The problem with American education

I blogged only the other day about the hare-brained thinking that characterizes the meetings I attend at my children’s public school. (See this post too.)  I’m constantly amazed at how foolish these teachers and administrators are, and are they are absolutely lacking in general knowledge or analytical skills. However, because they have “education degrees” they have a monopoly on our public school children. No one who hasn’t attended a teaching college can get near these kids. This means that thousands of people like myself — professionals with huge funds of knowledge (and, if I do so say myself, pretty good communication abilities) — are barred from reaching the kids unless we too want to subject ourselves to a time-consuming, expensive and foolish teacher’s education. Walter Williams has more about these teachers:

American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university. As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest academic respect. Were we serious about efforts to improve public education, one of the first things we would do is eliminate schools of education.

The inability to think critically makes educationists fall easy prey to harebrained schemes, and what’s worse, they don’t have the intelligence to recognize that the harebrained scheme isn’t working. Just one of many examples is the use of fuzzy math teaching techniques found in “Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers.” Among its topics: “Sweatshop Accounting,” “Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood,” “Multicultural Math” and “Home Buying While Brown or Black.” The latter contains discussions on racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media and environmental racism.

If you have a fifth-grader, his textbook might be “Everyday Math.” Among its study questions are: If math were a color, it would be (blank) because (blank). If it were a food, it would be (blank) because (blank). If it were weather, it would be (blank) because (blank). All of this is sheer nonsense, and what’s worse is that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics sponsors and supports much of this nonsense.

Mathematics, more than any other subject, is culturally neutral. The square root of 16 is 4 whether you’re Asian, European or African, or even Plutonian or Martian. While math and science literacy among white 15-year-olds is nothing to write home about, that among black 15-year-olds is nothing less than a disaster.

Few people appreciate the implications of poor math preparation. Mathematics, more than anything else, teaches one how to think logically. As such, it is an important intellectual tool. If one graduates from high school with little or no preparation in algebra, geometry and a bit of trigonometry, he is likely to find whole areas of academic study, as well as the highest paying jobs, hermetically sealed off from him for his entire life.

Having been so harsh, both directly and (through the Williams quotation) indirectly, let me add a few ameliorative statements.  There are absolutely wonderful teachers out there, people who are truly gifted at communicating with young people and at leading them to knowledge.  There are deeply committed people out there.  Indeed, even though I don’t respect professionally many of the teachers at my kids’ schools, there are some who do deserve professional respect and, with few exceptions, all of them deserve respect for their good will and their good intentions.

My complaint is the same as Williams’:  we have a system that drives to the bottom, rather than aims for the top.  The monopoly of education degrees, degrees that turn out people practiced in certain methodologies but often woefully uninformed or incapable of thought, means that there is no way to allow others who are informed and able to help lift up the education system.  And that’s a crime that no amount of federal and state monies can fix.


24 Responses

  1. So Education majors are dummies? You think that’s the main problem with education? Ed school monopoly is the main problem? Here follow some unorganized comments.

    There are a number of states that have alternate certification programs which bypass many or all of the traditional teaching training programs. It is interesting to note that many alternate certification honchos admit that they do not expect their charges to teach more than 4-5 years. Why?

    I taught math for two years as a second career. My SAT and GRE scores were comparable to those admitted to Ivy League schools. From experience, I must inform every one that while a high IQ and knowledge of the subject are helpful and necessary to be a good teacher, that they are not sufficient to become a good teacher. For example, my personality was not a good fit for a teacher. A teacher needs to be a persuader, a salesman, and that is not in my makeup. Persuasion comes very hard for me.

    I never saw so much conjecture presented as fact as in Ed courses. An Assistant Dean presented a class on how girls were shortchanged in science. She began her presentation thusly. “My father was an MD. My brother is an MD. And here I am, in education.” Having a mother with a master’s degree in biology, and a sister with a master’s degree in engineering, I was a little skeptical of the Assistant Dean.

    However, there is a place for education courses. You need to know how to present material, how to persuade students, how to manage a classroom. The solutions for doing these are not intuitively obvious. Nonetheless, my education classes were poor preparation for the classroom teaching experience.

    Student teaching in an upper-middle class white majority school with a faculty that writes lessons together, where in effect most of the teaching script was written, was not good preparation for going to 80% poverty 2% white middle school. The textbook was not a good choice for my students, because it went too quickly into more difficult problems. My students needed much more drilling on the basic problems. This meant that I had to write up problems etc. There was minimal cooperation between teachers. I was working 70 hours per week, not getting the work done, and was exhausted.

    One problem is that the classic view of the teacher is that the teacher is the playwright. With the advent of test score mania, there needs to be a different point of view: teacher as actor presenting a script: lessons done together. Why? I can recall spending seven hours to prepare one good hour’s lesson. Need I say more?

    At the same time, there is a need for test scores, for accountability. A high school senior, who needed to pass his math exit exam to graduate, told me that passing his math exit exam was holding up his college admission- which he greatly resented. He was being held up on having problems with 5th and 6th grade decimals and fractions. Should not someone going to college know decimals and fractions? So, while we decry test score mania, there IS a place for test scores.

    In order to attract brighter persons into the teaching profession, salaries must be raised. Will taxpayers be willing to do so?

    Roughly half of those who get education degrees leave the teaching profession after five years. This is a bigger problem than attracting brighter people into the teaching profession. Many of those who leave are those who can get better paying jobs many people would be willing to teach if it took 50 hours a week, at current salaries. But these days, it can take even experienced teachers 60 hours a week. In the last 30 years, the school and by extension the teacher has taken on many of the former responsibilities of the parent. More responsibilities placed on teachers, more hours, and more burn out. .Very few teachers last into their 60s these days.

    Education majors being dummies isn’t the half of it.
    I have no solutions.

  2. My wife, a National Board certified public school teacher, said it best – that the quality of any school reflects the commitment of their community to education. If parents don’t care, neither the kids nor the school board will care. If the school board doesn’t care, the teachers won’t care…so they burn out! And so on.

    We are lucky. We live in a highly professional community with a strong emphasis on education. My wife has a BA in math and masters degree in a very hard science. Last year, my son’s physics teacher had a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. They aren’t exceptions. Oh, and many (public school) teachers retire on six-figure income salaries.

    The only solution that I can think of is to find and live in a community that cares.

  3. Excellent points, Gringo, and I’m going to grab onto only one, which is the salary thing. I understand low teacher wages. When my father retired in 1987 after twenty years in his school district, he was earning $21,000. That same year, as a totally green lawyer, I stepped into a job paying me $55,000. He raised a family by tutoring for 4 hours every day after the school day ended and by teaching and tutoring during the summer holidays. Fast forward to my wealthy school district 20 years later:

    At the kids’ school, with one exception, the teachers are young married women, who earn about $60,000 for about nine months of work. They all have small classrooms and one assistant. One day a week, the classroom day is only 5 hours long; the other days, it is 6 hours long. This leaves 11 hours per week for grading and classroom preparation (and, to be perfectly honest, I have no idea how long grading takes although, given the amount of busy work the children have, it probably takes a while). My Dad and my own public school teachers had much larger classrooms, longer teaching days, and no assistants — not to mention much less money. Nevertheless, these teachers all whine constantly about how hard they have to work. I’m unimpressed.

    More than that, though, these gals know so little. While there are people out there like you gringo, who have solid academic credentials, these gals don’t. They do know there curriculum, but they don’t know anything outside of it. When there are mistakes in the prepared materials, they don’t recognize their existence.

    I agree that teaching college is very useful for teaching ways to teach. There are a lot of things that, as adults, we seem to know intuitively, and it proves to be very difficult to break them down into small pieces one can communicate to a child. I happen to like the Montessori method of conveying this info, but I recognize that there are other methods, as well, all of which need to be taught. This is especially true for the small fry who are learning basics. As the students get older, the teachers often need to know only the order in which to convey concepts, especially in math and science. (In history, for example, chronology pretty much forces the order of presentation.)

    So, teaching colleges are useful. But modern teaching colleges are so filled with jargon and cant it’s not even funny. I was just handed a book that’s been given to all the teachers and that promises to help with “reculturing” the school environment by making it a “professional learning center.” The rest of the book is as bad as the title would lead you to expect.

    All of this is in a pricey school district. Go to a poorer school district and you’ve got real reason to whine. The teachers have still been indoctrinated at education colleges, where much time has been given to damaging social theories, but they emerge to much less money, more work, and less able students. It’s these type of schools that spell out to American college students that, if you can do anything else other than teaching, you should.

  4. Teaching is like any other group centered around skills. Some are good, most are bad, and some are really bad.

  5. A couple of days ago, my 6th grader came to me with a homework question given to him by his social studies teacher. It asked something like “How do you think proximity to waterways effected the development of trade routes in the ancient world.” He pointed out the error and asked if he was correct. I assured him he was.

    This is but one of many errors that I see from teachers. The really scary thing is that the questions were supplied by the publisher, and then passed out by the teacher.

    Richard Mitchell wrote a wonderful book condemning teachers and, as he terms them, the “teacher-trainer academies” that churn them out. It is call Graves of Academe. Mitchell was a Classics professor at a Glassboro State College in New Jersey (nka Rowan College). He is merciless in his critique of American education and its peddlers. A great and insightful read.

  6. BW,

    When I was a kid, teachers got a special kind of respect. Their lifestyles were modest, but I think that was judged to be evened out by their job security and free summers. A neighbor of ours worked summers renovating schools. We certainly never thought of him in terms of teacher unions or PC indoctrination. My mom was happy that I played with his daughter because they were “nice people.” That attitude made itself felt in the way kids treated their teachers. It was a simpler time, at least in small town America.

  7. “How do you think proximity to waterways effected the development of trade routes in the ancient world.”

    The question is valid either way, given that the problem is ambiguity.

    The question is either trying to ask what you think being close to waterways has to do with trade routes. Or it is trying to ask why do you think being close to waterways creates trade routes in the ancient world.

    Obviously, those that don’t know the difference between effecting and affecting, will get it either way.

  8. B said…
    However, because they have “education degrees” they have a monopoly on our public school children. No one who hasn’t attended a teaching college can get near these kids.

    Anyone with a degree in an area can easily become certified to teach. The best students come from ‘good’ families.

    ‘Good’ families can be dirt poor. ‘Wealthy’ communities often produce ‘poor dirt’.

    The biggest factor in education is the family and peers. wealthy communities are better at hiding drug/social problems.

  9. I have such mixed feelings about this post and the comments.

    As a newish teacher (3 years) I often think I’m a lousy teacher. Of course I’m not. I do hate planning so I can have bouts of laziness. That being said, teaching takes a whole lot more than subject area knowledge. Most teachers teaching in larger urban populations, as I do, spend most of their day dealing with classroom management, administrative bullshit, and school districts who believe prompted lessons will improve teaching.

    I did a full bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in secondary education. I then completed an 18 month teaching credential program. I connect with my students. They think I’m bitchy but they also come to me with their issues.

    I think we do a disservice to educators, parents, and students when we blame the teachers. I would like to challenge those who complain to spend a day teaching with little support. To spend evenings grading essays. To spend weekends trying to figure out what to reteach or how to teach something in a new and creative way.

    Teachers are just people. We are not perfect. We make plenty of mistakes. Sometimes we spell poorly and don’t have perfect grammar. Sometimes we must humble ourselves and tell students “I’m not sure but let’s find out”.

    I know I’m ranting, and perhaps not making a ton of sense. One last thought is simply that I teach in LAUSD. The second largest school district in the nation. I make about 48k a year but that’s living in Los Angeles which is absurdly expensive. I teach from 7:25 am until 3:11 pm. I have three prep. periods. I teach sheltered English. 75% of my students are low income, immigrants, second language learners. So…just please know that teaching has many many many barriers.

    Please take time, whoever reads this, to appreciate all that teachers do do. Please take time to understand that some of us have up to 150 students. Please take time to understand that with little parental involvement, we are not just your child’s teacher. We are often their confidant, their friend, their counselor, their mentor, their disciplinarian. Let me just say as a third year teacher, that is A LOT of hats to fill.

  10. Hi Bookworm, I just received your comment on my blog, I’ll post it here so others can keep up with the discussion:

    You said:
    Hey, Tamara: This isn’t really a response to your post, but is more of a response to the thoughtful comment you left on my blog. I’m quite ambivalent about teachers. My father was an English teacher — and a superb one. I went to public schools, and managed, on occasion to have wonderful teachers. Last year, my kids’ public school teachers were so terrible it was a crime to have them in front of a classroom. (And I blame unions entirely for the inability to fire these useful pieces of classroom furniture.) This year, they’re decent.

    I have huge problems, though, with politically driven curricula; teaching colleges that often seem bound and determined to politicize impressionable young people who really do just want to teach; and teacher’s unions that are about money and politics (and I know lots about that from my Dad’s years in the union). These three factors tend to leave room for a few truly excellent, committed teachers, and a whole bunch of people who are just drifting through the system, picking up indoctrination at is goes along. It also creates a system that’s invested less in teaching and more in gobbledy gook, something I’ve seen as the child of a teacher, as a public school student, and as a parent. I’m always amazed when I go to meetings with teachers that a significant number are completely incoherent when they try to explain the thinking behind their teaching. They’ve been taught something akin to psychobabble, rather than solid educational material.

    Teaching is not easy, and so many teachers are deeply committed, intelligent, kind, and competent people who stick it out despite all the problems. However, I think their blind allegiance to the deep systemic failures I’ve described above often exacerbates the same problems that make their own lives a misery.

    First, I agree about unions. I fully support unions, however, I know that even at my school we have teachers who are horrible. For the record, the school I teach at is considered one of the better in LAUSD. Even so, we have teachers at my school who are still teaching handwriting. We have teachers who berate kids. We have teachers who show movies because they have no other way of managing the classroom. However, we also have teachers who work more hours than any teacher should. We have teachers who have had students publish a book. We have teachers who are just phenomenally dedicated, motivating, and impressive adults who think about student first and teacher second.

    That last statement is part of the bigger problem in schools. So many administrators and teachers too, think about themselves before the student. I’m even guilty of this.

    The main thing about the post that rubbed me wrong is that I wonder if parents think of me the way you express how you feel about many teachers. Trust me, I often feel inadequate. I often wonder how the hell can I be an English teacher when I don’t know my own grammar rules and yet I’m trying to teach them. I can only assume that with the lack of parent involvement I receive, the parents just assume I’m doing my job and that’s that. I wonder if I were to teach at a school where the parents were demanding and the students had higher skills, I wonder if I’d be “adequate”. By the way, my school does have an advanced learning academy and a highly gifted magnet. Though I don’t get those students. Being new, as someone else commented, I seem to ALWAYS get the sheltered English classes and kids that many others won’t deal with. I’m not totally complaining though. I love my students and when I see that angry student who has never felt a teacher believed in them get that sense that I actually do care, I know I’m doing my job well.

    Anywho…thanks for commenting and responding. I appreciate good dialogue. Even if my grammar sucks 😉

  11. In urban centers, there seems to be a dearth of parental involvement due to one mother/father homes and various other things that go along with having an uban population life.

  12. The thing that helped me most was getting introduced to reading, as a serious past time, by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Moore.

    Grammar gets a lot easier once you have read published sentences so many times over that you can simply get a feel for whether sentences are arranged correctly. Although the use of punctuation and what not is best learned through writing, not reading.

  13. ymarsakar: I just did a post on this exact thing. Grammar instruction. 🙂 And I agree, there are so many complicated facets that go along with teaching in urban populations. But to be honest, I don’t know that I’d trade that for teaching wealthy white students whose parents want to tell me how to teach. Not to sound anti-white or anti-wealth; but I think my skills are good for the struggling kids. It’s my patience that I wonder about sometimes 🙂

  14. Tamara: I can imagine that you often feel as if you’re on a tightrope without a net. English grammar is sometimes mystifying, and it’s hard to convince students that you do something one way or another “just because.” I got grammar at my father’s knee, but even I make some mistakes (although most mistakes at this blog result from lousy proof-reading, not lousy grammar).

    I can recommend a couple of books to make you feel more confident about your writing skills. First, although I’ve never been a big fan, most people swear by Strunk’s & White’s The Elements of Style. The other big that I love, even though it’s written for lawyers, is Bryan Garner’s The Winning Brief: 100 Tips for Persuasive Briefing in Trial and Appellate Courts, which offers the best ideas I’ve ever seen for writing lucidly. Even though it’s examples often take place in the legal context, anyone wishing to learn more about good writing can benefit from reading Garner’s book.

    The other thing, of course, is to read, read, read. A lot of books, nowadays, use grammar that I consider incorrect (split infinitives, misused words, mixed-up pronouns, dangling and misplaced modifiers), but they’re still right more often than not. Additionally, certain classic books will ensure that you write like a pro. One of the best semi-modern stylists is Dorothy Sayers, who wrote the wonderful Peter Wimsey murder mysteries. My favorite stylist is Jane Austen, whose prose, although a little antiquated, is always impeccable.

    I know from family members who work in the LAUSD, and who have kids there (or who pulled their kids out of there), that its a tough bailiwick. I wish you much luck during your teaching career. The one thing I can tell is that, because you care, even if your grammar needs a little work, your students are benefiting from your presence.

  15. What Walter Williams has to say about public school teachers is not true.

    His article is but one of many hundreds of pieces of disinformation disseminated relentlessly about our nation’s public schools and teachers.

    This is about ideology, not truth.

    For starters, take a look here.

  16. Tauna, you might want to look at the series of posts I did detailing my experiences as a parent at one of the most prestigious public schools in America. (Click on “education” in my categories sidebar and it will bring up those posts.) From a parents’ perspective, so much of what Williams said is true. The kids in my community are not “hurting” economically or socially, but they are often the victims of a terrible curriculum, bizarre educational experiments, wasteful political ideology, jargon, cant, and poor teachers who are protected from being fired by strong unions. There are certainly good teachers out there — and my kids are lucky enough to have them this year — but even they gripe about the way in which the system is set up to undermine their efforts. And as for the bad teachers, well, they seem to have set up that system.

  17. Hi Bookworm,

    Thanks for the response to my comment! I have indeed been reading through your blog. I’m impressed and I find it fascinating. Your posts seem thoughtful and free of viciousness. While we might disagree on some things, I really appreciate the civil discourse.

    I’m new to blogging, as you probably noted from visiting my humble site…I have much to learn. You might be relieved to learn that I don’t teach technology.

    I am glad that the children in your community aren’t hurting economically or socially. I’m a special ed teacher and I have some students who have been horribly abused and neglected. It is all too common Bookworm, all across the nation.

    Certainly there are legitimate complaints about public school teachers. I am not a union member and am really no expert on the extent to which unions actually keep incompetent teachers from being fired. I do not doubt that it occurs some. Funny, I’ve spent thousands of hours digging and researching the attacks on public education, yet that’s an issue I haven’t really studied. Believe me, however, my experiences have taught me to be skeptical about almost everything I read. It is good to question and dig.

    While there are indeed some lousy teachers (there are some lousy professionals in any field) I must reiterate that Dr. Williams’ data about teacher competence is incorrect. I do not mean to be unkind but he (along with many think tanks, pundits, editorialists, politicians, business opportunists, and a lazy and complicit media) has for years disseminated false and misleading information about public education.

    You didn’t comment about any of the specifics you may have read when you went to my blog. I wonder if you would mind reading through it again and leaving a comment or two? Again, I’m new to blogging and today is actually the first day I’ve even let anyone know my blog exists! I started it a few months back, abandoned it, then just decided a few days ago to go ahead with it.

    Sooo……comments, suggestions, different points of view welcome.

  18. Hi again Bookworm,

    Please see my new comment from last night.

    Thank you!

  19. Bookworm, please see my comments above since our last exchange. And for even more on those PISA scores that Walter Williams used to blast America’s public school teachers, go to

    And please see the latest about pundit blather on my blog at

    Thank you!

  20. Sure would like some response!

  21. I’ll get there, Tauna. I’ve been dealing with work, power outages, and children, so have had little time for following up on your recommended reading. As it is, keep in mind that Williams was merely a springboard for my own deep concerns, based on my own observations, about public school teachers. We’ve been in the public school system for two years, and in that time, half the teachers my kids had were disgraces to the profession, genuinely ignorant women, and half were real teachers. The shame of it is that the disgraces still have jobs.

  22. Understood. And thank you. Please don’t forget me and that recommended reading.

  23. Well, I waited and waited. Readers, please go here for a response to Walter Williams’ blather:

    Note: You must read well down into my blog post before I actually address the specific disinformation that Williams disseminated in the piece Bookworm cited when she began this thread.

    Also go here:

    I could add so much more…but this is just for starters.

  24. A subject close to my heart cheers, i’ve been thinking about this subject for a while.

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