Why Public Schools are “Failing”, Pt. 2


In looking for other reasons America’s schools seem to be falling behind their European counterparts besides those darn teachers unions, I think besides the higher poverty rate in the United States one must also look to the related issue of the behavior of our teenagers, especially in two critical cases – drug use and teen pregnancy.

The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. It is a well known fact that teen mothers are more likely to drop out and score more poorly on standardized tests than their peers. This isn’t to say that teen mothers are doomed to drop out, but rather that they will not being able to achieve their full academic potential because they have far more pressures in their lives than their childless peers. And because there are far more pregnant teens in the US than in Europe, this is likely to affect our comparatively lower test scores.

Surprisingly (to me), illicit drug use is also much higher in the United States than in Europe, nearly double. Add to this our more punitive system towards drug use, and you have a lot of teens missing a lot of education either because they are using drugs or because they are suffering the legal and disciplinary consequences thereof.

Drug policy affects schools in another way – it diverts resources from teaching into drug prevention and drug punishment. Educators are asked to also become detectives, administrators have to spend a great deal of their rather expensive time dealing with drug, alcohol and tobacco violations, and the general atmosphere of the school is tainted with suspicion on the part of the faculty and resentment on the part of students. This antagonism has roots besides drug policy, but given that nearly half of American students use illicit drugs, it definitely leads to an us-vs.-them attitude, where faculty is seen as persecuting, not helping, the students.

Again, teachers unions are hardly the root of this problem. It has many sources, but the majority of them are related to larger society, and policy changes enacted through the school system are of only limited use in addressing them.

And for the purpose of fair disclosure : I work for the school district, but I am not part of any union (I don’t think?) and I definitely don’t have tenure.

About the author

The Polish Wolf


  • It was Horace Mann who said: "The spread of education, by enlarging the cultivated class or caste, will open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand; and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society."

    Now why does public education abandon his vision with it's emphasis on class and caste distinctions?

    • "Now why does public education abandon his vision with it's emphasis on class and caste distinctions?"

      It doesn't – public schools theoretically try to teach all kids at an equal level. Though local funding decisions do tend to favor kids in richer neighborhoods over everyone else.

      However, in some cases school are pressured to enforce the values of the upper classes onto their students in a way that very much suggests efforts to segregate them. Suspending students for possessing marijuana or paraphernalia, for example, doesn't seem designed to help them succeed in school as much as it is designed to keep them away from the 'good' kids.

      Bottom line – schools set out to do what Mann says. However, they do so at best imperfectly, both because they are pressured to enforce the values of the dominant class and because inequality in society also leads to inequality in the school system. Indeed, in the latter case attempts by the school to be 'class blind' often lead to problems, as the same rules are applied to kids whether their parents are doctors or meth addicts.

      • PW, I had many things in mind when I quoted Mann.

        Union teachers represent tenure and seniority vs. quality and results in many cases. They are the face of the entrenched Haves without an effective system of accountability. Reach a certain station, and one is in the club.

        I have two children that went through public schools K-12. Many a night my wife and I spent with them teaching the basics that were avoided by their teachers while they philosophized and expounded their ideological views. Maybe 10% were good teachers.

        Sure poverty is a major factor. Stigmatizing children as a group that can't succeed without special help because they come from poor economics circumstances makes them grow up as victims. People only perform to the level of expectations and accountability put before them. Help, yes! Avoid teaching and excusing lifelong dependency that separates them from achievers.

        IMHO, schools need to institute a true culture of achievement and accountability. If that can be done within a union structure, great! I gather when Denise Juneau initially bad mouthed Race to the Top she didn't think so.

        • Do you really believe that only 10% of the teachers your children had were good teachers? 10% I think if we start there, there's little room for discussion.

          I absolutely think we need more accountability and better educational practices, but to assume that only one in ten teachers does a good job suggest that no one can meet the standards you have in mind.

          • Yes the 10% is accurate. I won't bore you with the horror stories. In grade school there was one exceptional teacher from Lebanon. She knew the score and confided in us. She went off script to actually teach useful writing, arithmetic, science, and critical reading skills. That was in 6th grade. Up until then school was largely a waste. Too many group projects and a group grade that burdened the achievers with the work and sheltered the under performers from measurement. I'm glad those years are behind.

            • I'm curious. Did you do anything? Did you complain to principals or go higher?

              Frankly, I'm always surprised by the parents who feel that a teacher isn't doing a good job and who don't fight tooth and nail to have their son/daughter moved or some other action.

              I'm not assuming you didn't, but curious. Do parents feel like they can get results if they push?

            • Don, I can't seem to reply to your post so I'm using mine.

              Yes, principals and even superintendents. Usually with no results except it fell back on my kids for dad being a "snitch." I would always start with the teacher. One time this was successful after meeting with my son's 7th grade math teacher and expressing my displeasure. He actually thanked my wife and me because someone finally gave a damn. He changed his ways completely and applied himself to teaching. The usual excuse for not doing anything about a situation was that there was a contract and very little could be done at this time…

              When I was in school I would say 90% of the teachers were good to fabulous. That was before unionization. I point this out as a correlation, not causation.

  • I'm not sure that I understand your argument here.

    I think Mann is arguing that public education can overcome the pervasive impact of poverty. By making education universal, he argues, we can help lift the poor out of poverty.

    The problem is for students who lack the means to make the most of that opportunity. Hungry students don't learn as well.

  • I think my big question is how do we find and eliminate ineffective instructors? I don't have a ton of faith in standardized testing–at least not the low-level tests we're giving now. And do administrators have the time to spend in classrooms?

    I don't disagree that bad teachers should be removed, but how do we do it?

    • In my humble opinion, teachers need respect and authority commensurate with accountability. Give them control of their classrooms again. Let them give out “real” grades. Don’t let teachers go bad, just make them better with real classroom power.

  • Fun fact: this union thug took his classes to watch Waiting for Superman for their education unit. I thought it had some powerful moments, but it also certainly manipulated data. KIPP is hardly the panacea it's depicted as in the film, for one thing.

    I think that, like many critiques of education, it did a pretty job of pointing out problems in the current system without really identifying solutions.

  • One of the problems Pogie, is the attitude of teachers – like you.

    In the other post, when confronted with the fact that only 32% of 8th Grade Students in Wisconsin are proficient at reading, you are unwilling to assess any blame to the teachers – the ones who are most directly responsible for classroom studies.

    • Eric – That's not a fact we are 'confronted' with. We know it. But for that fact to mean anything, you have to prove two things. One, that our teachers are in fact worse than those in other countries. Two, that unions are to blame.

      Now, You can't prove the first one, or at least you haven't tried yet. As I have shown in the last two posts, the conditions in Europe and the United States are very different, so merely comparing who has better results isn't anywhere near accurate.

      But even if you did prove the first – and my argument is strong enough to give you a freebie – you must prove that the cause is unions. Now, considering that we have already shown that unions are generally stronger in Europe (the very region that has higher test scores and more proficient readers) than they are in the US, thus suggesting that if there is ANY correlation, it is that unions produce better results.

      Now, I will admit that if you continue to hold to your previous belief without any evidence, and if you went to public school, then you have proved to me that public schools have failed egregiously at instructing students in the basics of critical thinking and rational argument.

  • Eric, you're like an annoying record on a loop. You doggedly hang on to the one idea that enters your brain and keep repeating it like hearing it again makes it more clever.

    I absolutely conceded in that post that districts should get rid of ineffective teachers. The question I raised is how do we do it fairly? I haven't seen good systems to measure teacher efficacy. I also question whether or not there are tens of thousands of people who want teaching jobs, especially when they would have to put up with people like you.

    Finally, my record as a teacher speaks for itself. I even have statistics and everything. :)I don't need to defend it to you.

  • When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service? Bless you!

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