Robert Samuelson points out that since 1971, there has been virtually no change in educational scores in reading and math at the national level. Then he gives some very useful facts to remember:
Standard theories don’t explain this meager progress. Too few teachers? Not really. From 1970 to 2008, the student population increased 8 percent and the number of teachers 61 percent. The student-teacher ratio has fallen sharply, from 27-to-1 in 1955 to 15-to-1 in 2007. Are teachers paid too little? Perhaps, but that’s not obvious. In 2008, the average teacher earned $53,230; two full-time teachers married to each other and making average pay would belong in the richest 20 percent of households (2008 qualifying income: $100,240). Maybe more preschool would help. Yet, the share of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool has rocketed from 11 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2008.
His explanation for stagnation is a lack of student motivation. That has something to do with it. But the rest of the problem is the top-down design of curricula, textbooks, and the motivation of teachers in a system that does not reward teaching excellence and does not punish teacher mediocrity. Given those realities, what “reform” at the national level has a chance to succeed if those realities do not change?