Education: The Good, the Bad, and What We Can Do

There are some hopeful statistics coming out of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES):

1) The student-to-teacher ratio is going down: from 16 to 15 students per teacher in public schools, and from nearly 15 to 12 in private schools between 2000 and 2013.  This is good news because the student-to-teacher ratio is known to affect student performance; the more teachers, the more personal attention each student gets, and accordingly, the better their grades tend to be.School graduation

2) Fewer are dropping out of high school.  Among 16 to 24 year olds, the percentage that are high school dropouts declined from 12% in 1990 to 7% in 2011.  Further, there were declines among white, black and Hispanic students alike.

3) More are going to college.  About 22 million students attended college in the fall 2013, up 6.5 million since fall 2000.  That increase is not just due to population growth.  The percentage of 18 to 24 year olds enrolled in college was also higher: 42% in 2011 compared with 36% in 2000.  Further, the college population is growing more diverse.  The percentage of college students who were Black rose from 12% to 15% from 2000 to 2011.  The percentage who were Hispanic rose from 10% to 14% in the same period.

So primary and secondary school students are getting somewhat more teacher attention, dropping out less, and going to college more, driven in part by the clear payoffs of higher education.  In 2011, here were the median earnings for young adults with different educational levels:

$22,900: No high school diploma

$30,000: High school diploma

$37,000: Associate’s degree

$45,000: Bachelor’s degree

$59,200: Master’s degree or higher

But as Demos, a think tank based in New York City, has stressed, while college enrollment has clearly risen, so has college dropout.  Only 56% of those enrolled in four-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree after six years, and less than 30% of those in community college earn an associate’s degree within three years.  And many drop out with burdensome school loan debts.

Part of the college dropout problem is the rising cost of college, as Demos emphasizes.  But as I and so many other current and former college professors can attest, it’s also about how prepared high school graduates are for college.  A lot of the blame falls on primary and secondary schools, which may be improving student-to-teacher ratios with more funding, but less so the rigor of the education they provide their students.  Demanding more of students has been shown to improve their performance (and can cost less than lowering the student-to-teacher ratio), but it doesn’t necessarily facilitate moving students along from grade to grade to graduation, as schools are eager to do.

We must demand more of students, and support them more to ensure that they are challenged enough to grow, but not so much that they feel overwhelmed and quit.  In schools, such support can take the form of better quality teachers, and longer school days that allow students more time to struggle and grow, among other changes reformers commonly call for.

But reformers need to think beyond school walls to the wider society students enter and the culture they swim in when they leave school every day.  Does our society support learning in everyday life at home, at play and work?   Does the culture students swallow so eagerly after school support learning?  I suspect at least some, if not most of you, dear readers, will answer “no” or “not enough” to these questions.

So what can we do to nurture a culture of learning in everyday life?  This is the question that drives Learning Life.  We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we believe that education cannot be limited to a certain period in life, to schools, to books, or even tablets and the internet.  Education needs to spread on the surfaces of everyday life, from placemats and cereal boxes at home, to cup sleeves in cafes, napkins in restaurants, and posters in public buses, trains and bathrooms, connecting each of those surfaces to more learning online.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life

National Center for Education Statistics.  2013.  “Back to School Statistics

Wheary, Jennifer.  2012.  “Debt But No Degree: The College Drop-Out Problem”  Demos.