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Sliding Toward Mediocrity
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 6/5/08

Everyone swears that kids today are brighter than ever. If only there was some valid evidence that this is so. Alas, the facts are not very reassuring. If today’s younger generation is really the hope of the future, then abandon hope, all ye who (are able to) read these words. Our high school dropout rate in the inner cities is now well over 50%. It’s 30% nationwide and many of those that do manage to graduate cannot read beyond a sixth grade level. We rank 17th globally in high school graduation rates. One in ten Americans is functionally illiterate. I’m sure we’ll survive as a nation in spite of these statistics but will we survive as a world leader?  

We are participants, ready or not, in a global economy. That means competing with other nations, not just for trade, but for jobs. We are currently exporting more jobs overseas than we should because it is often cheaper and more productive to do so but also because, in many cases, we can’t find qualified Americans to fill them. As manufacturing jobs disappeared overseas, millions of American faced the choice of re-training or finding that their employment opportunities are limited to lower paying jobs in the service sector. America transitioned from a manufacturing economy to one driven by technology but many workers lacked the skills or education necessary to take part in that transition.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

As opportunities in technology increased, so did demand for people proficient in mathematics and science. But the U.S. lags behind most developed countries in math literacy and problem solving. Concerned with the dismal state of math achievement in the U.S., President George W. Bush, in 2006, created a national Mathematics Advisory Panel. It reported that difficulty with fractions, decimals and percentages is pervasive and is a major obstacle to further progress in math, including algebra. Our high schools continue to turn out college-bound graduates who are unable to master college-level math without extensive remediation if even then. By way of contrast, almost all Chinese high school students study calculus.

Science proficiency levels are no less discouraging. The National Assessment of Education Programs recently reported that nearly half of our 12 graders are below the basic level of science proficiency, with a pathetically low 2% considered advanced. And less than a quarter of our high school seniors are considered capable of organized, coherent writing using correct grammar and spelling.

To remain competitive in an increasingly technological world, we need engineers and graduate level scientists. We are simply not producing enough of them. India, for example, produces three times more engineers and scientists than we do. Many that we do produce are foreign students. According to the National Research Center at the University of Chicago, foreign students in U.S. universities on temporary visas earned a third of all U.S. research doctorates and nearly half of the science and engineering doctorates awarded in 2007. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens accounted for 87% of the doctorates in education and 78% of those in the humanities. Our students, to put it bluntly, are avoiding the more difficult disciplines in favor of less quantitative studies. No wonder nearly half of the Ph.D.s in science and engineering working in the U.S. are foreign born. Most are returning home when their visas expire because of greatly-improved employment opportunities in their own countries.

We have a large and growing economic underclass, unprepared for the growing number of jobs requiring some math or science skills and analytical and problem solving capabilities. Our growing ranks of non-high school graduates have been swelled by a virtually uncontrolled influx of uneducated, unskilled immigrants who will be competing for a diminishing number of low-skill jobs in the service, food processing and agriculture sectors. They will lag far behind those with college degrees and high school diplomas in terms of income, standard of living and social mobility, virtually guaranteeing increased social unrest, crime and social spending.

These conditions cannot be blamed on our schools or our teachers who do, for the most part, I believe, the best they can with what they are given. The causal factors are several. First and foremost is the virtual collapse of the American family structure and culture. Over a third of children born in the U.S. are born out of wedlock, For African-Americans, the rate is twice that. Parents, both father and mother, play a critical role in the education and socialization process and in motivating children to learn and value education. To say that this role is being neglected is the understatement of our times. Study after study shows a high correlation between poverty and serious behavior problems on the one hand and the absence of a live-in father on the other.

Second, our immigration policies, or lack thereof, have had the effect of increasing the numbers of unskilled, under-educated workers coming into the country, mostly illegally. At the same time, our policies have been overly-restrictive toward better-educated, skilled immigrants from Asia and Europe whose cultures place a high value on education and academic achievement.

Finally, we just may have actually produced what author Mark Baurlein described as “the dumbest generation” in his book of the same name. We have a generation of youngsters who possess impressive digital skills but who tend to squander them on trivial activities such as games. They are, perhaps, too focused on sports, entertainment and themselves.

Of course, we’re not talking here about your kids or mine. We know that they’re special. So it must be someone else’s kids, then, that are wasting all that time on text-messaging and YouTube and MySpace. They must be the 66% percent of U.S. teens that spend  more time watching TV than they spend in school. But if these statistics cause you to worry about the future of the nation, you have a right to be worried because we can’t solve these problems merely by throwing more money at them. Turning these trends around will require some fundamental cultural and behavior changes and that isn’t easy. CRO

copyright 2008 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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