A friend of mine went to his first day on the job at the United States Department of Education and was chagrined to see a sign on the door warning, “The door be broke.” That sign is emblematic of what’s wrong with education in America: our schools be broke!
Public schools are failing too many of the nation’s children by not preparing them to meet even the most basic standards for being well educated. The cause of this deficiency is not a lack of money devoted to the task. In 2006, America spent $599 billion, or 7.4 percent of the GDP, to educate the nation’s children (about $10,800 per child in public and private elementary and secondary schools). Yet, the unavoidable fact is that despite a 33 percent increase in spending per student in constant dollars since 1990 and a 10 percent decrease in the number of students per teacher, student achievement has, at best, remained essentially the same.
What happened in our nation’s schools when two decades ago America’s children were among the best in test results? A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development stated American children now place 24th in math behind such diverse nations as Canada, Germany, France, Korea, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. Just how difficult is the testing by which this ranking was established? What follows is a fourth grade mathematics test question used by The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement:
Al wanted to find how much his cat weighed. He weighed himself and noted that the scale read 57 kg. He then stepped back on the scale holding his cat and found that it read 62 kg. What was the weight of the cat in kilograms?
Only 60 percent of American students received full credit on their answers, which tied them with the Slovak Republic for the rank of 24th. The students from eleven countries had correct answers of 80 percent or better.