American Millennials Are Falling Even Further Behind Their International Peers


There has been another study about Millennials, and no, the results are not inspiring.

A new report from the Educational Testing Service, makers of the GRE, found that young people in the United States, despite being the most well-educated generation in American history, fall far behind most of their international peers in reading, math and tech know-how.  

The study found that American Millennials scored lower than their peers in 15 of 22 tested countries in reading, tying for third from the bottom. Math scores were even more abysmal, with the United States in dead last along with Italy and Spain. In "problem solving in technology-rich environments," the U.S. was tied for last with the Slovak Republic, Ireland and Poland.

The report also showed that the trends were broadly consistent among Millennials, including those "best performing and most educated" and those from the "highest socioeconomic background."

"We have a really large crisis ahead of us," Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, told Mic. The Washington, D.C.-based center supports the promotion of charter schools. "If our Millennials cannot make it into the workforce, it will impact our economy."

Jeff White/AP

Why are American Millennials so far behind? The answers may start in America's public schools. According to census data, there are roughly 49 million Americans currently enrolled in K-12 public school, but in recent years, local budgets have allocated fewer and fewer resources to them.

An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that since the Great Recession, at least 35 states have slashed school budgets, with 14 states making cuts of more 10% to their per-student allotments. In a vicious cycle, the study also found that education cuts actively contributed to the recession by reducing the purchasing power of school workers who were laid off.

Still, America as a whole far outspends the rest of the world when it comes to education, so clearly there is more to the story. "We really haven't had much of a return on that investment," Kerwin said. In some cases, like combating lost skills during America's very long summer vacation, the money will have no effect. In others, the cash is spent on the unique challenges of teaching America's heterogeneous melting pot culture. New York City public school students speak 176 languages; in Japan, it's mostly Japanese.   

Some lay blame on America's teachers. Good teaching has been found to have a direct impact on student test scores and even translates into higher rates of college attendance and lower teen pregnancy. Without good teachers, we wouldn't have any doctors curing cancer or engineers taking us into outer space. So much for "those who can do, and those who can't teach."

As Thomas Friedman points out, some nations, like Finland and Denmark have insisted that their teachers come from the top third of their graduating class, and have made massive investments in education to support them. While American teachers may not all come from the bottom of their class, as has often been claimed, the comparative differences remain stark. Rather than celebrate the contributions of teaching, certain American politicians attack the profession. New Jersey governor Chris Christie is particularly well known for his hostility. In South Korea, teachers are considered "nation builders" — imagine if the U.S. took the same approach.

Childhood education may be the key. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rode into office on a wave in 2014, in part because of a promise to provide pre-kindergarten to every child in the city. While it wasn't everything the mayor wanted, what's not in doubt is that pre-kindergarten education is really, really important.

A 2005 Rutgers University study looked at pre-kindergarten programs in Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia and found that it led to significant gains in early language, literacy and mathematical development. If that's not enough, there's also this study, and this one, and this one. Yet according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, in 2012-2013, only 28% of 4-year-olds in the U.S. were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program. That's more than 7 out of 10 kids who are missing out.

Ted S. Warren/AP

Kids in Sweden are not missing out. That government does not distinguish between childcare and pre-kindergarten, and preschool begins at the age of one. Fees are proportional to the income of parents, and 94% of children between the ages of three and five are presently enrolled, according to Miriam Nordfors, who served as a political adviser to Sweden's minister of gender equality. (For the record, Sweden kicked the U.S.'s ass on the same test that measured Millennial competency.)

American Millennials are falling behind in global academic rankings for reasons as numerous as Millennials themselves, which means that tackling the nation's falling educational standards might require a shotgun approach. But where can we salvage the funds to pay for early childhood education, teacher training and general school support? The Defense Department might be a good place to start — after all, the federal government spends ten times as much training Millennials to fight wars as it does preparing them to enter the workforce.