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Thursday, October 2, 2008

What's Wrong with Public Education?

Public-education statistics often tell us scores are going up and things are getting better. It's a false impression. Scores might be going up, but public-school students are not being well educated.

  • The dizzying downward spirals of skills in science, technology, engineering and math are jeopardizing students’ futures and the nation’s stability.
  • Many of the people who built this failing education system make money off of it as it crumbles around our ears.
  • Most of the people in the education establishment refuse to engage in this conversation (leaving students and parents to work it out on their own).
    • Of the rest, most neatly sidestep any blame for the tragedy as they foist blame on parents, teachers, money, legislators, society, hormones (yes, I've actually heard that), and the students themselves.
    • Just a handful will try to warn you of this education apocalypse. Some of those brave souls have been censured, reprimanded or fired.

    There is much about American public education that is right.

    One thing that's right is that this country intends to educate everybody equally (both genders, all income levels, all ranges of ability, and all ethnicities, religions, races and backgrounds). This is noteworthy and admirable in a world where these attitudes aren’t universally held.

    Additionally, many educators honestly try to figure out how the system could be made better. Conscientious teachers, principals, parents and school staff spend their days working on behalf of the students. They get the paperwork done, are friendly to students, and come up with new, heart-warming, esteem-building programs.

    Sadly, much about American public education is all wrong.

    Across the country, however, a philosophy of teaching has taken a stranglehold on K-12 education. It’s been sewn into the fabric of teacher education and forced into the nation’s schools and classrooms and down the throats of the principals and teachers. This philosophy says it encourages new ways of thinking, and yet for years has been practically closed to anything perceived as oppositional, and systematically blind and deaf to contrary views. It values self-esteem over achievement, effort over success, and consistent results by everyone (regardless of how mediocre) over uneven results that include brilliance by some.

    In American education, it’s become normal and acceptable to say that children naturally struggle with math or reading, don’t understand science or just aren’t that good in school. Before students ever have a chance to think it, administrators have thought it, said it, accepted it and incorporated it into the standards, watering them down so they aren’t so hard. Those watered-down standards are ably represented in various packaged curricula that value collective effort over individual achievement.

    Students must learn the same things in the same way with the same packaged curriculum, and they must all get to the same place at the same time so they can all pass the same tests on the same day. Academic gifts are cherished in theory yet often discouraged in practice. Superior talents of any sort are frequently not given room to shine.

    Ironically, this system that is built almost entirely on the concept of self-esteem is actually the antithesis of self-esteem, having produced an entire generation of children who can’t cope with basic academic skills. It’s also the antithesis of excellence, competitiveness and innovation.

    Public-school students struggle to do basic mathematical, scientific or literary activities that are reasonable for their age. Many elementary-school students are not progressing from addition to multiplication; some never progress from adding on their fingers. Many middle-school students can’t consistently multiply in vertical formats, do long division, or convert fractions into decimals. Many can’t read at grade level. Subjects other than literacy and mathematics – such as civics, history, economics, forensics, second languages, social studies, art, music, gym, geography, ethics and communication – are given short shrift or have been eliminated completely.

    High-school students are dropping out at unacceptable rates, or they’re graduating without the basic skills they need to go to college, vocational school, the military or the work place. Up to 50% of high-school graduates must take remedial classes before beginning their post-secondary life.

    All of this is before we start talking about the gazillions of taxpayer dollars that are spent every year on state standardized tests that 40-80% of students cannot pass the first time around.

    As a consequence, an increasing number of parents perceive public school as inadequate. Some are choosing to supplement the regular program. Others are leaving public school entirely – sending their children to private schools, alternative schools or private tutors. More and more of them are making the weighty choice to teach their children at home.

    Oddly, even as these families disappear from public schools, education professionals seem to have a really hard time saying that anything is wrong.

    • Even as students fail to learn basic skills (evidenced by dismal scores on state, national and international standardized tests and evaluations), these administrators deny that children aren’t getting what they need from public schools.
    • Even as families disappear from public schools, and the numbers of privately educated and home-schooled students increase, administrators deny that families are disgruntled by the failed programs and are voting with their feet.
    • Even as engineers, giants of industry, mathematicians and college and university math professors speak out against certain math programs, and even as standards and curricula are reviewed and modified, administrators deny that math programs are flawed.
    • Even as dropout rates, remediation rates and scores from various national and international studies indicate that students are not becoming academically proficient, administrators issue reams of numbers as “proof” that they are.

    The education establishment is insular, the issues are major, and the philosophies are ingrained. Ego, money and social engineering agendas have been big parts of the problem. In all of the data floating around the public arena, there is very little actual truth. There is, however, a great deal of money being made.

    This article is intended to help provide context for articles you will see on this blog.

    Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (October, 2008). "What's Wrong with Public Education?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:


    Anonymous said...

    I have read through many of the postings on this blog and am heartened by the sincerity of people who are looking for answers. Public education is failing. I have been working in the system for over eight years and have encountered all of the problems I've read about on this site...problem solving skills replacing basic fact acquisition, double-talking administrations, scared teachers, and parents with no knowledge (or seeming interest) in what is going on. It is enormously frustrating to me and has made me consider a career change more than a few times. There is, thankfully, a part of me that wants to fight for what is right and I am encouraged when I read the content of this blog. Please keep up the good work and fight the good fight. Public education is a noble idea and it is unfortunate that empty self-esteem issues, money chasing, and politics have poisoned the waters.

    Anonymous said...

    I believe one of the huge mistakes school make is the factual memorization that takes place, especially in history. When I went to school, I could cram the facts the day before or even the class before history and take the test and score an A. But, I wouldn't remember a week later and did not relate it to my life or think beyond the surface. I believe that children should be involved in exploring less information deeper and doing some research on their own, especially in high school. Also, I believe that testing through essay questions, or a written report, would show more comprehesion. In math, I don't believe formulas should all be memorized; it is better to know how to use them. More classroom discussion would be helpful also, and less homework. I don't think all classes require a certain amount of homework every week, as if the student would suffer acedemically without added hours of work. I homeschool my son, and this is part of the reason.

    Anonymous said...

    Very compelling thoughts here. I work at the state level and can attest that public education is seriously flawed. Take the average age of state politicians and legislation writers - I would dare say it would be a median age of 50-55. These people were educated in a very industrial-age education system and they can't seem to let go of old paradigms. Even our teacher preparatory institutions have yet to catch up with 21st century teaching and learning practices.

    I have heard so many arguments about the caliber of students and that schools are asked to do more and more with less. It is true that students come into public education with varying degrees of skill and capability - and let's not forget the socio-economic issues! Our system then is required to bring all of those kids along in order to pass a test? Folks, let's get real. Public education has become so large and bureaucratic that we can't even expect radical change. I agree totally that politics have poisoned the educational waters - but how do we change this? We have to adopt a business mindset and look at how business innovates and trains in order to remain competitive. They don't convene a committee to study this and that - they don't build top-heavy administrative structures at the expense of the customer do they? NO! The customer is the focus and the product must fit the customer needs or they go elsewhere.

    Keep up the good work and advocate for change in public education!

    Anonymous said...

    I also teach school. I'm an inclusion teacher which means I work with kids that have disabilities that make learning more difficult. All of my kids are in regular classes, which I visit constantly. I see what's going on. My BIGGEST problem is there are no consequences for lack of effort. Everyone passes, one way or another. The district wouldn't actually tell you that, but when you're called in because too many of your math, science kids are failing what do you suppose happens. Grading is shaded, credit is given for things that don't deserve it, no grade lower than a 50 is entered in the books because it would put the poor student in too far of a hole. Then we wonder why there is no effort. What happened to competition, fighting to be the top of the honor roll? It is disgusting and makes me really angry because it's always the TEACHER's fault.

    musiceducator said...

    I am an educator, and teach at the secondary level. There are some great comments here, and some comments that make me shudder! Schools are failing left and right, and yet the students are not. Currently, a grade of "D" or "F" is not an option in my grade book. Students will receive either a "U" or an "I". The mountain of paperwork that I fill out when this happens is beyond comprehension. I have to save every single assignment, showing use of the rubric, attaching my lessons plans, and documentation that the student has had adequate exposure and time to absorb the information (basically attendance). What's more frustrating is that I spend the majority of time teaching my students how to act in public schools. The real issue is that students don't have any consequences, administration is lazy at best, and schools will not spend money where it matters. Staff development needs to actually matter. Instead of hiring a person to do in-district staff development, spend the money to send your teacher to content specific regional and national conferences. Every single great idea I've every used in the classroom, I've stolen from someone else.

    S said...

    I'm a high school senior who's taken both regular and AP classes. While my AP courses have been rigorous and challenging, the 'high school' level courses are, for the most part, a joke. They require the bare minimum of effort (and somehow kids are still failing).

    Critical thinking has not been emphasized at all. It's just 'copy the answer from the textbook, regurgitate information'. Being thrown into a physics class that demands intensive critical thinking has been a huge shock for me, but better late than never, right?

    The scary thing is, how will kids who have never taken a challenging class have the ability to think rationally and understand how to apply the knowledge they have? This isn't just a college prep concern, it's a LIFE concern.

    However, I'd just like to say that great teachers make all the difference. They've inspired me to go into education myself. I may be young and naive, but I think there's some hope of fixing the system.

    Anonymous said...

    I've been a math teacher in Idaho for 15 years. During my first years I was shocked to see how academically lazy students were/are, and the mentality taught to them by administration is that they are all "unstoppable." Kids are given unearned grades so that teachers don't have to deal with angry parents, and therefore administrators. Administrators won't apply discipline consequences consistently and so teachers avoid discipline matters outside of the classroom. Parents don't want me to give cumulative math finals because they are "too hard." Students come into my Alg 1 class w/o being able to fluently use fractions, or do long division. When I inform administration that they are misplaced the admin. tells me "differentiate." Students refuse to check their answers to confirm their work. We have staff development that informs us to write poems in Alg 11 and Precalc. The state legislators blame teachers for what is wrong with education. Give me students who don't think that "work" is a four letter word. Give me parents who don't complain that I'm picking on their kid when I challenge them to learn. Give me an administrator who will consistently back teachers, and follow discipline policy. Oh, and give us a State superintendent who has a real education, and some teaching background, instead of one with an online degree who is looking to line the pockets of computer companies.

    PianoMastR64 said...
    Sir Ken Robinson is a specialist in our beloved failing education. if anyone has not heard of him please check out his website, his book The Element, his videos on YouTube (Example: RSA Animate - Changing Education Paradigms ), and everything else.

    Anonymous said...

    I agree that the main reason some students are not studying is the administrators, and not even the parents. Administrators allow the disruptive students to play in class as much as they want, so we, the teachers have to deal with them instead of teaching. Some adults in schools, administrators and some teachers, too, are oblivious of what good schooling should be. Defending the troublemakers, lying, blaming teachers. As a result, all this is just teaching minors how to avoid learning and misbehave. The result, noone can learn, but administrators don't care. The result, drop outs and criminals, or just plain ignorant citizens are manufactured by the American educational system. The bureaucratic system has molded administrators into brainless clerks, not educators. Some Teachers are afraid to speak up because again, the system makes you comply and shut up, otherwise you won't get a reference for another job. Some teachers are plain stupid educators. It is all a sad sham-public or charter education, and the adults are to blame , not the students.