Why It’s Never Mattered That America’s Schools Lag Behind

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

The US has never ranked at the top of international education tests, Gregory Ferenstein notes, yet has been the dominant economic and innovative force in the world the entire time:

The reason for the apparent disconnect is because schools don’t prepare students for the real world, so broad educational attainment will have a weak correlation with economic power. Research has consistently shown that on nearly every measure of education (instructional hours, class-size, enrollment, college preparation), what students learn in school does not translate into later life success. The United States has an abundance of the factors that likely do matter: access to the best immigrants, economic opportunity, and the best research facilities.


In a massive review of research, the Department of Education’s research arm, the Institute for Education Sciences, could not find any evidence that college preparation actually prepared students for college. The only effective tools were (sadly) non-classroom-based strategies, such as teaching students how to fill out financial aid forms.

Students’ time in college isn’t much better. Researchers Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded in Academically Adrift that most students float through college without learning much in the way of critical thinking.

“Indeed, the students in our study who reported studying alone five or fewer hours per week nevertheless had an average cumulative GPA of 3.16,” they write, “given such a widespread lack of academic rigor, about a third of students failed to demonstrate significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing ability (as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) during their four years of college.”

These facts should not come as a shock. When I taught college, it was commonly known among the professors that incoming high schoolers were not prepared with the requisite critical-thinking skills for our classes. Now as a writer in the private sector, I don’t expect incoming employees to have been prepared in their college classes. Determination, raw intelligence, and creativity are the measures of a successful college student and employee — none of those factors are learned in school.


  1. Ross says:

    A large percentage of innovators here in the mid/late 20th and early 21st century are immigrants. (One of my personal favorites is Von Braun.)

    So…people have immigrated here for security, economic opportunity, legal protection of intellectual property and general freedom since WWII, and that’s why it doesn’t matter if our domestic schools are not best of breed and getting worse?

    Methinks there’s a muddying conflation of issues here.

  2. William Newman says:

    “most students float through college without learning much in the way of critical thinking”

    I’d be more impressed if they picked linear algebra or pharmacology or tax accounting for their demonstration that students don’t learn anything in college.

    One minor but useful bit of critical thinking is picking up on internal evidence that an article is flaky. That an article chooses to focus on something that’s difficult to define rigorously and technically difficult to measure after you’ve defined it — critical thinking, for example — is internal evidence that the article is flaky.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I don’t think it’s muddying the issues to say that bright, motivated immigrants (and natives) come to Silicon Valley for the startup scene, and improving our educational system won’t affect our level of innovation much, if at all.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I agree that students in some fields learn much, much more than students in others — although, frankly, anyone who earns less than an “A” in a class, STEM or not, probably retains next to nothing.

    The larger point is that classes meant to teach critical thinking do no such thing. Some students can think critically, and some can’t, but simple exposure to a “good” education doesn’t seem sufficient to confer the skill.

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