My German professor friend teaching graduate school was appalled at what many of his students do not know. It was embarrassing to see his jaw drop, a person reared in a world of fear and repression, struggling with the fact that many of America's educated elite are uninformed, deficient in understanding our national heritage. It is small comfort that many scholars understand, as historian David McCullough said in his National Endowment of the Humanities Jefferson Lecture the week before Memorial Day, "historical illiteracy that results in national amnesia is a threat to liberty."

The problem begins early. As a rule, inept children are a product of inept parents and incompetent teachers, but many Americans (78%) know that their children do not receive an adequate education.

Students do not work and are not challenged. Fully 64% of U.S. high school students do less than an hour of homework each evening, and 1.7 hours per day compared to the international average of 2.6 hours. Among U.S. 12th graders, 30% work over five hours a day at a paid, non-instruction-related job. An October 2001 study by Metropolitan Life found that 56% of public high school principals and 39% of teachers think they have high expectations for students, but only 25% of students agree; only 23% of students say they are challenged, but 67% of principals and 48% of teachers think they are.

Students have misplaced perceptions of themselves. While 40% of all 17-year-olds do not have math skills and 60% lack reading skills sufficient to hold a production job at a manufacturing company, 56% of public school students surveyed think they are above average in academic ability. Two-thirds of parents and students say that "cheating is no big deal." At the time high school graduates are ready to enter college, 74% of professors and 60% of employers have found that a diploma is no guarantee that the typical student has learned the basics. The Brookings Institution estimates the cost of remedial training inside the national university systems is about $1 billion annually.

Students avoid rigorous challenges. Unbelievably, higher education tends not to look at the rigor or quality of K-12 course work in admissions processes. In passing feel-good legislation that requires students to pass a comprehensive test with a 40% score prior to being granted a high school diploma, many states face a predicament. In Florida, for example, 13,000 public school students failed the test, although they were allowed to take it six times. Eventually a passing score was dropped to 10% to assure 100% passage. Virginia found that 93% of all students failed to pass, so the requirement was waived. The best general indicator of performance and the future is the Standard Achievement Test (SAT), taken this year by 45% of the 2.8 million high school graduates nationwide.

Despite disturbing trends, there are bright spots. At Houston's KIPP Academy, a charter school where 95% of the student-body are from low-income circumstances, all students earned a perfect 100% in math, 99% in reading and science and 97% in social studies on the Texas state achievement test. Across town at Wesley Elementary, a public school, where twenty years ago only 18% of third graders were reading at or above grade level, all passed the same math achievement test and by fifth grade they maintained skill levels. At Tempe Prep in Arizona, another charter school, the state math achievement scores jumped from 18% to 80% pass rate while the adjacent, demographically identical, public school achieved only 25%. What works is a proven curriculum, rigorous teacher training in subject content, strict discipline and high expectations of teachers, students and parents.

Yes, this subject belongs in this journal because gaining adequacy with these skills used in the workplace costs industry fortunes. In a recent survey of 13,000 private, U.S. organizations, 36% of companies' $58.6 billion training budgets ($21.1 B) were spent training production workers or about 2% of total payroll with between 35% and 65% of all workers receiving some type of formal "reeducation." One in five firms with 100 or more employees provide remedial schooling in the 3Rs. In a survey of 430 product and service company CEOs identified as the fastest growing businesses nationwide, 69% reported shortage of skilled, trained workers as the premier barrier to growth. The problem has gotten progressively worse during the 1990s as measured by a survey of 450 members of National Association of Manufacturers that revealed 73% experience difficulty due to degraded employee skills.

What to do is a problem, but here are some strategic thoughts.

  • Articulate your workplace academic skill requirements to every school that will listen and especially those that do not listen; they are the impediment.
  • Support rigorous teacher training that emphasizes mastery of course content.
  • Help expose students to the world of work.
  • Use student achievement (grade transcripts) as a criterion in hiring decisions; this sends a message to students, parents, and schools.
  • Make doing something about the failure of the public school system a part of your life.