Are American Kids Getting Dumber?

Tom Elia rounds up several recent studies with alarming statistics about the state of our education system in a post entitled, “Is We Educating Our Children Good?” Callimachus summarizes some of the more worrisome thusly:

  • A survey by ACT college testing service found “only 51 percent of students showed they were ready to handle the reading requirements of a typical first-year college course.”
  • Some students thought “the right to drive and the right to have pets” are listed in the Constitution.
  • Another survey showed that “more than 50 percent of students at four-year schools and more than 75 percent at two-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex literacy tasks.” The results, the study found, “cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.”
  • AP reported that “almost 20 percent of students pursuing four-year [college] degrees had only basic quantitative skills. For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the service station.”
  • “Most Chicago Public Schools alumni must take remedial classes at the Chicago City Colleges; 74 percent must take remedial English; 94 percent must take remedial math.”
  • He concludes, “Stupid kids become stupid adults. We live in a nation now where 20% of those surveyed believe that the sun revolves around the earth and only 55% can name all three branches of the federal government.” Elia agrees, “That these stories could be told should be intolerable to every single American. Yet, they are just the tip of the iceberg.”

    Jeff Goldstein sees a ready solution to all this: “Call me a reactionary (hell, a few of you do, anyway), but I’d like to see a curriculum that consists exclusively of reading/writing (literature, history/geography, philosophy); math; and science. And history should be far more generally comprehensive than ‘inclusive,’ and should feature a good deal of civics (and a lot less identity narratives).”

    Teacher Adrianne Truett says,

    I’m doing my best to combat its effects — having students read real newspaper articles and explain them, encouraging them to look at the bigger picture, trying to cultivate practical, real-world skills… but it’s difficult (especially when the parents, however well-intentioned, themselves lack the education to back it up, or when you have to spend half your time undoing the misdeeds of previous teachers).

    But, is it really all that bad?

    Frankly, having spent several years as a frustrated college professor, none of this surprises me. Further, many of the expectations implied by these statistics are unreasonable.

    College courses should be a substantial leap from high school, not merely the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th grades. Do we really expect that every high school graduate, especially true in an age where essentially everyone graduates high school should be ready to succeed in college?

    Nor is it surprising that half the students at four year colleges don’t have the skills expected of college graduates. After all, more than half of the students at a four year college are freshmen and sophomores, some substantial portion of whom will not graduate. (In related news, two thirds of law students do not have the legal knowledge necessary to pass the bar exam.) And the fact that a quarter of students at junior colleges, which typically comprise the least prepared of all college students, have those skills should be heartening, indeed.

    As to AP’s report that “almost 20 percent of students pursuing four-year [college] degrees had only basic quantitative skills. For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the service station,” one must remember that it is an AP report. Think about that one for a minute. How many of you drive cars or are otherwise out on the highway on a regular basis? What percentage of the cars you pass have run out of gas?

    This is not to say that there are not substantial problems in our schools, especially in the urban centers and impoverished areas. Tthat, “Most Chicago Public Schools alumni must take remedial classes at the Chicago City Colleges; 74 percent must take remedial English; 94 percent must take remedial math” is depressing. That’s something we need to address.

    More accountability (teacher testing, ending social promotion), more choices (vouchers, magnet schools), better incentives for the best teachers, and decoupling education funding and local wealth are worth exploring. But we also need to get over the idea that every boy and girl must grow up to get a college degree.



    FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, US Constitution, , , , ,
    James Joyner
    About James Joyner
    James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


    1. DL says:

      Test Scores Rise in State Schools, but Racial, Economic Gaps Widen

      A better headline might well be “George Bush’s education programs, a hugh success for minorities and whites.”

    2. just me says:

      I think part of the problem is so many kids don’t get a good foundation in reading skills-and ability to read well and comprehend what you are reading is key to success in other disciplines.

      I do think our history/social studies/civics curriculums have gone to pot.

    3. Chris Short says:

      Read a comment I received from a Jay Bennish supporter and you’ll clearly see that American kids are dumber these days.

    4. Herb says:

      There are so many problems with our educational system today, they are to numerous to mention, however it boils down to one basic thing,

      Kids are dumber today because the teachers and education system, are dumber today.

      Look around you, we have a teacher in a Colorado High School comapiring Bush to Hitler, We have teachers that are teaching every liberal view imaginable to the kids, We have lost all sense of our past history and that our country has made many sacrifices for the freedom. we enjoy today. We educate foreign enemies at Yale University with a 4th grade education (for free). We think a teacher having sex with a student is almost acceptable. We have teacher Unions that fight for more money and think very little about education. The list goes on and on.

      The Colleges and Universities have done a great job of sales and marketing their products (teachers) at the expense of many generations of kids

    5. Kenny says:

      not sure who is to blame (teachers, parents, students, politicians)for this decline in education in America, but it sure is alarming.

      Give a 14 year old from poland and a 16 year old from america the same math test, and i can assure you that the polish student blows the american student out of the water. In India, they are required to learn 3 languages!, one of which must include english. In egypt you start med school out of High school, not getting drunk at colleges for 4 years, while you decide..”what should i do??” And lets not forget that all of europe has a better understanding of our history…than we do.


    6. TJIT says:


      Many non-college degree jobs require more technical knowledge, math, finance and verbal skills then many four year degrees do. So I think the education system has a greater responsibility to provide basic math and English skills to students who decide not to go to college.

      Colleges provide remedial classes to students who have graduated from high school with a skills deficit. Outside of the college environment these remedial classes don’t really exist. So not having the basic math and English skills has a greater negative impact on those who do not go to college because there is no mechanism in place to discover and correct these deficits.

    7. RJN says:

      We have appalling Teachers Colleges. The semi-competent faculty spends too much of its time on things of a propagandist nature and not enough time on basics.

      The teachers unions finish the job of ruining our schools.

      Vouchers, vouchers.

    8. floyd says:

      it’s expectations, no matter where you enter the circle.

    9. Kent says:

      �Call me a reactionary (hell, a few of you do, anyway), but I�d like to see a curriculum that consists exclusively of reading/writing (literature, history/geography, philosophy); math; and science.”

      Since such a curriculum has never been standard, I don’t know if [em]reactionary[/em] is the right word. But it sounds like a pretty fair curriculum to me.

      I worry about funding inequities, but I don’t see a way to decouple local wealth from schools without also decoupling local control from schools, which I think is the last thing we need.

    10. A. Zarkov says:

      I really don�t think American kids are getting dumber. Remember in WWII the US army had to contend with a vast pool of functionally illiterate inductees. Today we push everyone to finish high school, so naturally with an expanded pool of students, the average competence will fall. In the early 1960�s, when the Vietnam War was ramping up, we offered college students draft deferments. So guess what happened? Young men went to college in droves, and the colleges loved the extra tuition money. Today virtually anyone who isn�t feeble minded can find some college, somewhere that will admit him– and pass him through to graduation. Then we have government loans and grants to support this system. Education is big business. We did have better teachers in the 1940s and 1950s for a good reason: The Great Depression. A lot of very competent people lost their jobs, went into teaching, and stayed in teaching after the depression ended. Today those people are gone. Unions are another problem. So don�t look at the average student. Look at the average of the upper quartile of students and you�ll find much better looking statistics.

    11. m says:

      A different perspective is that we are just seeing the shift from free to fee. “Free” public schools essentially babysit until graduation. Those students that can, continue with college, and those that want to distinguish themselves from the “college-educated” pack continue on to grad school. I would hazard a guess that a high school diploma from 80 or even fifty years ago was probably the equivalent of most four-year college diplomas today.
      I agree that we need to stop pretending that all students are capable of college level work. Many, if not most, students would be better served by a vocational track. Of course, there are quite a few colleges and professors that would not like that reduction in college-bound students.