Are Teachers to Blame for Our Failing Education System?

I homeschool, so I obviously believe that our public education system isn't working. I live in a predominantly middle class area, just two miles from a pretty mediocre school. Involved parents who read to their kids and help with homework complain that their children don't learn much at school. Others are paying for learning centers like Sylvan or Kumon because their children are struggling with reading and math. Many parents have pulled their kids out of "good" schools to homeschool because they were unchallenged. I recently talked to a teacher who left public school teaching to work with homeschoolers through a charter school. She said that all the homeschool kids are years ahead of the public school kids she taught.

The Problem With Education

A University of Virginia study found that teaching quality is inadequate in most first grade classrooms. According to the researchers:

Teachers who worked to both create a positive social climate and strong instructional support — 23 percent of classrooms — were given the score of "high overall quality." Twenty-eight percent of classrooms had teachers scoring just below the mean and were thus deemed "mediocre." Seventeen percent of the classrooms were "low overall quality." The largest category in the sample, accounting for 31 percent of the classrooms, was labeled "positive emotional climate, low academic demand.

America is one of the biggest spenders in the world on education but has very poor outcomes on international tests like PISA. Other studies have been done that have compared American students to similar students in other countries. Our students fare very poorly. In the 20/20 show Stupid in America, a test was given to students in Belgium and students at a "good" school in New Jersey. The average Belgian score was 76%. The average for the American students was only 47 percent.

Japanese high school graduates leave school with 3 to 4 years more schooling than their American counterparts. Most Japanese high school graduates have studied Chemistry, Physics and Calculus in high school. Most American students avoid these courses. According to the National Academy of Sciences:

Fewer than 15% of US high-school graduates have sufficient mathematics and science credentials to even begin pursuing an engineering degree.

In a 2005 test of science understanding administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32% of US fourth-grade students performed below the “basic” achievement cutoff level (the lowest of three levels defined for the test). Among 8th-graders, the share increased to 41%. By the 12th grade, the fraction of underachievers had grown to 46%. In mathematics, the same test revealed that fewer than one-fourth of high-school seniors perform at or above their grade level.

Bill Gates said:

When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I’m terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.

American students perform poorly when compared to students in other countries

Is It the Teachers Fault?

I think blaming teachers is extremely unfair. They are part of a bureaucracy with no real control over what to teach and how to teach. Teachers don't control curricula, standards or testing. They have to make do with whatever materials, worksheets and curricula they are given, even if they believe that they are ineffective. They have to prepare students for tests that often don't effectively test student ability. The belief that teachers are responsible for educational failure has lead to ideas like merit pay and compensation based on student performance.

I read an article about math teaching a few years back and one teacher's comment really stood out. The teacher said that the way he's required to teach math, it's almost impossible for students to learn. A second grade teacher called into a radio show I was listening to and said that because of state standards she wasn't able to spend enough time introducing fractions. As a result, she said many students went into third grade without adequate preparation to learn more advanced material. The teacher knew her students were going into the next grade unprepared to learn but her hands were tied in dealing with it. Teachers are often ineffective because they are forced to work with ineffective curricula, textbooks and worksheets, not because they lack teaching ability or knowledge.

The Importance of Culture

Teachers have no control over the culture they teach in. America doesn't have a culture that places a lot of value on education and learning. A study that compared the Calculus performance of top American students and top Japanese students concluded that:

Perhaps the largest difference between the two groups lies in the different high school cultures. Japanese students work hard to prepare for the university entrance examinations and are generally discouraged from holding part-time jobs. In contrast, students in the United States often hold part-time jobs in high school, and many are involved in such extracurricular activities as sports or clubs.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese students demonstrated stronger knowledge in both Calculus and Algebra. Asian students in America typically outperform other students because they are raised with a strong value for education and learning.

Exit Exams and College Entrance Exams

This brings up another big problem with education in America. We don't have any challenging high school exit or university entrance exams, which are common in other countries. These exams often determine whether a student will make it to university and can exclude them from certain majors if they don't earn enough points. These exams create a strong external motivation to learn. The SATs may prevent a student from attending a particular university but not from attending university altogether. Plus, the SATs are relatively easy and aren't based directly on the high school curricula covering numerous subject areas.

Almost anyone in the US can get into some university. Many public universities accept 75% to 90% of applicants. So, there's no strong external motivator that forces students to work hard at school or take difficult courses. In an article I read a while back, a high school teacher complained that students have no incentive to work hard in school. He said many students have no ambition beyond attending the local university and have no interest in putting in any effort or taking challenging courses (the very courses that are in high demand in a globalized economy).

The situation is often no better when you look at high income schools. Those students typically are ambitious and are aiming to enter ivy league and other highly selective schools. However, teachers in many of these schools complain that they come under a lot of pressure to inflate grades. Ambitious parents and students don't want future prospects derailed by a low grade. Again, the lack of challenging high school exit or university entrance exams takes away the incentive for students to devote themselves more to education.

Bad Teachers

This is not to say that there are no bad teachers or teachers with low expectations for their students. There are definitely bad teachers in America's schools. There are also great teachers and others that run the spectrum in between. In many other countries, teaching is a desirable profession to enter. So, most teachers were high performing students themselves. In America, it's far easier to enter teaching, which has created a huge variance in teacher quality that doesn't exist in many other countries. Teacher quality is probably the most important factor in student success. Yet most American students will encounter several mediocre to poor teachers in their time in school. It's very hard for the many good teachers to undo the damage that results.

Another big problem is out of field teaching, where teachers are asked to teach subjects outside their area of expertise. The problem here is not the teachers. It's the fact that there's a shortage of teachers in some subjects, such as math and the sciences.

According to the most recently available data, 69% of US fifth- through eighth-grade students are being taught mathematics by teachers who do not possess a degree or certificate in mathematics. Fully 93% of students in those grades are being taught physical sciences by teachers with no degree or certificate in the physical sciences. Even in high school, the corresponding likelihoods are 31% for mathematics, 61% for chemistry, and 67% for physics. (In contrast, 81% of the physical-education teachers in grades 5-8 and 9-12 have degrees in physical education.) Many entire school districts do not have a single teacher with an academic degree in mathematics or science.

Another problem is the lack of a good evaluation system for teachers. A lot of teachers who aren't doing a good job may really care about their students. Without an effective evaluation system, teachers really have no way of knowing whether they're effective or not. About half of all teachers leave teaching within five years. As a result, there are a lot of inexperienced teachers in classrooms.

Some Causes of America's Education Problems

America's education woes are caused by inconsistent teacher quality, bad curricula, bad textbooks, and bad teaching methods and ideas. They are caused by the lack of an incentive system that rewards students who work hard and take difficult classes. They are caused by disinterested learners. They are caused by an inability to attract and keep America's best and brightest in the teaching profession. They are caused by high turnover in teaching. The list goes on. Blaming the teachers simply isn't going to reform America's education system when many of them are trying to do the best they can within a seriously broken system.


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