State of American education system comes under increased scrutiny

November 1, 2005

An ophthalmologist-friend in West Virginia, who endowed a new lectureship at The Wilmer Eye Institute, recently stressed his commitment to teaching and learning. My friend said, "I have always said there are three solutions to every problem: education, education, and education."

An ophthalmologist-friend in West Virginia, who endowed a new lectureship at The Wilmer Eye Institute, recently stressed his commitment to teaching and learning. My friend said, "I have always said there are three solutions to every problem: education, education, and education."

My deceased father used to say exactly the same kind of thing. My father emphasized the importance of education early in my life. He and his siblings, the children of an immigrant, were the first in their family to attend college. While my dad earned a good salary, we rode around in an old station wagon, because my father said he was saving his money to pay for my sisters and me to go college and graduate school.

He called education "the best investment anyone could make." He saw education as the answer to all the world's ills: poverty, racism, despotism. As an academician and educator myself, I agree with my father and my friend in West Virginia. That's why I'm worried.

Today, we commonly read about failing public school systems. In California, a law was passed banning the practice of "social promotion," in which students who were not performing satisfactorily were promoted so they could stay with their friends, rather than being held back until they learned. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of this country's largest, this law had an impact on 55% to 60% of students, because their academic performance did not qualify them for the next grade level!1

The news is just as dismal on the East Coast, according to a recent column in The New York Times.2 Bob Herbert reported, "In New York, just 18% of all students graduate with a Regents diploma, which is the diploma generally required for admission to a 4-year college. Only 9.4% of African-American students get a Regents diploma."

The U.S. Department of Education reported that 29% of all college freshmen require remedial classes in basic skills. The Brookings Institution reported3 that in 1994, 47% of entering freshmen at California State University required remedial mathematics and 41% were placed into remedial English programs. This is a university that accepts only students who have taken a prescribed set of college-preparatory courses and who are from the top one-third of their high school classes.

Rather than our society demanding that all public schools function well, we accept mediocrity. Our high school students consistently score far below students in other developed countries on standard tests in mathematics and sciences.3 Fewer American students are pursuing academically rigorous careers in the physical and biological sciences and mathematics.

Did you see the recent reports that there is a shortage in this country of tutors for calculus, so now American students are being tutored on-line from India for $20 per hour?4 At U.S. universities, Johns Hopkins included, the post-9/11 difficulties with obtaining student visas are resulting in vacant slots for graduate students in math, engineering, and science. American students are not pursuing careers in these fields.

Are we going to have the graduates that will make us leaders in the "knowledge economy" this century? If students in other parts of the world are at least as well-educated as our own, and the costs of business are otherwise much lower outside the United States, will our country remain strong? Will education in the United States conquer societal ills such as racism? Will medical advances in this country become fewer and far between? Will we fall behind?

I recently had lunch with a very talented ophthalmology department chairman. He said he was worried about something that might affect his department. He joked that he liked to worry, that he did it a lot, that worrying was a major part of his job, and that sometimes he just wasn't happy unless he was worrying. So maybe my concern about the state of the U.S. educational system, and in particular education in the sciences, is groundless and related to an innate tendency of department chairmen to worry. Maybe one of you will write in and assure me there is no reason to be worried.

I hope that's the case. But I doubt it.

Peter J. McDonnell, MD is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times. He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building, 600 North Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu

References

1. http://www.4children.org/news/999socpr.htm

2. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/21/opinion/21herbert.html

3. http://www.brookings.edu/comm/policybriefs/pb23.htm

4. Prystay C. Need help with calculus? Tutors coach U.S. students online-from India. The Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2005, page A11.