Darkness Falls

by Robert Pondiscio
November 23rd, 2009

The United States is in gradual decline, says Checker Finn matter of factly.  “Many people seem oblivious, going about their own affairs without reference to ominous but very gradual trends, rather like the frog that didn’t know it would be boiled because the water in that pot was warming so slowly,” writes the head of the Fordham Institute in his latest Education Gadfly column.

Among the “worrisome signs of national decay” Finn sees are America’s flat education results and sagging international performance:

Nearly all our major test-score trend lines have been horizontal for decades–the small upward and downward blips tend to balance out–and comparisons with other lands show us mediocre to woeful. We could once respond that the U.S. makes up in education “quantity” (e.g., graduation and matriculation rates) what we may lack in quality but that’s not true any longer. Half a dozen countries now best us on those measures, too.

In addition, there is decreasing demand for U.S. dollars overseas, a “staggering” debt burden being passed on to future generations, and a national government that can no longer make big decisions. “Whether the challenge at hand is immigration, excessive litigation, discrepant academic standards, swine flu, financial regulation, hurricane Katrina, mass transit, climate change, Afghanistan–pick your topic–Congress either avoids the problem altogether or kicks the can down the road for someone to worry about later,” writes Finn.  He also bemoans “our culture and our politics of polarization, selfishness, and bad manners.”

Finally, we’re giving up on too many of the great challenges and opportunities that we face, including realms where America was once terrific. NASA has pretty much abandoned space exploration, at least the manned kind. We don’t seem even to be trying very hard to extirpate nuclear weapons from Iran. China is turning into the next hegemon. My wife the doctor says that European and Asian countries are more adept and adventurous today in medical research than we are. Airbus is getting a lot more new planes into the air than Boeing. Our domestic auto industry is all but defunct.

Worst of all, Finn is not sure our national decline can be reversed.  “The cultural, behavioral, and attitudinal manifestations of declinism seem to me to go deeper than politics.”

Checker has been just a little ray of sunshine of late.  First there was his speech at Rice University wondering if it’s time to “throw in the towel on ed reform.”  Now this.  On the other hand, I haven’t heard anyone say he’s all wet.  Anyone?


  1. I was feeling the same way last week while Obama was in China and our middle school was all abuzz with talk of rallies, bonding with students, rewards and social development –as usual, not a peep about anything academic or intellectual. Meanwhile in Chinese middle schools… I just thought, “We’re screwed. I just don’t see us turning this boat around. My colleagues think this social work stuff is the most deadly serious business; academics is almost just a distasteful distraction. The superintendent is with them. The school board is with them. The populace who elect the school board is with them. Anyone who proposes a radical reorientation will be ostracized and marginalized.”

    Comment by Ben F — November 23, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  2. Maybe it’s a sign of (relatively) youthful optimism, but I don’t think the picture is quite as doom & gloom as Finn makes it out to be. While there are many troubling trends, there are also some positive ones. I think it’s an age-old tradition for the elders of a society to see things as going to Hades in a handbasket. Isn’t there a famous quote from Socrates to that effect?

    Comment by Crimson Wife — November 23, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  3. Checker is one of our nation’s most gifted education policy thought leader. Unfortunately, his brilliant years of public service required him to work inside the education policy box, and that box does not contain a solution for U.S. education problems. Checker’s conclusion is wrong. It is not time to thrown in the towel on education reform. It is time to expand the education policy box and allow it to accommodate an actual, on-the-ground solution to the classroom problem of empowering our teachers with a coherent, sequential curriculum that is actually aligned the learning objectives (standards and assessments).

    The common core state standards initiative will not succeed any more than Comprehensive School Reform, School to Work, No Child Left Behind, New American Schools or the new education policy vision unveiled today by the Wall Street Journal. We are the masters of our own fate. The solution to the problems Checker laments are staring us in the face. Innovation is not more of the same or incrementally building on what works here or there. These strategies or not practical and will never get to scale.

    The solutions is simply connecting the political, technical and process dots so that when Checker and our other national experts agree precisely on the “what to teach,” i.e. the new common core state standards, as a set of teachable learning objective that they already have in hand processes to ensure that the our four million classroom teachers will be teaching with a curriculum that is ‘certified’ by our chief state school officers, our district superintendents, our building principal and our teacher’s representatives as precisely aligned with those learning objectives.

    Once that straight-forward and easily accomplished task is completed then the other elements of an effective, transparent, student achievement-focused education system for the U.S. will be possible. Until then, we will continue to pour billions of dollars and millions of teaching hours into a system that has no idea of what it expects its students to learn or if the teaching material in the classroom are actually aligned to the learning objectives, and we will get the same unacceptable student achievement result.

    Checker can cap his distinguished years of service by letting go of the failures past policy have created and turning his energies and opening his great mind to a scientific and practical reform solution. And, as Checker embraces these ‘and it’s about time’ effective options, I hope he invites Sec. Duncan and his team of policy innovators to join him. The Obama Administration and our Congress are about to pour billions more through the same, ineffective state education agency and school district processes and politics that have brought us to the heart of education ‘darkness’ Checker so vividly describes.

    Comment by Steve Kussmann — November 23, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  4. Wow! Whatever happened to the glass being half full?

    Obama has been in office less than a year. He’s started on national standards/assessments, a very positive step, especially if they’re at all close to what Core Knowledge has produced. He’s also close to federalizing a quantitative measure to determine the effectiveness of our public school teachers. Finally the crapolla, everyone’s doing a splendid job, subjective evaluations look as though we could be looking at them in the rear view mirror real soon. That’s a good thing.

    He’s started to address climate change by issuing fuel standards for US autos that have the attention of the auto industry. He’s attempting to dialogue with rogue nations, reason with them if possible as opposed to calling them names (“Axis of Evil”). I believe he’s taking the correct steps toward reigniting diplomatic ties with Cuba, almost fifty years declared an un-nation by our past nine US administrations.

    He’s on the precipice of national health care for all with a public option, which hopefully will bring the price of our health care in line with the rest of our economy by incorporating competition into the marketplace.

    Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of NASA or the billions spent on the race to outer space. I’m sure there have been major benefits gained from the program but I’m not aware any that have dramatically altered my life. Tang? Come on. The Cold War is over. Hello! The Soviet Union is not getting a manned space craft to the moon before us and will also not be polluting the atmosphere with some form of neutron bomb aimed exclusively at our shores.

    Yes, things such as climate change and immigration need work. Give him time to get his initial priorities established first. Remember, health care, education, energy.

    Oh, and the economy. Yes, unemployment is brutal, foreclosures and bankruptcies are off the wall, and not much in this arena looks rosy. He’s one person, dealing with an entrenched gridlock-minded rival party, not to mention people in his own party who don’t agree with him on everything.

    “At this moment, change has come to America.” Well, it’s coming slowly, but it DOES look like it’s coming.

    BTW, for a national model on education, all he has to do is come to Massachusetts. But he better hurry because there are loonies out there looking to change all that.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 23, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

  5. We are as a nation so complacent about the lousy state of affairs of math and sciences in our grade and high schools, that the only thing to jolt us out of this may be to see how the Chinese beat us in the race to send humans to Mars.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — November 23, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

  6. Paul, You may be an example of what he’s talking about. Have you not yet figured out O is out of his depth–a plaything of China and Iran, and the big corporations who crafted Cap and Trade and Healthcare reform to turn them into trillions of dollars of pork? Sheesh. Even Jon Stewart and SNL can see that.

    Oh. And America is bankrupt, much like Europe in the 1930s. Get ready for the inflation.

    Comment by MLU — November 24, 2009 @ 2:02 am

  7. MLU,

    After less than a year in office I’m not quite ready to pass final judgment on Obama’s presidency. As I pointed out above, I like where he’s headed. Let’s also not forget, the moron who preceded Obama had eight years to screw things up and he did a hell of a job of it.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 24, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

  8. Okay, Paul, we’ll give Obama eight years to fix things right. If more stimulus money, international apologies and nationalization of private industry are needed after eight years, we can lengthen the time needed for success by referencing Bush, Sr., Reagan, Nixon and, if need be, Eisenhower. I’d rather have a “moron” for president who knows the difference between good and evil than a narcissist who makes excuses for terrorists.

    Comment by BadaBing — November 26, 2009 @ 5:05 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.