How to Tackle Declining Academic Achievement in America


While the United States prides itself as being a leader on the world stage, there is one area where we are consistently falling behind our counterparts: education. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), among 15-year-olds, the U.S. ranks 24th in science and reading and 38th in math out of 71 developed and developing countries. Our education system is not keeping pace with our growing economy and innovative workforce. Little has changed in the past several decades when it comes to how we educate our children. Recent trends have shown drops in proficiency in both math and reading. We are producing students that are lacking the critical skills necessary to succeed both in college and beyond. We must increase both flexibility and accountability in our classrooms to ensure we are preparing the next generation to be resilient learners ready to tackle the nations issues.

Students are not adequately prepared

In 2019, only 24% of 12th graders were at or above proficiency for math and 37% were at or above proficiency for reading. Only 26% of ACT test takers hit college readiness standards in all 4 subject areas. High schoolers are reading books that on average, are at the 5th or 6th grade reading level. This does not prepare them for the high-level reading and critical thinking skills needed to succeed at the next level academically or even in the workforce if they choose to forgo college.

Why are we seeing these low levels of proficiency?

Our school system continues to force children into a one-size-fits-all approach that benefits no one. Teachers may have a classroom of 25 students, all who have different needs and may be learning at different levels. Some students may be several grade levels behind in math or reading and some may be at grade level but ready to be challenged beyond that. Teachers are expected to give the same lesson to everyone despite these varying levels of proficiency. Furthermore, these large classroom sizes make it difficult for teachers to give individualized attention to students who are struggling or those who are ready for more difficult material.

But other measures of success are increasing?

Despite this evidence of underperformance, high school graduation rates are going up as are average GPA’s at both the high school and college level. There is such an emphasis on “success” that it is often artificially produced. While college enrollment has declined ever so slightly in recent years (perhaps to the skyrocketing costs), almost 70% of high school graduates are still attending college the fall after they graduate. There is a heavy emphasis on college acceptance as a measure of success both personally for students and for schools as a whole. Teachers want their students to get good grades, go to prestigious universities, and receive scholarships and while it is well intentioned, it may be causing grade inflation. Research has found that 47% of high schoolers are graduating with A’s. The average GPA is up .7 points from a 2.68 in 1990 to a 3.38 in 2016. Are our kids getting smarter? Or are our standards dropping? What constitutes an A at one school may not be the standard for other schools. Standardized tests seek to remedy these differences in subjective grades among schools, however, less and less weight is being put on these tests in recent years. Many do not think these tests are representative of a student’s knowledge and learning and propose more holistic approaches to evaluating students. While students should be able to display their knowledge in ways a test may not capture, there still must be a standard that we are upholding to ensure students are truly prepared.

So, what’s the solution? Flexibility and Accountability.

When looking to improve our broken education system, we must look to increase both flexibility and accountability both at the individual classroom level and with schools as a whole.

School should not be a one-size fits all approach. Schools need to become more dynamic in the way they educate and evaluate their students. Students should also have the flexibility to choose a school that will fit their needs, rather than being funneled into the school closest to where they live. We need to be providing students options for how and what they learn to give them the best chance at success. Many other countries have implemented systems in which students have more flexibility in the types of schools or pathways they can participate in.

Quality teachers are one of the most essential components to student success. Everyone has that one teacher that they can pick out as being the best or having the biggest impact on them. On the other hand, most people have also had teachers who were stagnant, didn’t care, didn’t put in the same effort, and students struggled to learn. Yes, teachers are often overburdened, underpaid, and often taking on many more responsibilities than just instructional time. However, by raising standards across the board for both teachers and students, some of this burden could be alleviated. We need to create a system that produces and incentivizes good teachers. We need a system in which good teachers are rewarded and low-performing teachers are held accountable. Other, higher performing countries have more robust internal and external evaluation and continuing education systems that allow for constant teacher improvement. If we have innovated ways to optimize businesses in the U.S., surely, we can find a way to evaluate our schools both efficiently and effectively.

Finally, schools as a whole must have more rigorous standards for success. The average GPA of your high school students may be 3.38 and the majority may be applying and getting accepted to college, but if 70-80% are not proficient in math or reading, are students really prepared for success? We are doing our students a disservice by not producing resilient learners ready to take on life after school. There must be an accountability system in place to ensure proficiency is attained before moving students to the next grade level. Continually pushing students through when they have not yet attained the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed at the next level only adds to the growing achievement gap in schools.

What’s being discussed right now

President Biden has proposed his own solution to the issues of the United States falling behind other countries in terms of education. In his American Families Plan, he proposed adding 4 years of free education, 2 years of universal preschool and 2 years of community college. While data on the effectiveness of preschool is mixed, the data on community college is clearer. Less than 40% of students enrolled in community college earn a degree or certificate within 6 years. Spending $109 billion on an already broken system will not fix the problem. We need to fundamentally change our systems rather than throwing more money at systems that don’t work.


Education is one of the major keys to success in America. Our current system is doing a disservice to students and as a world power we should be doing more to prepare our children for college and careers. Through flexibility and accountability, we can innovate a new system that will keep up with growing job force.