this week from Strong American Schools reports that 40 percent of seniors still do not understand the math they were taught in the eigth grade. And an earlier study from Common Core found that nearly a quarter cannot identify Adolph Hitler, more than half cannot place the American Civil War in the right century, and a third do not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees free speech.

These reports come 25 years after a landmark study by a national commission that stunned President Ronald Reagan and the nation when it warned that public schools were eroding in a "rising tide of mediocrity."


Ted Koppel reported on April 26, 1983, on ABC's "Nightline" : "The commission discovered something that borders on a disaster."

Despite billions of dollars spent in the past quarter-century, the newest report finds high school graduation rates have actually dropped over the last 25 years. The United States once ranked first in graduation rates; now it ranks 21st.

Math scores are also troubling. "If you rate us against the rest of the world, 30 nations, we're 25th from the top," said former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, chairman of Strong American Schools. "We can do more intensive work. We can do more homework. We've got too much television and too much distraction in kids' lives."

Two teenagers visiting Washington, D.C., from India would agree. They came to meet with local high school students. They are also featured in a real-life movie, "2 Million Minutes," comparing their education in India to American schools. The movie also examines Chinese schools.

Both visiting teens told students in Washington they go to school six days a week, and take five years of math, physics and chemistry. They believe American students have it too easy.

"The [U.S.] education system is definitely not up to our standards," Apoorva Uppala said.

Both admired the facilities in U.S. schools, but Rohit Sridharan said American students "have everything but the motivation, it seems."

After the Indian visitors met with students from Washington, we asked the American teenagers whether they would want to work as hard in school as the young people from India. Amid nervous laugher, most admitted "No!"

One American, Tamaira Shaw, said, "I feel that we aren't motivated. We're losing our focus."

Many U.S. school officials agree that motivation is a huge problem, but also feel the new reports are too gloomy.

"It's like telling somebody every day, day in and day out, 'You're awful, you're a failure, you're terrible. Now go out and do better,'" said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Houston said that is not a good way to motivate students or teachers. He also feels that American schools are much better than portrayed in many reports.

Romer disagreed, saying, "This is the most serious problem the United States faces. It's a problem we need real presidential leadership on. And that's what this campaign ought to be all about."

On the campaign trail, all the U.S. presidential candidates do talk about education. But they and the voters are focused more on other issues such as Iraq, health care, gas prices and the economy.

The problem for education may be that many people believe that is something they can worry about tomorrow.

That's also what they thought 25 years ago.