US Public Schools — Still Terrible (after all these years)

Courtesy of Robert Paterson, who DNI informed me also attended the Boyd conference:

Spending v. Reading at American Public Schools

This blog’s first post was on the terrible state of America’s public schools. Our country, which has by far the best university’s in the world, has a broken and sick system for educating those under 18.

I’m sympathetic to No Child Left Behind, not because it a wise policy, but because it is a step in smashing a system which is far, far worse.

19 thoughts on “US Public Schools — Still Terrible (after all these years)”

  1. It is intended to smash the system – unfortunately, NCLB seems to do most of its “smashing” on the schools and districts that are by any rational measure, functioning very well while doing little to remediate schools that are, by any rational measure, total failures.

    And the best part of NCLB, getting qualified instructors into the classroom, is where the Feds are wavering the most.

  2. This is all so much HS – horse stuff.

    My children attended inner-city public schools in two of the worst school districts in the nation: Dallas and Houston ISDs.

    In our experience they attended very good schools. People are using statistics to tell gigantic lies.

  3. I second Zen's comment. The challenge NCLB has yet to overcome — but lacks the authority to achieve — is breaking the unionist strength of the teachers' lobby in allowing merit and performance to dictate rewards and opportunities.

  4. Public schools in the United States perform poorly in general, though some are much better and some are much worse.

    In other words, mean quality is low and unreliability is high.

    These are the signs of a seriously broken system.

    NCLB does the same thing to public education as the Zip code did to the postal service: take “skill” out of the equation. Before the zip code post masters needed skill to determine how letters to various states and cities should be sorted. After the zip code they merely had to follow programatic instruction

    If the government had been willing to pay post masters a higher salary and maintain and HR program to ensure they had initiative and what-not [1] Zip would not have been necessary. But the government was unwilling to sustain those things, so the Zip became vital.

    In the same way, if the local governments in the United States were willing to front the money and the HR supervision necessary to reform the public school system, NCLB and what comes next would not be necessary. But the local governments are not. So the initiatives are.

    Growing Adaptive Teachers [1] hs failed. American public schools need a six sigma solution.


  5. So you're saying great teachers are sitting on their butts because they're not getting a big enough performance bonus?

    The challenge NCLB can't overcome is what a gigantically stupid idea it was in the first place.

  6. sonofsamphm1c,

    “So you're saying great teachers are sitting on their butts because they're not getting a big enough performance bonus?”

    No, the problem is much deeper than low pay or laziness.

    The current system does not provide enough monetary or social rewards to attract enough of the teachers who are needed to make it work, and does not provide an HR system to keep and reward, monetarily or socially, those very high quality teachers who are in it.

    “The challenge NCLB can't overcome is what a gigantically stupid idea it was in the first place.”

    The NCLB and its broader agenda does not over come — it does not “take over.” It takes down.

  7. The key is complete disinvolvement of federal government in schools. The federal ham-fisted, one size and one agenda fits all approach, in addition to its politicized social experimentation with children, is the epitome of failed policy. Local control and the parental involvement control engenders is critical to success by any measure in schools. If a neighborhood wanted to band together and have all schools in their “district” adopt a Montessori-type approach to education (just as an example, not a plug), under the present top-down bureaucracy, they couldn't do it. Thus, there's no innovation, no motivation for involvement. In NOLA and in many cities, that means there is a massive rejection of public schools and a cascade effect as virtually all motivated students, parents, teachers, and administrators not-so-gradually desert the public schools for private, parochial, home-schooling, and more recently, semi-private “charter” schools. The public schools become (already are here) the absolute dregs. NCLB has done nothing to address any of the problems and worse, offers nothing but more of the same abdication of responsibility and dependency upon federally dictated policy and funding.

  8. My experience in San Diego was mixed, but it was easy to spot where the problems came from: the two-year tenure system. There were a few teachers at my High School who taught, quite literally, with Discovery Channel videos in their non-AP or honors classes. Social promotion did the rest. Tenured teachers can't be fired unless they're found to be 'absolutely incompetent' in a court of law. Ask any lawyer you know if they'd like to try and prove that one! Besides, most districts don't have the money to even dream of going to court. So, unless a bad teacher is caught red-handed abusing a student or something, they can ride the gravy to retirement. Most don't, but all have this de-motivating security blanket…
    Another consequence of this pertains to new teachers. A good friend of mine was bounced between 4 jobs in her first 4 years of teaching – once 'artificially' at the same school – so as to be denied tenure. She left the profession shortly thereafter.
    I'm sure you all can extrapolate more from both bits above. I'll end by saying that my high-school girlfriend's mom was a high school teacher. Come election time, she always voted straight down the union ticket and wouldn't even discuss issues or candidates.

  9. Explain why you think they've failed. If you say average test scores, i already know you do not what you are talking about.

    What score is a kid with an IQ of 100 supposed to get?

    If you think the kids in a low performing school are going to blossom into doctors and lawyers and such if sent to Bluenose Academy, I got a bridge I need to sell.

  10. sonofsamphm1c:

    The assumptions of your last post simply don't speak to reality or the issues–kids with 100 IQs would generally need a whole different curriculum and school experience from “average” and “above-average” kids. A central problem with public schools is that to ensure that “no child is left behind” curriculum and standards have been dumbed down to make sure those 100 IQ kids, who're lumped in with the rest, don't get left behind either. Thus, the abysmal test scores and worse practical knowledge instruction across the board. These days, practical discernment and sound judgment are deemed “discrimination” by federal bureaucrats. That frame of mind prevailed during the Johnson administration, beginning the surprisingly steep slide of what lights there were in public education into darkness. You are right in thinking that kids with 100 IQs are probably limited in what they can achieve academically, regardless of the environment, where you are wrong is in assuming that the vast majority of kids with higher IQs should have their educations limited to what the 100 IQs can handle.

  11. Isaac,

    My family contains several teachers, all of who opposed the unions where they try to cause harm.

    That said, unions make more sense in production-oriented environments for performance is easy to measure. There they can take on a vital role as an advocate, rather than an enabler.

    Perhaps public school reform may actually be in the long-term interests of unions.


    Learning behavior is essentially correlated with two variables: intelligence and practice. Intelligence is front-loaded, but over time practice matters more. What behaviors are 100 IQ students supposed to learn? Those that they we teach them.

    That said, your broader point about intelligence differences will have to dealt with in the future. Particularly as it relates to group-level diversity.

    Ay Uaxe,

    Very good points. We have the best university system in the world, which is based on diversity and choice, and we know what makes the best public education work, which is based on standardization and measurement.

    We should aim for a system where our secondary system becomes more like our tertiary system, and our primary system because more like those in other countries.

  12. I would bet I'm the only person here who had two kids succeed to a very high degree in supposedly substandard inner-city schools.

    Why? They weren't substandard. I never would have done it if they truly had been substandard. The way public schools are evaluated is rigged.

  13. It's my opinion that the schools across a district are essentially uniform in quality. Same guy running it; same guy doing the hiring; hiring the same people from the same universities. The student makeup is much more variable.

    So they rig the student bodies, create mythical star performers, and keep your superintendent job for another year.

    My kids attended schools that were measured as star performers, which was a total con job.

  14. sonofsamphm1c,

    Do you then attribute the wide variation in achievement between schools to non-scholastic factors, such as genetically-driven general intelligence?

  15. Is that a land mine? But yeah, that is what I observed. I've never studied genetics, so I'm somewhat reluctant to sign on to that. That sounds like a playground for bad people.

    Picking the kids is what it is all about. They start measuring academic gifts in preschool. Why? I would say the early bird gets the worm in a rigged worm eating contest.

    When it was the little red school house, all the kids went to the same room. The lives of gifted children were destroyed by that – haha.

  16. sonofsamphm1c,

    Effects of early educational opportunities seem to decrease with time, at least within the United States. Effects of Head Start wash out by the teens, etc.

    Empirically, it seems nearly everyone it helped by being around people smarter than they are. Thus a “one room school house” model helps slower students and deprives faster students of a good environment. A tracked school environment helps students in the upper tier but is less good for the slower students. (The current system obviously tends more toward a one room school house than a tracked environment.)

    However, there's a broader point:

    “[Genetics] sounds like a playground for bad people.”

    Merely it's the recognition that the apparent influence from early childhood environment has very little to do with early childhood environment, and a lot to do with one's genetic make-up.

    Regardless, there is a broader point: if you try to make apple juice with an orange peeler, and get a mess instead, it's no use saying “It's a perfectly good orange peeler! It worked on oranges just this morning!”

    In the same way, if you try to defend an educational system that does not work for too many children by saying “It's a perfectly good educational system! It works for some children!” you abandon the actual goal of creating a world-class work-force.

  17. It comes as zero surprise to me that if you fill a school with academic performers, you get high average test scores. It's pretty tough to F that up.

    And if you've witnessed it in person, you know what a catastrophe it is for a great many of those kids. It is a horrible academic environment that is justified by the test scores. There is a lot of downside to that system. It's really an abnormal environment.

    As for one-room schools, I know of few detrimental effects. I think that is largely a myth. You go through a list of the most accomplished Americans, and you will find a bunch of them were educated in the one-room school or its modern manifestation – the schools I attended in South Dakota – where just about every kid in town went to the same school.

    Many parents have this silly notion their gifted kids are being held back by the stupid kids. Guess what, I can introduce their gifted brat to some other gifted brat who is being held back by your gifted brat. How do them apples feel? It's like, keep your ignorant 96th percentile stump away from my 99th percentile darlin' you vile scum.

    it's all very silly.

  18. “It comes as zero surprise to me that if you fill a school with academic performers, you get high average test scores. It's pretty tough to F that up”

    Indeed. Whether our high performers are as skilled as their high performers, though is more questionable.

    “It is a horrible academic environment that is justified by the test scores.”

    It's one with much less skill and initiative required. When less are forthcoming, though, it's better than the alternative.

    That said, is it “the mission of the schools will be to indoctrinate the students into being model citizens who share the same values as the school officials and the job of parents will be to teach the subject matter abandoned by the teachers as being too difficult, and irrelevant for our times” [1]?

    “Guess what, I can introduce their gifted brat to some other gifted brat who is being held back by your gifted brat. How do them apples feel?”

    Indeed. It's uncomfortable, to say the least, to have a portion of American social policy so clearly treat individuals as wards/productive-tools of the state.

    Perhaps we should try to get them out of that system as quickly as possible? [2]

    PS: Still not clear what your opposition to education reform is. As I read your comments, you seem to be saying “The current system works OK for some students some of the time.”


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