Mike the Mad Biologist

Ordinarily, I would dismiss someone who thinks that the K-12 educational system is the U.S. is good as a lunatic because ‘everyone knows’ that our primary educational sucks. Then I think about the conventional wisdom that Social Security is DOOMED, and I realize that maybe the conventional wisdom about education is wrong. Gerald Bracey has an interesting post about U.S. education (italics mine):

I once had occasion to tell my son-in-law about how well American kids had done on an international comparison.

“That’s amazing,”" he said. “Why,” I asked, “is it amazing?” “Well, I just assumed our schools sucked.” An interesting comment since he wasn’t too long out of those schools and was heading towards an MBA at an elite private institution.

A packet of emails from Reid Lyon, Susan Neuman and the Reading First gang finds the group at one point complaining about a Washington Post article pointing out that NCLB “will result in the majority of the nation’s schools being deemed failing.” Lyon says, “The fact is that the schools are failing.”

No they’re not. Some are, no doubt. But in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, American kids in low poverty schools stomped the top-ranked Swedes. Even kids in schools with up to 50% of the students in poverty attained an average score that, had they constituted a nation, would have ranked 4th. Only American students attending schools with 75%+ poverty scored below the international average of the 35 participating countries.

Bracey has a very interesting take on the history of the “schools suck” concept (emphasis mine):

Worries about the quality of the schools intensified in the late 1940′s as we entered the Cold War. We needed manpower. Would the schools deliver it? When Sputnik soared into orbit in 1957, the answer appeared to be “no.” Most people believed that the Russians had got into space first because the schools suck. Admiral Hyman Rickover put it succinctly in a book title: American Education: A National Failure. (Rickover’s solution: A National Standards Committee and tests. Plus ca change…).

In fact, Wernher von Braun, our leading ex-Nazi rocketeer, pointed out that we had ignored ballistic missiles from 1945 to 1951, a period when the Russians were busily developing them. He diplomatically did not mention that the Army, Navy, and Air Force all had rocket programs and squabbled incessantly and dysfunctionally over who would get to go first (NASA did not exist until 1958).

Von Braun could have noted that while he in Germany was building the V-2 rocket that so terrified England during the war, he drew immensely from the work of Robert Goddard. Goddard, our native rocket genius, was being ignored and even mocked at home. The New York Times had scoffed at Goddard’s 1920 rocket he said might be able to reach even the moon. A rocket, Times editors declared, would be useless in a vacuum (when Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon in 1969, a note referring to the 1920 editorial said, “The Times regrets the error”).

The schools never recovered from Sputnik, but the next major blow didn’t land until 20 years later in On Further Examination. This booklet reported the findings of a panel assembled by the College Board to figure out what had caused the then 14 year decline in SAT scores. The panel blamed mostly demographic changes in who was taking the tests along with the social upheavals of the 60′s and early 70′s. The public blamed the schools.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Bracey speculates on the motivations of the “schools suck” bloc (italics mine):

Recently, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in The Post that constant references to a “war on terror” “stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of policies they want to pursue.” Happens all the time in education. The most recent phony alarm comes from Eli Broad and Bill Gates, who are putting up $60 million hoping to “wake up the American people.” If the fear-mongers can scare you sufficiently (how many times have you heard the phrase “failing schools” in the past five years?), you might permit them to do to your public schools things you would otherwise never allow.

When it comes to Social Security, I’ve actually read the Trustees’ report (which makes me, I think, one of a very small number of people to actually have done so), so I am confident in discussing this. Bracey is so opposite the conventional wisdom and I’m not familiar enough with the data to rigorously assess his claims.

What do you think? Do our schools suck? Or do our problems (economic and technological) stem more from bad policies in those areas?

I’m definitely going to have to get his books on the subject.

Comments

  1. #1 Brian Thompson
    May 24, 2007

    I think “suck” is a strong word. They’re alright, but they could definitely be better. I also think its a little too early to tell whether the NCLB act is leaving anyone behind or not.

  2. #2 Margaret
    May 24, 2007

    I don’t know what the schools are like these days, but “suck” is too mild a word for them when I was in grade school (the 60′s). In the 8 years of hell they called grade school, the curriculum seemed to consist mainly of “sit down, shut up, don’t ask questions, don’t think, do whatever you’re told no matter how stupid, and quit complaining about being treated unfairly since you have no rights and we can do whatever we want to you.” The teachers skipped parts of the arithmetic books because they didn’t know how to do the problems, my mother complained that my English got worse after I started school, and we didn’t have any science at all. My fifth grade teacher decided to pretend to have a science lesson, but even at that age I knew she wasn’t correct but was just making it up.

  3. #3 mark
    May 24, 2007

    It seems like there is conflicting information. I don’t know where Margaret went to school, but it certainly was not where I went (during the same era). When I was a teaching assistant (in the mid-1970′s) I wondered why the kiddies in freshman geology class did not know the things I was taught in the fifth grade. The local papers just carried articles about the science fair, and who won the Enivrothon, yet we also hear about lackluster performance in international comparison testing. Maybe that’s just a rumor; in the 2003 TIMMS science testing, the US tied for 8th place out of 34 countries listed.

  4. #4 bigTom
    May 24, 2007

    Last I looked (a couple of years ago) the conclusion was that our test scores are competitive through roughly eighth grade, but progress in grades 9-12 is way below international standards. This may be due more to differences in youth culture (teen obsessions with sports, cars, entertainment, and sex) than to the actual schools.

  5. #5 Mark C
    May 24, 2007

    I have been a K-12 teacher for 12 years and a fan of Dr. Bracey since I first read his work. He has systematically debunked the myth of testing and the myth of the inferiority of American public schools.

    But I can tell you this. After 12 years I am about done. About the only thing worse than being a teacher under NCLB is being a student. Here is the typical schedule of a typical middle school student at my school: English, Math, PE(with a writing prompt and homework), Social Studies, Science, and English intervention(due to low test scores, the only criterion). Same schedule, day in, day out for 180 days.

    Gruesome, isn’t it. I predicted when I saw the reform models that we would begin to see dropout rates skyrocket because of the mindnumbing daily grind, and have seen no evidence to change my mind.

    Right now it sucks to be a teacher and it sucks to be a kid. Have a nice day.

  6. #6 Mark C
    May 24, 2007

    I have been a K-12 teacher for 12 years and a fan of Dr. Bracey since I first read his work. He has systematically debunked the myth of testing and the myth of the inferiority of American public schools.

    But I can tell you this. After 12 years I am about done. About the only thing worse than being a teacher under NCLB is being a student. Here is the typical schedule of a typical middle school student at my school: English, Math, PE(with a writing prompt and homework), Social Studies, Science, and English intervention(due to low test scores, the only criterion). Same schedule, day in, day out for 180 days.

    Gruesome, isn’t it. I predicted when I saw the reform models that we would begin to see dropout rates skyrocket because of the mindnumbing daily grind, and have seen no evidence to change my mind.

    Right now it sucks to be a teacher and it sucks to be a kid. Have a nice day.

  7. #7 JYB
    May 24, 2007

    I think “schools suck” is a myth overall. Our problems are more societal and cultural (specifically problems of institutional racism and poverty). I agree with Mark though and say that schools suck more now with NCLB. A middle school near me is under program improvement so the kids take 3 periods of language arts/reading, 2 periods of math, and 1 period of PE. No science or social studies. No electives. We’ve moved farther away from discovery/inquiry type of lessons and more towards the old drill and kill.

  8. #8 Kapitano
    May 24, 2007

    I can’t speak for the US, but here in the UK, the emphasis is entirely on getting badly performing students up to a certain minimum level in “key skills” – numeracy, literacy and IT.

    There is no encouragement for low and average achieving students to aim higher than “adequate”. And none for high achievers to reacher higher than they’ve already got.

    You might call it a culture of mediocrity. Illiteracy is seen as a problem to be solved, rather than literacy seen as something to be maximised.

  9. #9 Herb West
    May 24, 2007

    The “school sucks” bloc consists predominantly of teachers. Teachers spew an endless litany of complaints including classrooms are overcrowded, students come to school hungry, there’s not enough afterschool programs, the buildings are dilapidated and falling apart, lunches aren’t healthy enough, there is not enough discipline, teacher salaries are too low, teacher’s work too long hours, there’s no support for new teachers, standardized tests are watering down the curriculum, Christian fundamentalists are invading the science classroom, there are not enough computers to go around, art and music budgets are cut, and it goes on and on. This litany is repeated endlessly by a credulous media that doesn’t bother to give a big picture analysis of the state of US schools.

  10. #10 Herb West
    May 24, 2007

    The “school sucks” bloc consists predominantly of teachers. Teachers spew an endless litany of complaints including classrooms are overcrowded, students come to school hungry, there’s not enough afterschool programs, the buildings are dilapidated and falling apart, lunches aren’t healthy enough, there is not enough discipline, teacher salaries are too low, teacher’s work too long hours, there’s no support for new teachers, there’s too much turnover, standardized tests are watering down the curriculum, Christian fundamentalists are invading the science classroom, there are not enough computers to go around, art and music budgets are cut, and it goes on and on. This litany is repeated endlessly by a credulous media that doesn’t bother to give a big picture analysis of the state of US schools.

  11. #11 Kapitano
    May 24, 2007

    I can’t speak for the US, but here in the UK, the emphasis is entirely on getting badly performing students up to a certain minimum level in “key skills” – numeracy, literacy and IT.

    There is no encouragement for low and average achieving students to aim higher than “adequate”. And none for high achievers to reacher higher than they’ve already got.

    You might call it a culture of mediocrity. Illiteracy is seen as a problem to be solved, rather than literacy seen as something to be maximised.

  12. #12 SLC
    May 24, 2007

    It’s been a million years since I was in school but, based on an admittedly limited sample, it appears that there is a substantial divide between suburban school districts, such as Fairfax, Co. Va. and inner city school districts. There is little doubt that most schools in DC are poor, and I suspect that the same is true in other large cities. On the other hand, it would appear that schools in Fairfax Co. are, for the most part, doing a good job. My hypothesis is that the difference is greatly due to the interest shown by parents in Fairfax Co. and lack of same in DC.

  13. #13 turgenev
    May 24, 2007

    As a 20 year old who has just gone through these schools that “suck,” i can really attest to the fact that some of them are in fact much worse than others. I am currently matriculating at a university that offers an alternative method of learning, the great books program. While both have their strengths and weaknesses, I believe that there is something to be said for each, and that a flat out statement such as “American schools suck” really does nothing but prove the callow nature of the individual, rather than any actual critique on American schools.

  14. #14 Julie Stahlhut
    May 24, 2007

    My elementary school (I attended 1962-1968) was abysmal. It was in an old factory neighborhood, and I think the main purpose of it was to train docile workers. The schools in the richer part of town had better facilities, newer textbooks, and teachers whose training and methods weren’t stuck somewhere on the wrong side of the 1930s.

    Surprisingly, though, my secondary schooling wasn’t bad — in fact, my high school had an excellent science and math program, including two-year sequences in chemistry and biology and some specialized half-year courses, like probability and statistics. Of course, the junior high and high schools were more centralized, so we blue-collar kids were side by side with the children of better-off people who would have raised hell if their kids had gotten a substandard educational experience.

  15. #15 bigTom
    May 24, 2007

    My kids are “honours” high-school students. The problem I see is that they are not challenged to go beyond the level of effort which earns an A (not a very high bar in California). So the opportunity to really excel is lost to all but the most self-motivated.

  16. #16 JYB
    May 24, 2007

    @SLC

    I think it’s also a myth that poorer parents don’t care about their kids’ educations. I saw a study (sorry, no citation) that said poorer parents actually value education more than middle class parents. They are more likely to see it as a way to improve their lives.

    Just subjectively, poorer parents have a lot more stuff going on. They can’t go to parent conferences because if they miss work they get fired or they don’t have transportation. They probably don’t have as many books in the house. Kids are alone and take care of themselves. They can’t spend 1500 on a SAT prep course.

  17. #17 Edward
    May 24, 2007

    I don’t think american schools suck, but there are disparities. However, all the testing, mostly as a result of NCLB, is a disaster. In the schools my kids go to, there are state mandated competency tests that take out several days of teaching. Then they also give the stanford test to better measure how the kids are doing – several more days. In high school, there is all that, plus the core subjects have state-mandated final exams in addition to the finals the teacher gives (because the state exam doen’t cover everything). The extra testing alone takes a week or two of the school year, and after you figure in the time the teachers use to focus on the tests, I figure at least a month of instruction time is lost each year as a result tof all the testing.

    I remember seeing a survey a few years back (before NCLB) in which people were asked something like “Do you think American public schools are good?” and “Do you think your local public schools are good?” Most people answered no to the 1st and yes to the 2nd.

  18. #18 Julie Stahlhut
    May 24, 2007

    JYB: I agree that working-class families do care — very much — about their kids’ educations, and didn’t mean to imply that they didn’t. (Mine sure cared a lot.) But for the most part, at least in the time and area where I grew up, blue-collar parents didn’t have enough personal experience of advanced education to realize that they could and should complain to higher authorities if their kids were merely getting warehoused instead of intellectually stimulated.

  19. #19 SLC
    May 25, 2007

    This issue of testing is not new. When I was a graduate student at a university in upstate New York, having come from another state, I was struck by the fact that high school students in New York State had to pass the Regents’ exams in order to graduate from high school.

  20. #20 TomDunlap
    May 25, 2007

    I’ve had the honor of spending casual evenings with a bunch of middle-school teachers. Listening to their stories of adventures with the kids, is an eye opener. When I was in school, 50s-60s, even the worst of the misbehavers feared and or respected teachers and administrators, if not their parents. Today, the kids fear nothing except peer pressure. And sadly, there is little peer pressure to learn.

  21. #21 Ilja Grauls
    May 28, 2007

    One of the many reasons that Europeans regard Americans as stupid is their limited knowledge of the world at large (A president that had never left the continent would be unheard of in Europe).

    The whole creationist bull isn’t helping US schools’ press either.

  22. #22 CC
    May 29, 2007

    Don’t blame schools for the “creationist bull,” Grauls. We in the trenches fight for reason on a daily basis. Blame a society that promotes free speech and confuses it with supported-by-evidence speech. Blame a fringe group of people that purposely confuse “winning” a debate with being scientifically correct.

  23. #23 CC
    December 21, 2007

    Don’t blame schools for the “creationist bull,” Grauls. We in the trenches fight for reason on a daily basis. Blame a society that promotes free speech and confuses it with supported-by-evidence speech. Blame a fringe group of people that purposely confuse “winning” a debate with being scientifically correct.

  24. #24 seks shop
    May 20, 2009

    Don’t blame schools for the “creationist bull,” Grauls. We in the trenches fight for reason on a daily basis. Blame a society that promotes free speech and confuses it with supported-by-evidence speech. Blame a fringe group of people that purposely confuse “winning” a debate with being scientifically correct

  25. #25 şişme bebek
    June 8, 2009

    One of the many reasons that Europeans regard Americans as stupid is their limited knowledge of the world at large (A president that had never left the continent would be unheard of in Europe