Neuron Culture

What the Public Thinks of Public Schools

According to the just released Education Next poll put out by the Hoover Institution, public assessment of schools has fallen to the lowest level recorded since Americans were first asked to grade schools in 1981. Just 18% of those surveyed gave schools a grade of an A or a B, down from 30% reported by a Gallup poll as recently as 2005.

No less than 25% of those polled by Education Next gave the schools either an F or a D. (In 2005, only 20% gave schools such low marks.)

That’s from a pretty good WSJ piece on recent surveys of parents about schools. Six months ago I thought this country was ready to deal with the serious problems in our schools. This new survey would suggest that’s the case. But having watched the healtcare reform debate/debacle, I now have my doubts.

Comments

  1. #1 bobh
    September 11, 2009

    Well first the source of the poll – Hoover Institution. Its not quite CATO but … Conservatives put down, indeed would like to kill, public education because they fear it might do a good job of teaching children to think. Why do you think they supported standardized tests? Lets hear it for rote learning of the RIGHT facts. Conservatives want children indoctrinated.

    B: A great deal of what’s wrong with public education can be laid to the parents – but people don’t like to blame themselves.

  2. #2 elmlish
    September 11, 2009

    I’ve liked my daughter’s school fairly well, but this year, as she enters fourth grade, she has a much larger class than normal due to there only being one fourth grade teacher in the entire school. Most of the fourth graders are stuck in 3rd/4th grade split classes.

    I’ll be keeping an eye on her and how she does and will do what I can to help compensate for any shortcomings in what the school can give her; still a bit worried, though.

  3. #3 Anthony
    September 11, 2009

    The problem for fixing education (and health care, and many other things) is that it’s a lot easier to get agreement that something is broken and needs fixing than to get agreement on just what a fix would actually be.

  4. #4 SouthernFriedSkeptic
    September 11, 2009

    You can be sure, that similar to the healthcare debate, any bad news about our schools will be presented as evidence that public schools should be turned over to the private sector. They hold up Tenncare as an example of public healthcare gone bad, while ignoring the successful public healthcare in other nations.

    I have debated on many message boards with those who use the failings of our public schools to argue that they should be privatized. When you point out that the school systems in nations that are producing students with higher scores than American students have public school systems and so perhaps the problem is within the system rather than just simply the fact that they’re public, they stick their fingers in their ears and go seek out like-minded people to reinforce their ideology.

    I don’t know why these conservatives hate America so much and think we’re less competent at implementing public healthcare and education than other nations. Seems a bit unpatriotic to me. ;)

  5. #5 David Dobbs
    September 11, 2009

    Whatever the merits of this particular poll, I find extrremely troubling the suggestion that we can’t speak of bad news about our public schools because to do so is to feed a conservative agenda. That’s rather giving in to that agenda, no? We can’t acknowledge and address our school’s shortcomings because to do so is to invite a private takeover? Wow. That’s surrender. And it begs a de facto two-tier system in which parents truly concerned about our schools’ failings yank their kids out and send them to private schools — since to address the public schools’ failings is to promote privatization.

    We have some very real problems in our schools. They are fixable without privatizing. We should fix them. Ignoring them is insane — and will spur the gorwth of private schools anyway. Here in central Vermont alone — with some of the nation’s highest per-pupil spending and highest teacher:student ratios and smallest classes — private school enrollments are growing even as public school enrollment is dropping even faster than school-age population is (as it must, given the rise in private enrollment). Why? Because parents frustrated with the public schools’ problems feel powerless to change the problems.

    We’ve been re-arranging the deck chairs for some time now. The poll above, if accurate, merely shows that people are starting to feel the deck tilt.

    For the record, I’m not what anyone would consider a conservative, and I’m now moving my second and third kids through the local school system. For America, it’s a pretty good school system. But the math track is appalling, science is scarcely taught until 3d grade, the music and art programs are fair to awful, our reading grades are stagnant, and teacher quality is wildly uneven. Common problems. And almost completely immovable.

  6. #6 "GrrlScientist"
    September 11, 2009

    the NYC public school system is absolutely horrible. i know: i taught science to nursing students in the CUNY system, and one-third of my students couldn’t read well enough to understand the basic information presented in their textbooks.

  7. #7 SouthernFriedSkeptic
    September 11, 2009

    I wouldn’t suggest we can’t speak about problems in the school system. I am in favor of vigorously exploring the problems in our school system. We should have uninhibited discussion, unrestrained by tradition and informed by inquiry. I was just venting some frustration that I know what idealogues and pundits like to do to push their agenda. They are not interested in solving the problems, but instead want to use them to “support” their agenda. And too many in the general public (at least in deep Red State America where I live) are eager to accept the pundits’ line without any critical consideration.

    I am a product of public education. My daughter is in public schools. My mother, father, and two cousins all work in public schools, as did I. I have seen much of the good and bad. Trust me, I am very vocal about problems in public schools- but hate when specific criticims of public schools are used to criticize the entire concept of public schools.

  8. #8 SouthernFriedSkeptic
    September 11, 2009

    Oh, and I wasn’t calling you conservative. Just speaking to the far right conservatives out in the interwebs in general.

  9. #9 David Dobbs
    September 11, 2009

    Skeptic — Thanks for the note; we’re all good, and I perhaps misread your meaning, or focused too much on the dark side of the suggestion it held. And as a former resident of the South, I am certainly sympathetic to (hyper?)sensitivity to opportunistic right-wing pushback!

    Keep up the good work, and thanks for writing.

    One interesting thing, in view of this private v public tension, is that the some of the main faults of our private healthcare system and our public school system(s) are much the same: overspending for underachievement; an utter lack of effectiveness data because entrenched powers don’t want the problems identified; some of the developed world’s highest costs for some of its most mediocre results.

  10. #10 SouthernFriedSkeptic
    September 11, 2009

    And I believe that the elephant in the room is the presence of cultural and socio-economic factors which are much broader than the school system and thus are not likely to be addressed by any reform limited to the school system. But few people like to discuss those issues because it’s just too hard to find solutions to them.

  11. #11 Scott
    September 11, 2009

    My wife has been educating herself to be a teacher. From her perspective, the root problem with education doesn’t seem to be how the schools are run. The problems seem to stem from how we teach our teachers to teach. It seems that this isn’t a “conservative” conspiracy. It’s actually a “liberal” “conspiracy”. Actually, it’s liberal “woo”, more than anything else.

    Take GrrlScientist’s experience with her students and reading. The majority of schools today no longer “teach” children how to read. Instead of teaching phonics, they teach “reading appreciation”, otherwise known as “whole language” instruction. Why? Because prospective teachers are taught in college that phonics is “bad”. Never mind that phonics is the only method of reading instruction that actual scientific research has shown to be effective (as opposed to “sciency” anecdotal “case studies”). The liberal professors of education in this country apparently feel that phonics is too rigid, too structured. Children need to “enjoy” reading, and to “construct their own meaning from the symbols and pictures on the page” (this from text books on reading “theory”). They need to learn to read in the same way that experienced readers read: just scan the page looking for “clues” to meaning. In a word, bullshit.

    Take my own son’s experience in junior high with mathematics. On each homework assignment, the text book (not just the teacher, but the bloody text book) asked the student how they felt about the problem they just solved. My son was required to spend more time writing about the experience of learning math than he was asked to actually solve math problems. The important part, the teacher explained, was how he felt about learning. If he didn’t “like” learning math, he wasn’t going to advance. My son enjoyed math, but by every standardized test, my son made absolutely zero progress in 3 years of “math” “instruction” in school. Not just “did not advance in his class standing”, but “did not advance in absolute terms”. In another word, bullshit.

    In four years of taking undergraduate and graduate level classes in teaching, my wife never took a class in learning theory. Such a course wasn’t even offered. Nor were there any classes in actual course content. Not one of her classes taught teachers how to teach, nor how children learn, nor what to teach (other than not phonics), nor how to evaluate curricula. It was all about how to fill out paperwork, how write lesson plans, how to collaborate with other faculty, how to manage the classroom. Nothing about how to actually teach children. She learned more about how to teach and how people learn, while taking classes on dog training than she ever learned in her master’s-level classes in “education”.

    So don’t point all the fingers at the primary schools. Look to the “colleges” of “education”. That’s where you can start making a serious difference. Until we teach our teachers how to teach, we can’t really expect them to do well.

  12. #12 Scott
    September 11, 2009

    And don’t get me started on the master’s level in Education class my wife took. The new teachers were taught and practiced in groups how to cut out photo-copied line drawings of leaves, color them with colored pencils, and paste them into a collage. They spent literally days on this project. My wife would come home literally in tears for the sheer deadening mind-numbing neuron-killing stupidity of the class, and the utter waste of time. And the worst part? The rest of the student teachers in the class thought it was the most wonderful and enriching experience they had had in school!! This is how we are teaching our teachers!

    Yes, yes. I assume that there are better programs somewhere in the country, but this was considered one of the better teacher education programs in the state, and the only one offered in our area. I don’t care how motivated the teacher is, and most are very motivated and devoted to their students. If they aren’t given the tools, how can we expect them to shape our children?

  13. #13 David Dobbs
    September 11, 2009

    And don’t get me started on the master’s level in Education class my wife took. The new teachers were taught and practiced in groups how to cut out photo-copied line drawings of leaves, color them with colored pencils, and paste them into a collage. They spent literally days on this project. My wife would come home literally in tears for the sheer deadening mind-numbing neuron-killing stupidity of the class, and the utter waste of time. And the worst part? The rest of the student teachers in the class thought it was the most wonderful and enriching experience they had had in school!! This is how we are teaching our teachers!

    I suppose that’s the master’s degree that qualifies them for higher salary and such.

  14. #14 Dan S.
    September 11, 2009

    The majority of schools today no longer “teach” children how to read. Instead of teaching phonics, they teach “reading appreciation”, otherwise known as “whole language” instruction. Why? Because prospective teachers are taught in college that phonics is “bad”.

    To be honest, this is something like two decades out of date, at best. The phonics/whole language wars have been over for quite some time in practice (although you still get partisans yelling about it); instead we have things like balanced literacy, which aims to blend the best of both approaches. That’s what Mrs. S. learned about in college a decade ago – nothing at all about how phonics was “bad”, but rather how it was quite important; not the Only True and Pure Way, but something that plays an vital role in literacy instruction alongside other methods. And this wasn’t some exciting new thing, but something that had been standard for some time.

    Likewise, when I got my M. Ed, nothing about phonics being “bad”, but rather that it was quite important (etc . . .) Nor did we ever spend weeks cutting out and coloring leaves – which is definitely ludicrous – nor has Mrs. S., currently getting her masters’. You talk about your wife not even having the option to take courses in learning theory or course content – again, that doesn’t reflect our experience at all.

    While you could simply be trolling, that’s only one possibility, and I don’t think especially likely – quality does vary, and there really are some rather low-quality ed programs out there, as with everything; it’s not impossible that they are still repeating 1980s dogma, too. if that’s the best in your area, that’s a horrible shame – whereabouts are you?

    Now, I’m not saying that good ed programs couldn’t use improvement – I’d love to see ed degrees be made rather more rigorous (to a probably impractical degree). And there is a lot about teaching that either can’t be taught or that folks haven’t figured how to teach yet – no matter how much learning theory and content knowledge one learns in school, without a solid base of social intelligence/people skills, it’s virtually useless, esp. w/ younger kids. And no matter how good a program, the most learning is always going to happen out in the real world of the classroom (which is why I’d like to see a more apprentice/residency style thing, beyond the all-too-brief student teaching experience.) One big problem, of course, is that as long as teaching is a low-status, relatively low-paying job, there’s always going to be downward pressure on the quality of ed programs, quite reasonably (if unfortunately) reflecting real-world reality.

    (Although, of course, classroom management is an extremely important thing to learn – you can’t teach if you’re constantly trying to deal with 30 kids running around the room – writing lesson plans is both basic, important, and usually required – it’s planning out what you want the kids to learn, what you’ll do to get them to learn, and how you’ll assess what they learned – and believe me, paperwork is a major part of teaching. But in any halfway decent program, that’s only part of the story.

    But anyway – to imagine that the (extremely depressing and unfortunate) experiences you cite are the only ones, even the usual ones, is a real mistake. There are many genuine, large-scale problems . . . but “phonics is bad” just isn’t one of them. Etc.

  15. #15 Scott
    September 13, 2009

    Dear Dan S.

    Thanks for your response. No, I wasn’t trolling. I just got upset. Sorry about the rant. And no, that wasn’t ten years ago, or twenty. That was just last year. It wasn’t “weeks” on cutting out leaves, but it was a few days. And no, that wasn’t a continuing education course. That was (AFAIK) a course in a Master’s of Education program through the local public university. It’s not a large or notable college to be sure, but it’s the one in our area. (I’d rather not say where, without clearing it with my wife. It’s a small community.)

    And while phonics was not precisely labeled as “bad”, it was certainly denigrated, and relegated to something that only a reading specialist might consider to help with those students having the most difficulty with reading. It’s use was discouraged for regular class room teachers. Not only at the university, but also in the local public schools, as well. Those few using phonics are doing so on their own. (Perhaps I’m exaggerating, or selectively filtering. This is second hand emotionally charged information, but it’s what I understand of my wife’s experiences.)

    And it wasn’t just phonics. Don’t get me started on the “graduate level” class in “Education Research”, which centered on gathering ~10 samples from different web sites that supported a particular position (I don’t remember the subject matter, but it was unrelated to actual research), and writing a short paper (less than 5 pages) on how the student felt about them. This was to show the student how “Education Research” is done.

    I’m certain (I hope) there are more rigorous education programs, and I’m glad that you and your wife found such. What’s depressing is that there are teachers (any teachers) being educated in much less rigorous programs than you were fortunate enough to find.

  16. #16 stripey_cat
    October 6, 2009

    Learning to evaluate sources for truth, completeness and bias is an incredibly useful skill, and I’m amazed and impressed that they even suggested it on a teacher training programme – it was a major source of conflict between me and my school teachers that I didn’t always believe what was written down. It sounds like the actual process of teaching was a bit facile (or that your retelling misses something important), but that they’re even encouraging teachers to acknowledge the issue is stunning.