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The Collapse of American Education (Pt. 1) – A Sobering Look at the Numbers

In recent years, many of America’s public institutions have suffered a loss of credibility. However, according to recent surveys, perhaps no institution has suffered a steeper decline in confidence than our public education system.

In 2023, Gallup found that nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) were dissatisfied with our public schools. In fact, parents have been withdrawing from public schools with mounting concerns over academics, safety, and woke indoctrination. In 2012, almost 91% of all K-12 students were enrolled in public schools. One decade later, that number had fallen to 87% — a loss of nearly two million students. In its forecast for 2031, the National Center for Education Statistics expects the loss of another 2.9 million students in public schools.

Meanwhile, enrollment in private schools and charter schools is swelling. That trend will only continue as states remove financial barriers to quality education. In 2023, nineteen states enacted “school choice” laws — more activity than the prior seven years combined.

These same trends hold true for America’s higher education institutions as well. The university system is broken. One Gallup study (2019) found that “confidence in higher education… has decreased significantly since 2015, more so than for any other U.S. institution that Gallup measures.” The National Student Clearinghouse reported that undergraduate enrollment was down 2.5 million students between 2012 and the beginning of COVID. Since COVID, enrollment has fallen by another million students.

Many claim that our nation’s deficiencies stem from a lack of adequate funding, but this argument does not withstand scrutiny. Since 1960, U.S. spending on K-12 education per student (even after adjusting for inflation) has increased 350 percent. In 2019, the U.S. spent $15,500 per K-12 student — 38% more than the average advanced (OECD-member) countries. In fact, we spend more money per pupil than every other nation on earth besides Luxembourg — a European nation of less than one million people.

Many claim our nation's educational deficiencies stem from a lack of funding, but this argument does not withstand scrutiny. Since 1960, funding per student has increased 350%, and the US spends more per student than every nation on earth except Luxembourg.

Despite this massive investment, the American people still find our educational institutions lacking. Beyond their obvious efforts to indoctrinate future generations, the academic decline in America’s public schools has been downright embarrassing.

Let’s take a brief tour through several academic disciplines.

How Do We Fare in Mathematics?

Each year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks students from its thirty-eight member countries. In the realm of mathematics, the United States ranked in the bottom half. Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said “Our students continue to score below the average for OECD member nations. Of particular concern is that we also have a higher percentage of students who score in the lowest performance levels, compared to the OECD average, and a lower percentage of top math performers.”

Our students scored well below the international average, and these scores have been sliding since 2012. According to the OECD, our average student is almost a full year behind the average student from other countries. Singapore’s students are three years ahead of ours. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), our students are also developing slower than in previous years. In 2023, only 24% of America’s 13-year-olds were enrolled in algebra. A decade earlier, that number was 34%.

How Do We Fare in Science?

In a world where international dominance is increasingly dependent upon scientific advancements, U.S. students are anything but dominant. Out of 34 OECD countries, U.S. students now rank 20th — in the bottom half. In another study, the University of Washington examined students from seventy-one nations. The United States ranked 38th in mathematics and 24th in science. Beverly Perdue, governing chair of the National Assessment of Education Progress, looked at our results on the international stage and admitted: “U.S. students are struggling across the board.”

How Do We Fare in Literacy?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, a shocking 54% of U.S. adults (ages 16-74) lack basic proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level. That equates to roughly 130 million American adults who currently read at an elementary level. Unfortunately, the most recent numbers do not show any reversal in that abysmal trend. In 2022, they found that only 29% of eighth-grade public school students were deemed “proficient” in reading skills.

How Do We Fare in Civics Instruction?

Given how much energy public schools devote to ideological indoctrination, one might expect that civics instruction might be a bright spot in the trends. Sadly, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) found that only 22% of our 8th grade students were proficient in civics. The failures of our education system now impact our electorate. Only 26% of American adults can name the three branches of government. Less than one-quarter of college graduates knew that the First Amendment prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion. Most adults have no idea how many Justices serve on the Supreme Court. Tragically, Princeton University found that barely one-third (36%) of adults could pass a multiple-choice test consisting of questions taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test.

How Do We Fare in History and Geography?

Edmund Burke once said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” A 2022 survey conducted by the NAEP found that “only 13% of students scored proficient in history.” Sixty percent of students could not identify the countries the United States fought in World War II. Only 24% knew why the colonists fought against the British. Only 24% could identify Benjamin Franklin as a Founder with more students (37%) believing that he invented the light bulb. Our students fared no better in basic geography. A National Geographic study found that nearly two-thirds of Americans (ages 18-24) were unable to identify the United Kingdom (one of our most dependable foreign allies) on a world map. Closer to home, most young Americans were unable to identify the state of Ohio on a map.

For the past six years, ACT scores have consistently tumbled in every measured category — reading, mathematics, English, and science. Meanwhile, private school students outscored public school students by 20% in all four categories with an average score of 24.2 out of 36 — compared to an average score of 20.3 for public school students.

However, the existential crisis plaguing our younger generations is far more detrimental than the educational crisis (though they are surely related). Recent surveys show plummeting levels of civic pride. In 2013, Gallup found that 85% of older American adults considered themselves “very proud” to be an American. Today, among Americans ages 18 to 34, that number drops to a paltry 18%. It’s no great shock to discover that the U.S. military is now facing a recruitment crisis.

For the sake of our country and its future generations, we need a plan to radically reform our education system, because the current model is irreparably broken. The best way to chart a path forward is to examine our past.

Worst of all, the godless and hopeless brand of indoctrination advanced in our public schools has produced tragic fruit. The CDC recently announced, “Teen girls are experiencing record high levels of violence, sadness, and suicide risk…. Nearly 1 in 3 (30%) seriously considered attempting suicide — up nearly 60% from a decade ago.” Without any discernible hope or purpose, the number of mental health disorders has skyrocketed in the past decade.

For the sake of our country and its future generations, we need a plan to radically reform our education system, because the current model is irreparably broken. The best way to chart a path forward is to examine our past. What has worked? And what has failed?

In part two of this series, we will examine “Our Squandered Inheritance,” looking at the beautiful heritage that we inherited from Western Civilization and the Reformation.

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