America’s Troubled Educational System: A Threat to Our Economic Future

“America is the best half educated country in the world.”  Nicholas M. Butler

Historically, education has been touted as the key to success in America, but for decades our educational system has been in decline in ways that range from the subtle, to the blatantly dysfunctional. In the meantime, the costs of education are skyrocketing. What follows is a discussion of the problems plaguing our institutions of learning, and some suggestions for how business leaders might help.

Years ago, educational assessment specialist Robert Ebel published a serious critique of American education in an article called “What Are Schools For?” In it, the author lamented that there appears to be little consensus among American educators regarding what schools ought to be accomplishing, and argued that the lack of clear educational goals jeopardizes the future of our nation.

Serious declines in international standing

The United States is a member of an international cooperative of 34 nations called the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that works to improve the quality of life worldwide. Education is one of its focal areas of activity. 

Recent data provided by the Program for International Student Assessment indicate that of the 34 OECD nations, American kids ranked 24th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading. We’ve been on a not so steady decline for years now, and appear to be getting worse, particularly when compared to East Asian nations.

Diagnosing our educational problems

Robert Ebel’s warning in “What Are Schools For?” needs to be taken very seriously.  With educators divided over what our schools should be accomplishing, our kids are being exposed to a bizarre array of contradictory intellectual fads, some of which leave them completely confused about what is important.

In some classes, kids are taught about the importance of understanding the world around them objectively, through sound scientific, journalistic, or historical research. In other classes, they’re taught the popular “postmodern” outlook that there is no objective reality— all that exists is a diverse array of personal and cultural perspectives, each of which is a valid reality in its own right. Unfortunately, there is no means of coordinating or reconciling these facts, either educationally or logically.   

Under these conditions, it’s impossible to expect young people to extract a coherent message regarding what’s real, what matters, or whether anything is really right or wrong. The only certainty is that they’re better off if they get high grades than low grades. Nothing else may be true, but that much they can count on.

The evils of the “self esteem movement”

Another destructive force within American education has been the proliferation of a belief that its primary purpose should be to produce young people who think highly of themselves. The argument is that compliments, flattery, and unconditional positive feedback will make them more effective adults.

Psychologists have been warning us now for 25 years that this is a terrible strategy for improving education — its primary products are inflated egos and expectations of immediate gratification. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic:  Living in the Age of Entitlement, have documented a strong link between the self-esteem movement in education and dramatic increases in self centeredness among teens and young adults.

Increases in narcissism and its consequences

Narcissism, which might be defined simply as a radical obsession with self, has been studied for decades. Twenge and Campbell report that scores on this dimension have gone through the roof in recent years, and that increases in a host of destructive tendencies have accompanied them. 

These include the unwillingness to accept corrective feedback or criticism, insensitivity to the feelings of others, bullying, sexual promiscuity, and substance abuse. But despite what the research clearly shows, many of our schools continue to hold fast to the mistaken notion that artificially inflated self esteem levels are the key to America’s future security. It’s a tough mindset to break through.

Gaming the system

Given the confusion and lack of agreement among educators regarding what schools are for (or even if there’s an objective reality, for that matter), students turn to the only reality guaranteed to them, which are their grades. It shouldn’t be surprising that cheating has become increasingly acceptable practice — after all, since there’s no real right or wrong, why not?

Some time back The Chronicle of Higher Education reported a story regarding the lucrative industry of selling term papers, featuring a college dropout who was earning $70,000 a year in that business. I took the time to Google “term papers for sale” recently, and got over 35 million “hits.” 

Many of the websites offering papers for sale featured nicely produced videos advertising their services, with clear messages that it wasn’t necessary to “waste your time” writing and researching term papers when you can just order them to specifications and have them done for you. 

Grade inflation: Relaxing educational standards

Schools are now caught up in a host of activities that have little to nothing to do with promoting hard work and academic excellence, but they’re also under pressure to get kids through the system to graduation. This in itself is yet another factor undermining what most of us once thought education was for.

One obvious result of this has been grade inflation, which is occurring at all levels in American education, including colleges and universities. Despite what objective measures of educational achievement show, grades continue rise for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with levels of student commitment or competency.

“Politically correct” education doesn’t work

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has admitted that we’re in serious trouble, describing our system as in a state of “educational stagnation.” He insists that raising academic standards (meaning having clear goals for education) is a must if we’re to remain competitive in the world market in the coming decades.

And this will not be accomplished by making students feel good about themselves, handing out condoms, or making sure that they all walk away with diplomas independent of performance. It will take a serious investigation into the relationship between what’s happening in schools and a willingness to honestly put aside preoccupations with political correctness. Until we are willing to do so, our problems will continue to get worse. 

Education:  Separating “process” from “outcome”

Having evaluated the effectiveness of programs in industry, healthcare, and higher education, I’ve found that one useful approach correcting problems in complex human systems is to analyze them in terms of “process” vs. “outcome.”  “Process” refers to any specified set of goal oriented actions or procedures, and “outcome” refers to the observable results of those actions or procedures.

When the FAA investigates a plane crash, they start with “outcome” (a crash) and examine every “process variable” (maintenance, pilot behavior, communications) that preceded it. You can then isolate the causes for the unfortunate outcome and take steps toward preventing future problems.

This kind of thinking can be applied to virtually any human system, and during my 30 odd years of involvement with educational and business systems, I’ve found it to be a very useful tool in evaluating programs of various kinds. It’s value is that it leads one to ask questions, and one of the problems that we have in education right now is that either too few or the wrong questions are being asked.

Asking tough questions

The advantage of getting serious about the linkages between process and outcome within any system is that it does lead you to ask questions — lots of them.  The reason is that this type of thinking forces you to (1) clearly define your goals for measurement purposes, (2) specify the process by which you intend to achieve them, and (3) be honest about whether or not your process is appropriate.

We have a choice. We can ignore or deny that there’s a problem, or move on to the search for solutions. Both educational and social indicators combine to tell us that there are serious problems to fix. If we’re going to deny that fact, we can expect more bad news in the future. 

A promising program in Minnesota

A number of communities in the state of Minnesota have taken steps to alleviate some of the problems in their public schools by unique partnerships between business and education. A number of business leaders are providing schools with the specific skill sets they require of new hires, and have in effect become participants in the public school system.

In turn, the schools accept their guidance in preparing students who spend half of their day in school and the other half of their day doing on the job training for modest pay.  It’s been successful to a remarkable degree — the students’ school learning translates directly into marketable job skills, and the companies that train them are eager to hire them full time when they graduate.

This approach has generated a lot of win/win/win outcomes — the students involved come to value school as a means to a job, the schools generate more functional graduates, and the businesses look forward to having a steady stream of well prepared workers. It takes a special commitment on the parts of all involved, but the results it’s produced to date have been promising.

Commitment and creativity required

The programs in Minnesota are promising in their own right, but more importantly represent the importance of simply becoming more conscious of the relationships between education and the “real world” as a starting point for improving both domains.  In an age of complexity and change, we’re simply going to have to be more aggressive about being creative. And the sooner we start, the better.

Dr. Richardson is the founder of Redwood Enterprises, a business consulting, training, and executive coaching firm that specializes in helping business owners make sure that what they do every day reflects sound strategic planning. He is available for speaking engagements on business related topics. Visit his company’s website at, or contact Redwood Enterprises by phone at 610.326.3670.