America is falling far behind on educating its kids

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Story highlights

  • Harold Levy: Our schools are failing to prepare graduates for our increasingly competitive global economy.
  • Improving the education system will be a major bipartisan challenge for incoming Trump administration, writes Levy

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awards scholarships to high-achieving students from low-income families and grants to organizations that serve such students. The views expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Education has long been the fuel that powered the mighty engine of our nation's economy. As the number of Americans with high school and college degrees soared right after World War II, our middle class grew dramatically and the United States reached new heights of job creation, productivity and prosperity, becoming the envy of the world.

But today American students are falling far behind those in other nations. Why? Our schools are failing to prepare graduates for our increasingly competitive global economy. Improving our nation's education system will be a major bipartisan challenge for the incoming Trump administration, as well as for Congress, the states and, most importantly, individual school districts.
    Harold O. Levy
    One discouraging sign about the preparedness of our young people to compete came in early December, with the release of 2015 test scores for the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, an exam given every three years to compare the performance of 15-year-olds around the world in math, science and reading.
    American students dropped from 28th place in math in 2012 to 35th place in 2015, among the 60 nations where students took the PISA test in both years. In 2015, among all 73 nations and economies where the test was administered to 540,000 students, American students dropped to 40th place in math, and placed 25th in science and 24th in reading.
    One reason for these statistics is that governments at every level in the United States have underfunded our system of elementary and secondary schools, as well as public colleges and universities.
    The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently issued a disturbing study that concluded that 35 states provided less overall state funding per student in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade in 2014 (after adjusting for inflation) than they did in 2008, before the start of the Great Recession. In 27 states, local funding per student fell at the same time, compounding the damage of the state aid cuts.
    These cuts do great harm to students by forcing schools to increase class sizes, keep teacher pay low, reduce the number of electives offered, cut back on purchases of education technology and fail to maintain the school buildings.
    In addition, cash-strapped public high schools assign far too many students to each counselor, making it almost impossible for them to give students individual advice on course selection or applying for college. While the American School Counselor Association recommends that each high school counselor advise no more than 250 students, the association reports that counselors across the nation advise an average of 491. Counselors in California advise 822 and those in Arizona advise an astounding 941. Low-income students suffer the most because they have no one else to whom they can turn.
    Another report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities issued in August found that 46 states spent an average of 18% less per student on public higher education in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession of 2008.
    The report said: "Years of cuts in state funding for public colleges and universities have driven up tuition and harmed students' educational experiences by forcing faculty reductions, fewer course offerings, and campus closings. These choices have made college less affordable and less accessible for students who need degrees to succeed in today's economy."
    In short, after years of academic progress in America, we find ourselves in danger of heading in the wrong direction.
    According to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of Americans age 25 and older with high school diplomas rose from just 25% in 1940 to 88% in 2015. The percentage with bachelor's degrees went from only 5% in 1940 to 33% in 2015. If we want to continue having a competitive workforce, these numbers must keep going up.
    But now other nations are catching up and passing us by, producing a greater percentage of people with high school and post-high school degrees.
    For example, in 2014 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that only Estonia had a higher percentage of high school graduates than the United States among people age 55 to 64, who had completed their education decades earlier. But among people age 25 to 34, who had been in school more recently, 11 nations had a higher percentage of high school graduates than the United States, and -- no surprise -- those are the nations with thriving economies.
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    The same pattern has held for people obtaining degrees beyond high school. The report found that for people ages 55 to 64, only Israel and Canada had a higher percentage than the United States with post-high school degrees. But for people 25 to 34, 10 nations surpassed us in the percentage of college graduates.
    Allowing this alarming trend to continue by starving public schools, colleges and universities of the money they need to offer the world-class education our children and young adults require will have dire long-term consequences.
    These include a weakened economy, higher unemployment, and, most importantly, a lower American standard of living and reduced national security. This nightmare scenario won't materialize next month or next year, but it awaits us in the years ahead if our leaders fail to act soon to reverse the education funding cuts of recent years.
    We have a responsibility to do more for our children.