In the September 27, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, suggests that the rhetoric surrounding school reform overstates the problem. Taking the long view, Lemann notes that American education is a remarkable success story. He writes:
One hundred years ago, eight and a half percent of American seventeen-year-olds had a high school degree, and two percent of twenty-three-year-olds had a college degree. Now, on any given weekday morning, you will find something like fifty million Americans, about a sixth of the population, sitting under the roof of a public school building, and twenty million more are students or on the faculty or the staff of an institution of higher learning. Education is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution; the creation of the world’s first system of universal public education—from kindergarten through high school—and of mass higher education is one of the great achievements of American democracy.
Lemann is certainly right that the American education system is a remarkable accomplishment and that educational attainment has advanced considerably in the last century. But he fails to note that this success story stalled about thirty years ago. Today, about 30 percent of high school students fail to graduate on time, and the college graduation rate, once the highest in the world, has been overtaken by many other nations. Currently, the U.S. is tenth in the industrialized world in the percentage of 25-to 34-year-olds with college degrees, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
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