The Crisis in American Education


The Crisis in American Education

John Ewing

American education is in crisis… I’m told. Want evidence? Look on the Internet. Search for “education crisis in America” and you will find millions of articles, essays, and (yes) blogs, all describing, explaining, and lamenting the crisis in American education. The Internet confirms it—an education crisis.

The crisis has been brewing for some time. For example, in 2012 the Council on Foreign Relations published a report from a task force chaired by Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice. Alarmingly, it tied the crisis to national security. The forward begins:

It will come as no surprise to most readers that America’s primary and secondary schools are widely seen as failing. High school graduation rates,… are still far too low, and there are steep gaps in achievement …and business owners are struggling to find graduates with sufficient skills in reading, math, and science to fill today’s jobs. (p. ix)

The report assumed education failure as a premise. (The actual evidence was compressed in a mishmash of NAEP scores, international comparisons, and common wisdom.)

This wasn’t new. Roughly three decades before, President Ronald Reagan’s education task force produced the famous A Nation at Risk, which proclaimed an education crisis, again tied to national security.

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. …… The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. … If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

Again, the crisis was self-evident. The evidence was largely common wisdom (most of which was shown wrong by a subsequent report from the Department of Energy).

These are two examples of a rich tradition—many thousands of committees, task forces, and individuals, lamenting our education crisis, cherry-picking evidence to confirm its existence, and predicting doom.

Well, I say …poppycock! The evidence is scant and often ambiguous. Test scores on international exams? Yes, not good. But the U.S. has never done well on international comparisons, and the data are more complicated than the public is led to believe. (Who takes the exams? How do tests align with curricula? How are students motivated to apply themselves.) Are NAEP scores plunging? Hardly—we wring our hands because they are stagnant or not rising fast enough. Are graduation rates falling? Nope, going up. Are more high school graduates going to post-secondary school? The fraction has tripled over the past few decades … and so forth and so on.

Let me be clear—there are plenty of things wrong with American education. I’m not suggesting for a minute that everything is wonderful, that we should revel in success. It’s not; we shouldn’t. But a crisis? A turning point? An instability portending imminent danger and ruinous upheaval? Does that describe American education today?

I suspect that most people, on reflection, will admit “crisis” isn’t quite right. But in the age of cable television and breathless breaking news, they believe, a little education hyperbole is an innocent way to capture the public’s imagination. But it’s not, and shouting “crisis” is not only wrong—it’s disastrous.

Declaring a crisis ensures that education reform starts from a deficit model. Focus on everything that’s wrong. Fix what’s broken. Concentrate on the bottom. What should we do about failing schools? How do we get rid of ineffective teachers? Which subjects are weakest? This has been the underlying model for American education for the past few decades, and it does great harm.

A deficit model guarantees regression to the mean. Focus on the worst, ignore the best, and education drifts towards mediocrity. More importantly, it draws the public’s attention only to what’s wrong, so people see education through distorted lenses. All that’s wrong is brought into sharp focus; all that’s excellent is blurred. The people responsible for that excellence become demoralized and eventually give up.

Teachers are especially vulnerable to this, and one of the goals of Math for America (the organization I lead) is to counteract this phenomenon. In our New York City program, we seek the best math and science teachers—the ones who are excellent in every way (content knowledge as well as craft). We offer them a renewable 4-year fellowship providing an annual stipend ($15,000). Most importantly, we offer them a community of similarly accomplished teachers, who take workshops or mini-courses, on topics from complex analysis to cell motility, from racially-relevant pedagogy to the national science standards. They get to choose which workshops they attend (no one needs fixing!). They also create and run about two-thirds of the workshops themselves, and they are respected—really respected—as professionals. In New York City, we have over a thousand of these outstanding teachers and offer almost 800 two-hour workshops each year. MƒA master teachers form a pocket of excellence (about 10% of math and science teachers in the City) that models what K-12 teaching could be like if we truly treated teachers as professionals. And they stay in their classrooms, at least a while longer, teaching and inspiring about 100,000 students each year.

New York State has a similar program with about the same number of teachers outside New York City. Los Angeles has another, smaller. We advocate for such programs in other places, but the details of the model are less important than the principle: To build excellence, you focus on excellence. That’s true in every walk of life, but it’s especially true in education. We have ignored that principle for several decades in American education, focusing instead on failure—on the “crisis” in American education.

Why is it so hard to move away from this crisis mentality? Mainly because of incentives. For politicians, steady progress doesn’t capture the popular imagination—a crisis does, and when it involves voters’ children, it makes for good politics. (Reagan discovered this.) For the media, especially the education media, a crisis generates readership and guarantees a livelihood. For education experts and researchers, a crisis makes their work critically important and worthy of support. For education providers (think Pearson and standardized tests), a crisis sells products. Even for people who run education non-profits, a crisis helps to secure funding. (I was once told by a board member I should add “crisis” to our marketing.) I don’t mean to suggest that these groups or individuals deliberately prevaricate, but societal incentives make a crisis advantageous. In fact, nearly everyone in education benefits from the notion of a crisis … everyone, except teachers … and students.

Acolytes of the education crisis will denounce my blasphemy. We have lots of problems, they say, and we need to mobilize our nation to solve them. Even if we’re not in crisis (that is, a turning point), a crisis is sacred; challenging the notion is tantamount to giving up. This is a profound mistake—one we’ve been making for the past 30 years.

A crisis in American education? Poppycock. We are more likely to improve American education without histrionics. And we should try.


U.S. Education Reform and National Security, report from a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations, chaired by Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice (2012).

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, report from the president’s Commission on Excellence in Education (1983).

Education at Risk: Fallout from a Flawed Report, by Tamim Ansary, Edutopia (2007).

Google Ngram Viewer.



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6 Responses to The Crisis in American Education

  1. Avatar Alfred Manaster says:

    Thank you for these important perspectives. It has almost always been easier to find funding and donors for “new” ideas and educational projects than for established and proved ones. New York’s MfA as you describe it sounds like a great example.

  2. Avatar Dev Sinha says:

    Where the data are deeply concerning is in the gaps in achievement between different groups, especially with how our country’s economy and government are structured. I couldn’t help think of these gaps when I recently visited the Museum of African-American History and Culture; there’s good reason for those gaps (e.g. over 50% of GDP in 1800’s grounded in slave labor). I claim the word “crisis” is absolutely appropriate for use by those communities and for those advocating for those communities.

  3. Avatar Leslie Horton says:


    Thank you for your perspective.

    The principle at the local 100% free lunch high school hired me (retired math PhD) to tutor the top students for the state algebra test.

    This was a new approach as past efforts had focused only on the bottom 25%.

    It was interesting to see the knowledge gaps in these “top” students.
    It was appalling that they wanted to focus on methods with a graphing calculator as opposed to understanding the principles of algebra.

    We will see when test scores come in the effectiveness of conceptual instruction with these top students.

    Dr. H

  4. Avatar Chris Doeller says:

    The naysayers in education reform, have a point, but their solution is also part of the problem. First the overwhelming number of education reformers have little/no actual teaching experience. They rely on their time as a student, and many lopsided studies. Secondly the reform movement is one which believes that securing a college degree is the total answer for students. They believe this so much so that it has become a new religion in the American zeitgeist. With the dismantling of technical programs, 30+ years ago, college was preached as the one and only true way. Of course we see the American military uses other methods, and other nations, like Germany, also continue the vocational/career development model. Hubris, insecurity, and the desire to keep up with the Jones has driven the American obsession with college. Of course the College Industrial complex has done a good job of selling their business model, and scaring Americans into going into massive debt to pay for this illusion. What we need are comprehensive K-12 schools which understand that humans learn in different ways and that some students are at their best when using hands-on learning, and that the liberal arts track is not the answer for all students. Education research continues to show this, yet those wishing for a one size fits all mode are resilient and strong willed. The idea that we have entered a new world order and all of the past is gone, is a wrong notion. Much of what we use and do is based on old technologies and ways of living. While the new will continue take some of the old, there are some things and ways which have come to their natural level of stasis and will probably not be greatly changed. We need competent workers in the economy who have a multitude of skill sets, and many of these skills are not most efficiently secured via college. Each year tens of thousands of kids leave their K-12 experience with no marketable skills. All because those who claim to be concerned for their future success cannot stomach a non college pathway.

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