Why Are Americans Getting Dumber? New International Evidence

From Texaspolicy.com, By: Richard Vedder, February 20th, 2015

seethruedu_blog_bookOne of America’s foremost testing agencies, the Educational Testing Service, has released a new report that is incredibly sobering, demonstrating that adult Americans, regardless of educational attainment are, as a group, less literate with respect to both words and numbers, and less capable of solving problems, than counterparts throughout the industrialized world. Moreover, if anything, the problem has worsened over time despite the fact that the formal levels of educational attainment have risen. We have more schooling than ever, but are, relatively speaking, clueless about the most basic knowledge needed to communicate and make decisions in a complex market economy.  We are doing less with more – “learning per year of school” is almost certainly falling with respect to the most basic forms of knowledge needed to cope in an advanced economy. Moreover, the millennials (those born after 1980), despite their higher levels of schooling (as opposed to learning) know less than their elders. To be a bit harsh, in America, the dumb are becoming dumber.

On to specifics. Looking at 23 cohorts from different countries (or, in a few cases, parts of countries), the U.S. millennials ranked last in numeracy (along with Italy and Spain) as well as in “problem-solving in technology-rich environments” (PS-TRE). The youngest examined, those 16 to 24 years of age, ranked dead last in numeracy (along with Italy). Even our “best and brightest” fared poorly. Looking at numeracy, the scores of Americans aged 16-to-34 years  ranked in the top 10 percentile of U.S. students taking the test, the score of 323 was statistically significantly below the OECD average of 334, and even more below that of such industrial competitors as neighboring Canada (336) , Japan (342), or Sweden (346). To be fair, we were only modestly below France and England on this measure. Relatively speaking, the American scores are only slightly better (less worse) with respect to literacy or problem-solving.

Even worse are those in the bottom 10th percentile. The U.S. numeracy scores for that group for those 16 to 34 were the lowest in the world – no one else was even close. As a consequence, the gap between high and lower performers was far greater in the U.S than in the OECD as a whole, and bigger than in any other nation. Borrowing from Charles Murray, we are nation that is “coming apart” – the educational gaps are growing along with the income gaps, and increasingly the rich and poor literally try to avoid each other – witness the rise of gated communities.

The American problem is not a lack of formal schooling – we are above the OECD average in that regard, even with respect to higher education. The problem is we impart less learning per year of schooling than almost all other major nations in the world. And the colleges are far from immune from this charge. To quote the authors of the report (Richard Coley, Madeline Goodman and Anita Sands), “U.S. millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher than their counterparts in only two countries: Poland and Spain. Our most educated – those with a master’s or research degree – scored higher than their peers only in Ireland, Poland, and Spain.”

So the problem is not simply bankrupt elementary and secondary schools, particularly the ones in the inner city where the educational care of students borders on the criminally negligent. The problem persists in our colleges and universities, where even master’s level students with years of collegiate training are far poorer than their industrial world counterparts in such core knowledge as basic numeracy.

Why is America doing poorly? It is NOT lack of money. Our spending-per-pupil levels compare favorably at the K-12 levels, and we blow the world away in per-student higher education spending. In part, the answer relates to a growing disdain for learning facts, basic concepts, et cetera. It is reflected at the collegiate level in a decline in the relative importance of general education, and of core liberal-arts type learning. The “self-esteem” movement and the idea that we should not say anything “hurtful” to students is a further manifestation that education is increasingly viewed as less about learning and more about “feelings.”

Beyond that though, there is a more fundamental problem. In America, education is “of adults, by adults, and for adults.” Rent-seeking educators at all levels, including universities, are more interested in maximizing their wealth, their prestige, their power, their social standing.  At the K-12 level, unionized teachers fight innovation, educational choice, and rewarding people on achievement rather than longevity. Professors work on trivial research that will get them promotions and lower teaching loads, rather on than mentoring students. University presidents are more relentless money-grabbers than moral and intellectual leaders – more like prostitutes without the sex appeal than Socratic wise persons.

Grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, we are the Most Selfish Generation, running up debts that our kids will have to pay, avoiding hard decisions to rein in unsustainable entitlements, and, in education, worried more about our teaching loads and our perks than the learning of the next generation. Shame.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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