The newest report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- a longitudinal study covering two decades of national sampling -- brings us the sad news:
Despite all our talk about needing a better educated population to meet the demands of the coming century, regardless of the increases in public education expenditures, and notwithstanding the education reform movement that is sweeping the country, our children aren't doing noticeably better than their counterparts of 20 years ago.
They can read, at least well enough to get the gist of material, but they don't read analytically or frequently. Most high school seniors read 10 pages or fewer per day, at home and in school combined. They write and speak poorly. They learn arithmetic operations reasonably well, but half of them cannot handle even moderately challenging math problems. They may have a basic understanding of the events that have shaped American history, but they appear not to understand the significance and connections of those events.
The only items of good news in the report are that 1) there has been some improvement in basic reading skills -- decoding, and 2) that some of the ground lost in the 1970s may have been recovered in the 1980s.
But the sad truth is that our children by and large do not use their minds well and are unable to apply the skills they are taught. The report already has education leaders beating the drum for deeper reform, new teaching methods and more spending -- including federal spending -- on public education.
Maybe all these things are needed. But the critical message of the new report is there won't be any significant improvement in our public schools until our children and their teachers work harder. "Look at the time spent on homework," says Dorothy Rich, president of the Home and School Association of Washington and a public member of the National Assessment board. "Seventy-one percent of our children do one hour or less of homework each day. That's very little homework; it takes time to learn things, and our children spend very little time on academic development.
"We asked them how many pages per day they read. Twenty-two percent of fourth graders said they read 20 pages or more. By 12th grade, it goes down to 15 percent. Wouldn't it be sad if the apex of our children's interest in academic learning was in 4th grade?"
What is happening is obvious to anyone who compares the requirements of the better nonpublic schools with those of the public schools. Public school children learn to read, but they don't read very much because they aren't required to. They seldom are given lengthy writing assignments, or led to make practical application of their math skills. The result is that they leave school lacking the communication, problem-solving and thinking skills that industry increasingly requires.
"What scares me about the report is what it shows us about our kids' work habits," says Rich. "Comparisons of children from Japan, Taiwan and the United States show that our children enter school with the same capacity, but a few years into school the others are well ahead of ours. Why? Because they work so much harder. Our schools promote relatively little active learning: reading, writing, science experiments, presentations in class. Instead, our teachers are lecturing -- teaching the way they were taught. It gets boring, even for them.
"Many of them are ready for change, but they need the opportunity to be helped to change. You wouldn't expect a pilot to fly a new fighter plane without retraining, but we expect teachers to retool themselves."
But while Rich believes better teaching techniques could make a difference, she is certain that the critical factor in our stagnant achievement levels is work.
"There was an earlier study by Alan L. Ginsburg and Sandra L. Hanson that makes the point," she said. "When they looked at high-achieving high school students from low-income families, they found the youngsters had very different attitudes from their peers. They believe it pays to make plans for the future, that hard work in school matters. They have mothers who insist on the value of preparing for college, and friends who think well of students who earn good grades. These are the values that all our kids need, and they are eroding. That's scary."
And not just for low-income youngsters. We have spent too much time trying to make learning easy, and too little infecting our children of all socioeconomic levels with the idea that learning and the hard work it takes can be pleasurable. We have recently devoted more time to the teaching of basic skills, but not in teaching our youngsters to become avid learners capable of transfering knowledge from one area to another.
And most of all, we have neglected to teach our children that learning is not a passive activity. It takes work, and the one thing the National Assessment report makes clear is that we are requiring far too little of it.