Pass or Fail Our Education System

By Walter Ruehlig

In 50 years of teaching, I habitually have been asked, “Are today’s kids smarter or dumber than previous generations?”

It’s a complex question.

We’ll start by acknowledging that our current national angst over issues like global competitiveness is nothing new under the sun. In the 1980s, the mantra was “Why can’t Johnny read?” In 2001, we ushered in No Child Left Behind to address the achievement gap. Today we champion Common Core as the hopeful silver bullet.

Let’s examine the data.


We begin with a bright spot as James Flynn, Ph.D. researcher at the University of Otago in New Zealand documents a rise of nearly 30 points in I.Q. during the period from 1900 to 2012. This means that in 2012, the average person had higher brainpower than 95 percent of the population of 1900. Inarguably, we live in an information age that challenges the brain’s elasticity.


Not such good news here as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAED) reports that national reading and math scores have flatlined for 17-year-olds since the 1970s.


Two solid years of testing are in and though long-term trends are still inconclusive, scores are decidedly improving.


Though we have been somewhat spinning our wheels, much of the world has been moving past us. On the 2015 Program for International Assessment, which is the global gold standard for competitive ranking, the U.S. scored 40th out of 70 in math scores for 15-year-olds, 25th in science and 24th in reading.

High achievers were Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Canada and Estonia. Finland led Western Europe and though a strict comparison of the United States with a far smaller and more homogeneous population is unfair, nevertheless reviewing their practices is thought provoking.


  • Starts formal education at age seven.
  • Does not give grades until high school and even then does not rank.
  • Offers no gifted classes.
  • Enjoys a 97 percent rate of enrollment in pre-school, where the emphasis is on self-reflection and socializing, not academics.
  • Gives scant homework and little standardized testing.
  • Requires teachers to have Masters Degrees and rewards them with high status.
  • Qualifies only 10 percent of college graduates for teaching programs.
  • Stresses diagnostic testing and intensive interventions.
  • Tracks high school into vocational and academic.
  • Funds highest at middle school.
  • Engages group observations of peer classrooms and allows one afternoon weekly for professional development.

This is food for thought as we adapt our schools to the 21st century and support our hard-working teachers, who fight an uphill battle. They need resources and administrative and parental support if we are to escape the “picture of educational stagnation” former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described.

The promising news is that the decided trend is that our younger students are making competitive advances. It’s also heartening that the World Economic Forum, looking at a range of indices, still ranks the U.S. workers as No.1 in global competitiveness.

It’s not, then, all bleak news. But as educators and parents, we have our work cut out for us.

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