An Educated Citizenry

A well-educated person has more tools at her disposal, and in an increasingly complex world of stem cells and Medicare reform, an application can probably be found for every one of those tools. Education is often the key to employment, especially well-paying employment.

Society benefits from an educated citizenry as well because of the readily available supply of workers to fulfill important roles. Otherwise, we might need to import educated people. In addition, those well-paid people pay more in taxes.

Given the importance of education, it’s understandable that people want to assess the health of learning in the United States. There have been several educational assessments performed recently.

One assessment, whose results were published at the end of November, found that there were large discrepancies between scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test required by No Child Left Behind, and the scores from tests that individual states use to measure progress. States are judged based on how students perform on the state tests, not the national one. Unfortunately this means that instead of raising their educational standards, some states apparently lowered them.

Another assessment, this time of state science curriculum standards, was conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (not affiliated with Fordham University). They assessed the science curriculum standards in 49 states (Iowa doesn’t publish science standards) and Washington DC. The most commonly awarded grade was an F, and Kansas had the distinction of earning an F-.

The Fordham Institute report is long, but if you have the time, I suggest reading it. In skimming it, I found it to be written with a fair amount of humor. If you lack the time to do so, I’ve presented the grades received by some of the states that I believe will be of interest to the Two-Penny Words audience.

Arizona: B
California: A
Massachusetts: A
New York: A
Pennsylvania: C
Vermont: C

The report also looks at the change in science curriculum standards over time. It points out that while standards have improved in some states and worsened in others, the overall picture has stayed the same. Unfortunately, that’s not good news, since many other nations have improved their science standards, and now outperform the United States in other international assessments.

The report also points to a threat that I hadn’t considered before: “discovery learning.” Discovery learning starts from the admirable principle that students should discover scientific concepts for themselves. The problem is that many ideas are too complex for this type of learning and that there is simply too much material to cover for this to be applied in more than small doses.

I also found two of the recommendations made in the report to be worth noting. The report calls for more involvement of bench scientists and better editing of science textbooks and other learning materials. I hope that the recommendation for better editing will be noted by science writers as both an admonishment and a rallying call.

The final assessment I’d like to discuss is the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which is conducted by the US Department of Education. The last assessment was carried out in 2003 and involved nearly 20,000 adults (defined as people of age 16 or older). The study noted improvements in literacy for Blacks and Asian Americans, but a decline in literacy for Hispanics.

To me, the most disturbing finding of the study, however, was that when stratified by education level the percentage of people considered “proficient” decreased for most education levels. The study defined proficiency as the ability to read and understand complex texts and draw inferences from them. These complex texts permeate everyday life and range from mortgages to Medical forms.

The three assessments discussed here paint a grim picture of American education. Still, I believe there is hope for the American mind, provided that we do not succumb to complacency.

This post refers to:

Dillon, Sam. “Literacy Falls for Graduates From College, Testing Finds.” New York Times. December 16, 2005.

Dillon, Sam. “Students Ace State Tests, but Earn D’s From U.S.” New York Times. November 26, 2005.

Janofsky, Michael. “Report Says States Aim Low in Science Classes.” New York Times. December 8, 2005.

Kutner, Mark, Elizabeth Greenberg, and Justin Baer. 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL): A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2005.

Gross PR, Goodenough U, Haack S, Lerner LS, Schwartz M, Schwartz R, et al. The State of State Science Standards. Washington, D.C.: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2005 Dec.

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