The State of American Education Is Uncertain: Here’s Why It Matters

By: Asha Kumar

Earlier this year amongst the slew of education debates that have taken the United States’ political sector by storm, the Pew Research Center released a comprehensive study comparing the math, science, and reading abilities of American students to those of their peers from countries across the globe. What resulted was a series of shocking revelations about the pitfalls of the American education system and the urgent need for education reform.

The Pew report analyzed students’ scores in a series of international exams, the largest being the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which serves as a tool to monitor the math and science abilities of 15-year-old students across developed and developing countries. The results paint a bleak picture for the world’s wealthiest country with the largest GDP: the United States ranked 38 out of 71 participating countries in math and 24 out of the same 71 countries in science.

Not everyone is surprised by the United States’ average rankings amongst other nations in STEM education, however. A Pew Research Center report from 2015 found that only 16% of scientists surveyed within the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe that American K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education is the best possible or at least above average. On the other hand, nearly half of the scientists surveyed support the idea that K-12 STEM education as it is currently taught in the United States is below average standards.

Source: Pew Research Center

But why exactly is the American education system so lacking? How can it be that an innovation powerhouse like the United States that is capable of producing everything from Facebook to the iPhone to VR headsets is not excelling in all aspects of STEM? There is certainly no decrease in the availability of STEM jobs across markets that entice improvements in education. In fact, according to a report on STEM occupations by the United States Bureau of Labor, the United States had 8.6 million STEM jobs in 2015 alone. The same report states that 93 out of 100 STEM jobs had wages that were above the national average, with an increased growth rate for the field overall.

Yet the quality of STEM education in the United States remains noncompetitive when compared to that of other countries: the federal Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress reportsthat in 2015, the average math scores of fourth- and eighth-graders decreased for the first time since 1990, despite the STEM revolution that has captured the country by storm.

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress

Nonetheless, the United States still sprints ahead of other nations in its research, business, and entrepreneurial endeavors. The ample successes of the independent thinkers born of the American education system seem to defy the very numbers that define our nation’s commitment to education. Of course, using achievement testing methods to assess the educational outcomes of students has been questioned in recent times: exams often fail to account for the unique problem-solving skills and abilities of individual students, often assessing knowledge levels from a skewed lens. Embedded in the very roots of our education system is a devotion to innovation and creativity that has surpassed the supposed limitations of achievement testing in order to produce countless brilliant minds. The education system in the United States has grown considerably with the rise of STEM and the country’s insatiable appetite for innovation.

But it seems that the goal of developing the American education system in order to maintain excellence amongst students at the highest levels has taken a backseat in the political sector. Rather than addressing the failures of the current education system to prepare students for the abundance of careers, STEM or otherwise, that are growing at an impressive rate, politicians are focusing on slashing education budgets to extreme extents. As EdWeek reports, President Trump’s recent spending proposal aims to cut $9.2 billion from the Department of Education (DoE), resulting in a 13.5 percent spending cut. This massive proposed decrease in education funding includes a $2 billion cut from a grant program aimed at improving the student to teacher ratio in classrooms, as well as a $113 million cut to much-needed special education programs.

NPR also suggests that federal funds for the Trump administration’s proposed school voucher plan may come from cuts to the Title I budget, which provides low-opportunity school districts with additional funds. The Education Department seems intent on requiring state education programs to contribute more of their own funds to maintain quality education for students.

Source: Phoenix New Times

As policies are suggested and debated, one common theme in the education sphere rings true: despite the work and the best intentions of education advocates and policymakers, the discussion of the education system has shifted from the students it serves to the economic interests it fulfills. Suggested laws and regulations seem to reduce students to the minuscule numbers of a budget proposal or simple data points on a graph. This disconnection that converts students into statistics leads us to question if have we have forgotten the ultimate goal of any education system: a student’s education should provide her or him with the reasoning and critical thinking skills necessary to become an effective, efficient, and ethical member of society.

It is essential to support the organic growth of the American education system rather than succumbing to the apparent decline in resources that may soon affect schools nationwide. As teachers, educators, and parents, we must cultivate a love of education in the students we serve, encouraging exploration, interaction, and immersion both in and out of the classroom. These days, learning does not stop at the end of class each day, but is instead an additive process that takes place anywhere from the backyard to the computer screen. As the education system undergoes its own form of growing pains, we as a society must accept the responsibility to expand beyond the limitations of our current educational curriculum.

The recent trend toward slashing education budgets and deprioritizing students’ learning experiences may have very real effects on these developing members of American society. What appears to be a simple cut in classroom funding or after school opportunities could translate to a would-be writer going without access to a proper computer, or a budding high school scientist with a below average reading level losing access to public literacy programs. These cuts directly affect students’ actual and perceived ability to achieve their educational or career goals in the long run.

As policies, budgets, and programs are introduced in heated discussions at the congressional level, it is important to remember that the American youth are a reflection of the very education system in which they learn and grow. The United States’ staunch dedication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should necessitate an undying commitment to providing quality, equitable, and internationally competitive education for all of our young minds.

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