Education and the Good Old Days

David Brooks makes two observations about education:

An information revolution has increased the economic rewards of education and punished those who lack it.

A pedagogical revolution has led to ferocious competition to get into the top universities but a decline in quality at the primary and secondary levels. For the first time in the nation’s history, workers retiring from the labor force are better educated than the ones coming in.

The first of these is almost certainly true. A high school diploma is worth less than it was a generation ago but it’s almost impossible to earn enough to make a decent living without one. And a college education is almost a requirement for most white collar jobs.

I’m less persuaded by the second point. Have we really seen a decline in quality in our elementary and secondary schools? I don’t think so.

When I graduated high school in 1984, there were no advanced placement courses available; now, they’re commonplace. They’re learning about genetics in elementary school nowadays; we barely touched on it in high school when I was coming up and Biology and Anatomy were elective courses (which I took). Schools are under national-level scrutiny these days and students are subject to standardized testing throughout their academic careers. And many if not most states now require passing a high school graduation exam.

It’s true that SAT scores are down from a generation ago but that’s mostly a function of college being a virtual expectation of middle class life. As higher education went from the domain of the elite to a mass product, it naturally meant that less talented students went on to college. This is offset in large measure, though, by the fact that more people are getting a college education.

Can it possibly be true that “workers retiring from the labor force are better educated than the ones coming in”? Today’s 65-year-old retiree was born in 1943 and graduated high school — assuming he did — in 1961 or thereabouts. According to the Historical summary of public elementary and secondary school statistics, roughly 82.2 percent of school age children were enrolled in school then, compared to 91 percent now. There were 1.627 million high school graduates annually then, compared to 2.8 million now. And, certainly, many more people are getting bachelors degrees, not to mention graduate and professional degrees.

So, in what sense are we less educated now than my parents’ generation?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    When I graduated high school in 1984, there were no advanced placement courses available

    Really? I graduated from high school nearly 20 years before you did and practically every course I took (math, chemistry, physics, English, Russian) was AP. I actually got advanced placement for them (which, apparently, has become rarer than it used to be), entering college, essentially, as a junior.

  2. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    Back in 2004, there was a story here of a woman who had graduated from high school with a perfect 4.0 GPA. She was real proud of herself until she applied for admission to college. She was required to take a year of remedial courses in reading and math before she could take her main courses.

    I now have a 7 yr. old son in the first grade. He is being required to learn material that I didn’t have to learn until perhaps the 3rd grade (it’s been a long time so I can’t remember accurately) or later. And the benchmarks for testing keep moving all the time. As his performace improves, he keeps falling further behind in the new standards.

    He may not be at the top of his class by the time he graduates high school, but he will be better educated than I was and I took several AP courses as well.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I graduated from high school nearly 20 years before you did and practically every course I took (math, chemistry, physics, English, Russian) was AP.

    Interesting. We didn’t have Russian available but I took all the other course as “college prep” electives. They started “AP” in 1985 or 1986 at my school. Alabama’s definitely behind the curve on such things but I wouldn’t think it would be 20 years!

  4. “The first of these is almost certainly true. A high school diploma is worse less than it was a generation ago but it’s almost impossible to get a earn enough to make a decent living without one.”

    Part of the reason for this is because the working world demands higher education, as you seem to have assumed throughout the rest of your post. But part of it is because despite learning about genetics in elementary school, education through the high school level these days teaches students approximately zero real world working skills.

    Shop? Gone.
    Typing? Mostly gone.
    HomEc? Gone (it’s sexist, dontcha know?)

    Also, despite the standardized testing and national scrutiny are commonplace now precisely *BECAUSE* of the slip in school standards. There’s been a huge but quiet emphasis in the last decade or so on just pushing people through the system, regardless of whether they’ve learned anything or not. I was in the class of 1996 and the problem was already bad. My teachers made a direct push to bend/break any rule they could to achieve 100% graduation in the class before me. I have good friends who, even though they were and are friends, I have to admit *shouldn’t* have graduated that year. Yet they did.

    My wife graduated in 2006 (yeah, I married a youngster)… and these days, the system is teetering on the edge of disaster. It’s easy to miss from the outside. My dad sent four children to the same high school and still thinks nothing’s wrong with it. My siblings and I know better. Administrators are masters of presenting parents with what they want to see.

    The problems are almost too much to list here, but they’re systemic, not localized. And they’re getting worse each year.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    There were 1.627 million high school graduates annually then, compared to 2.8 million now.

    From a population of roughly 200 million compared to the present population of 300 million.

  6. James Joyner says:

    From a population of roughly 200 million compared to the present population of 300 million.

    But of an older population where people have fewer kids, yes?

  7. Grewgills says:

    The drop in SAT scores is also partially due to almost every high school student taking the test at least once prior to graduation whether or not they plan to attend college.

  8. legion says:

    Shop? Gone.
    Typing? Mostly gone.
    HomEc? Gone (it’s sexist, dontcha know?)

    Not necessarily. I don’t know about shop, that may be due to insurance concerns 🙂 but the others are alive and well. “Typing” is now “keyboarding”; and while I remember hearing about Typing being a requirement for girls once upon a time (for those secretarial positions, I figured), Keyboarding is required for both genders for computer-based courses. And as for Home Ec, I (a male, fyi) had to take it back in the 7th grade (1982). I made a white buffalo stuffed animal for the sewing part. My daughter, currently in 6th grade, made a stuffed basset hound.

  9. Anderson says:

    Teacher quality has declined since our parents’ generation.

    For a long time, America benefited from sexual discrimination. Smart women had relatively few job options, and teaching grade school was one of them.

    Now, most people smart enough to be really good teachers are doing something else that pays three to five times as much, plus doesn’t require them to put up with the much worse disciplinary situation in many schools today.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: Having taught American Government to education majors, I concur.

  11. John425 says:

    My entire high school was AP. If someone flunked out at Boston Technical High (late 1950s) they had to apply elswhere in the Boston School System. Repeats were not allowed.

    BTW: Also missing from the data is the dropout rate. I believe it skyrocketed to outer space compared to a couple of decades ago.

  12. hln says:

    It’s not what we’re teaching now, it’s what we’re learning and retaining that determines how educated we are.

    You’re looking at it from a somewhat elitist perspective. You probably worked hard and applied yourself all the way through the Ph.d level. But getting to and through college really no longer requires that hard work. People cheat and cut corners and don’t realize (I didn’t really until grad school) that what really matters most for later in life and applicability of what you’re being taught is that what you put INTO your efforts is what determines the outcome; the grade means nothing.

    I think this generation of parents isn’t doing as well in teaching its children the meaning and value of work ethic. And teachers are poorly compensated at the elementary and secondary education levels, so it’s not an attractive profession to people who could otherwise make scads of money in other fields. Some do it anyway, thankfully.

    For all of you who talk about what your children are learning, I ask this: what are they retaining?

    (And I’m thankful for home ec I took at 13. Otherwise I’m not sure I could sew a button.)

    hln