Opinion Why K-12 education’s alarming decline could be a dominant 2024 issue
"Time was, when the school year ended, parents worried about “summer learning loss.” Nowadays, there is less learning to worry about losing.
This is the 40th anniversary of a blue-ribbon commission’s “A Nation at Risk” reportthat decried a “rising tide of mediocrity” in K-12 education, and said if “an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Two generations on, mediocrity might be an aspiration.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a.k.a. “the nation’s report card,” for 2022 shows that a decline that started in 2014 (do not blame the pandemic) continues: Just 13 percent and 20 percent of eighth-graders met U.S. history and civics proficiency standards, the lowest rates ever recorded, erasing gains made since the 1990s.
Only 33 percent and 36 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in reading and math, respectively. Eighth-graders were worse: 31 percent were proficient in reading, 26 percent in math. Four more years of schooling, less proficiency. Perhaps summer should be considered a season for recuperating from schools’ subtractions from learning.
Ian Rowe, a charter school advocate, notes that since the “nation’s report card” was first issued in 1992, in no year “has a majority of white students been reading at grade level. The sad irony is that closing the black-white achievement gap would guarantee only educational mediocrity for all students.”
Mysteriously (or perhaps not), California’s most recent standardized test revealed declines in math and English language arts — yet rising grades. Larry Sand, writing in City Journal, reports that 73 percent of 11th-graders received A’s, B’s and C’s in math, while the test showed that only 19 percent met grade-level standards. Among eighth-graders, the disparity was 79 percent and 23 percent. Among sixth-graders’ English scores, it was 85 percent and 40 percent. Amazingly (or perhaps not), the high school graduation rate has risen as students’ proficiencies have fallen.
Grade inflation, sometimes called “equity grading,” and “social promotions,” which combat meritocracy as a residue of white supremacy, leave a wake of wreckage. “According to World Population Review,” Sand says, “California now leads the country in illiteracy. In fact, 23.1 percent of Californians over age 15 cannot read this sentence.”
As alarming as what students are not learning is what they are being taught. Robert Pondiscio and Tracey Schirra of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in National Affairs (summer 2022), say “public education has drifted toward an oppositional relationship with its founding purpose of forming citizens, facilitating social cohesion, and transmitting our culture from one generation to the next.” The result is the emergence of what might be a dominant political issue in 2024: parental rights concerning educational content and curriculum transparency.
Remote learning during the pandemic, say Pondiscio and Schirra, “pried open the black box of America’s classrooms.” Progressives, anxious to slam it shut again, portray any public involvement in public education, other than paying for it, as an infringement of the hitherto unenunciated right of teachers to unabridged sovereignty over other peoples’ children. But as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has said, “Someone’s got to decide what is going to be taught in K-12 schools.” Teachers, principals, legislatures, school boards — the First Amendment does not say whom.
Progressives and their most muscular allies, the teachers unions, stand athwart parents shouting, “Mind your own business!” This is a political argument conservatives can link to the issues of school choice and charter schools, each of which polls well. As North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature has noticed.
That state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, is following the example of the federal government, which currently is operating under 41 declared “emergencies.”And he is emulating the executive grandeur exuded by presidents of both parties who acquire special powers with such declarations. Cooper has declared a “state of emergency for public education.”
His cri de coeur, which enlarged his power not a whit, was occasioned by the state legislature moving to expand the state’s school choice program beyond low-income families. He says that expanding the ability of parents to choose between public and private schools will “choke the life out of public education.” From this prediction, we can infer Cooper’s bleak assessment of many public schools’ inability to compete when parents have choices.
Trust in public schools is probably lower today than at any point in U.S. history. If conservative politicians cannot make this a salient issue, they should find another vocation."