Educational Improvement Requires Unbiased and Responsible Discourse, Part One

Today’s my 31st birthday, so I am taking a little “me time” to blog about education. My plan is to write a three-post series: one asking whether we are in an education crisis; one exploring selection bias, attrition, scale, and other important dynamics in understanding education and education metrics; and one which explains why our educational discourse is broken, why fixing it requires a move from a dialogue dominated by theory and conjecture to one favoring empiricism, and how bad politics and distortions are impacting the debate.

The proximate cause of this series is just one bad post on educational policy in a discourse that is full of them. Megan McArdle is away on assignment and has left her blog to guest bloggers. Yesterday, a guest blogger posting under the pseudonym “Dr. Manhattan” uncorked an argument for Mitt Romney’s education policy, concerning special education and private school vouchers. I would nominate it as a model of how not to responsibly write about education. The post is almost entirely without evidence. “Dr. Manhattan” makes claim after claim that he apparently feels no obligation to defend with data. The piece happens to be published by a highly-read, highly-influential magazine, The Atlantic. My frustration stems from how perfectly typical the post is of a fundamentally broken discourse on education. So here goes an attempt to speak empirically and carefully.

Are We in an Education Crisis?

Let’s take a basic claim from Dr. Manhattan, one that will be quite familiar to you: “Shockingly, many school systems are not well functioning.” Now, where I come from, to say something like this would require defining what “many” and “not well functioning” means, and then reference to responsibly generated data that demonstrates the accuracy of that claim given those definitions. Manhattan provides neither definitions nor data. This is one of the most important and most distorting elements of American educational debate: the widespread notion that we are in an educational crisis, the idea that “everyone knows” American public schools are failing most of our students. In fact, the best evidence is that American public education is adequate, with most districts providing quality education and national metrics dragged down by terribly low-performing schools and districts in poverty-stricken areas. Let’s look at some of that evidence. To begin, I quote William Ghalston from almost a decade ago, expressing what is to me still the most sensible way to understand American education: as a function of the two Americas, a country split by class and race divisions that are bound up in historical oppression.

Where are we today: is the US system of public education as a whole in crisis? The answer to that question, I believe, is no. Today it would be more accurate to say that we have two systems of public education, not one. The first of them is based principally, though not entirely, in the suburbs of this country and [in] some of the wealthier urban jurisdictions and districts. That is a public school system that could be better and should be better. In many respects it is mediocre, particularly when compared to our international peers in the advanced industrial nations. But it is not failing its students.

The second system of public education, which is based principally in poorer urban and rural areas, is indeed in crisis. Too many of the students in those schools are dropping out well before high school graduation. Too many are receiving high school diplomas that do not certify academic confidence in basic subjects. Too many are being left unprepared for the world of work. Too many are being left unprepared to go on to higher education and advanced technical training. Those schools are indeed in crisis and they require emergency treatment

Not great, but not bad, and largely a product of existing social inequalities. Now, you might be tempted to say that Ghalston was speaking quite a while ago, in 2000, and the situation has gotten worse. In fact, the situation has gotten better. The latest NAEP report on mathematics is available as a PDF. Here’s NAEP mathematics scores over time, for fourth and eighth graders.

But reading’s gotten worse, right? No.


Gains have been modest, but they have been measured. As with mathematics, they show large racial achievement gaps, as can be observed in the full report. Using the imperfect proxy of eligibility for school lunch assistance as a measure of socioeconomic class, they also show large achievement gaps between rich and poor. Why is reading improvement slow? It’s a complicated question and one I’m not ready to advanced a strong thesis on. One plausible explanation is that the country’s influx of non-native English speaking students, housed in large proportions in public schools, likely depresses reading scores. According to the NCES in 2010, “Between 1979 and 2008, the number of school-age children who spoke a language other than English at home increased from 3.8 to 10.9 million, or from 9 to 21 percent of the population of children ages 5–17.”

How about graduation rates? They’re bad and getting worse, right? No. High school graduation rates have improved recently, and in fact show long, slow improvement over the decades. As with other educational metrics, graduation rates are stratified by race and by social class, demonstrating the profoundly confounding influence of disadvantage and historical oppression.


Clearly, getting a high school education is very important. That’s why one of the most important (albeit underdiscussed) positive stories in education of the last several decades is the rise in students achieving a high school diploma or its equivalent outside of the high school system, particularly among black and Hispanic students:

How about access to college education and educational attainment? Again: in need of improvement, broadly stratified by race and social class, and gradually improving:


But we aren’t graduating enough students in STEM majors, leading to structural unemployment, right? No. As Paul Krugman and Ben Bernanke have convincingly argued, unemployment has risen across sectors of the economy, in depression conditions, and reflect a failure of aggregate demand. Additionally, this paper from Rutgers and this testimony (hat tip David Sirota) demonstrates that the idea of inadequate supply of STEM majors is a myth. Broad unemployment does not reflect educational failure but a failure of macroeconomic fiscal and monetary policy.

We Were Never the Best in Education

A persistent myth which contributes to the perception that we have an education crisis in this country is the notion that we were once an educational powerhouse and have since stumbled into failure. There is simply no credible evidence that we were ever the best performing nation in education, or even among the best. As I said on this blog recently:

That we were once number one in education is a beloved opinion of education “reformers” and those like Brooks who yearn for a prelapsarian age when we all pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. The problem is that there isn’t any evidence that it’s true. As a very useful Brookings Institute report from 2010 shows (h/t Liz Dwyer), we weren’t ever number one. Dwyer looks at the example of math: in 1964, back when our economy was go-go, the space race was swinging, we hadn’t yet been chased out of Saigon, and the world looked a lot more like David Brooks wants it to look, American students ranked 11th in math. Out of 12.

Long, Slow Improvement is What You Want in Education

Among education researchers, you sometimes hear that the only outcome worse than numbers that are too bad is numbers that are too good. In my own research, I know to distrust any outcome that seems to good. Why? Because time and time again, major improvements are revealed to be the products of bad research, flawed metrics, or fraud. Holly Yettick described a perfectly common situation with a “miracle school district”:

If I am a little more skeptical these days of educational miracles, it might be because I have been around long enough to witness personally the disappearance of some of the most lauded wonders of my reporting days.  All of them follow a pattern. High poverty rates.  Amazing results. Pat explanations, short enough to fit on a political button…. in her 2009 book, “Changing the Odds for Children at Risk,” Susan Neuman writes of returning two years later to a miracle school she had visited early in her term as Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education under George W. Bush:  “After the original media attention had turned to other matters and the specialists and scholars had moved on to other projects, the school once again slid back into the murk of poverty’s inertia.”

On planet Earth, gains in education are slow and gradual. Slow and gradual change, unfortunately, is not well-suited to political bombast. In context, I would argue that our educational metrics demonstrate what you want to see: slow but real change over time.

Still, some will rush to point out that public schools still are outperformed by private schools on many conventional metrics. Why? To understand that, you’ve got to understand selection bias, ability effects, attrition, and scaling, and that will be the subject of the second post in this series.

54 replies
  1. 1
    Linnaeus says:

    Good post, and I’m particularly glad to see you critiquing the “crisis” rhetoric that is so pervasive these days in discussions about education in the United States. Which is not to say that there aren’t very serious problems in some public school districts. But this generalized notion of “crisis” is particularly handy for undermining public education as a public institution.

  2. 2
    burnspbesq says:

    “Unbiased and responsible” is code for “shut up you ignoramuses, I’ll tell you what’s good for you.”

    Whatever it is you’re selling, I’m capable of making my own buying decisions, thank you very much.

  3. 3
    Joey Maloney says:

    Excellent. I have a bridge made out of stock in a charter school corporation that’s just come on the market.

    Happy birthday, Mr. deB.

  4. 4
    jl says:

    Thanks for the post with such good data and links.

    It was before my time, but wasn’t there a big announcement of a US educational crisis after the successful Soviet Sputnik launch? Which resulted in a big increase in private and public support for STEM education?

    The mediocre performance of the US in 1964 was after Sputnik, so even in the perfect 1950s, I guess there was a crisis too.

    I followed some links in the post to the Brookings report, but did not find much about education back to the Sputnik era and before.

    I am very cynical about the educational crisis campaign, and view it as one of the next frontiers of crony capitalist rip offs: replacing public education with for profit scams.

    In the Brookings report I found at the end of one of the links, the only European country that is in the top ten in all three areas is Finland, which used to have a mediocre system. The Finland reform has to be viewed as very successful, and we should learn from it. But Finland’s approach disproves that the uncreative, narrow, crabbed, stingy and overly competitive (but very acceptable to conservative ideology) US approach just might not be the best way to go.

    But the Finland approach is not friendly to crony capitalism and $$ scams, so I don’t think there is a chance that we will look at it seriously.

    Edit: and I am not going to prejudge what this poster may or may not be selling before see the next installment.

  5. 5
    Bostondreams says:

    As someone who has taught the history of education and been frustrated with the current myths, I look forward to this.

  6. 6
    middlewest says:

    “Dr. Manhattan” was the naked blue guy from Watchmen who lost the ability to feel empathy for the human race when he achieved omnipotence. I think that tells you what kind of glibertarian nerdling you’re dealing with here.

  7. 7
    cyntax says:

    Very nice to see someone pushing back on the educational crisis meme with data. Also, your observation that we were never as good as we thought we were on education is a worthwhile point.

    Found this comic with much the same focus.

  8. 8
    p.a. says:

    @Bostondreams: agreed. in general, I don’t remember too many times in u.s. american history when education was not a concern, going back to colonial times.

  9. 9
    Clime Acts says:

    Freddie, thank you for this. Nice to read a front page post that is well written and sourced.

    Ignore the botitarian haters in comments. Their ire is a sign you’re on the right track.

  10. 10
    p.a. says:

    @middlewest: Dr. Manhattan Institute, perhaps?

  11. 11
    grandpa john says:

    @jl: Yeah I was just thinking, we have been in an educational crisis ever since Sputnik was launched.

  12. 12

    @grandpa john:

    Yeah I was just thinking, we have been in an educational crisis ever since Sputnik was launched the Romans insisted that we learn Latin.

    How’s that?

  13. 13
    Egg Berry says:

    Today’s my 31st birthday, so I am taking a little “me time” to blog about education.

    First, Happy Birthday. Second, that sentence does not compute.

  14. 14
    MonkeyBoy says:

    “we were once an educational powerhouse and have since stumbled into failure”

    I think this whole notion of “natural American superiority” comes from a historical and geographical accident.

    In the aftermath of WWII, the US was the only industrial country that hadn’t had a large portion of its economy physically destroyed. This led to a roaring economy where domestic industries, such as steel and cars, couldn’t help but succeed because they had no competition. However this success led to the perception that it was caused by “doing things the American way” and a complacency that finally met reality in the 1970s and 1980s.

    In the post war years, the US may have been the “best” under certain measures (e.g. standard of living) but this was the result of an accident, not because of the natural American superiority that many want to believe in and now bemoan its erosion as if it is a moral failure.

  15. 15
    J-Moe says:

    Excellent, Freddie. I’m a teacher and I’m often frustrated my the number of myths that people hold about education. They’re more like Krugman’s “zombie” lies, really . . .

  16. 16
    kerFuFFler says:

    One of the problems with the whole issue of empiricism with respect to education is that no one can seem to agree on the metrics. If you measure graduation rates then the question is how many schools are simply handing out worthless diplomas. If you test the students on basic skills then everyone complains about how that leads to “teaching to the tests”. Everything about education is so politically charged that every kind of measurement gets accused of being a tool for discriminating against someone.

  17. 17
    Jeff Fecke says:

    There is nothing wrong with education that couldn’t be fixed by addressing systemic socioeconomic inequality in our country. But that’s unpossible, so instead, we’ll blame the teachers and bust unions, because I know I want my daughter and the 59 other kids in her class taught by someone making $9.25 an hour with no benefits.

  18. 18
    NobodySpecial says:

    I find it the height of irony that Burnsie considers appeals to authority to be suspect.

    And very nice post, Mr. DeBoer. Happy Birthday.

  19. 19
    Linnaeus says:


    It was before my time, but wasn’t there a big announcement of a US educational crisis after the successful Soviet Sputnik launch?

    Yes, more or less. The main policy result of that was the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which provided funding not only for education in technical fields, but also in foreign languages, area studies, etc. A few of my professors (now retired) had their dissertations funded (although I don’t know if that was partial or full funding) by the NDEA.

  20. 20
    PeakVT says:

    Here’s a good blog post comparing PISA scores in American and foreign schools, and the poverty rates in American and foreign schools. Basically, America does fairly well educating its children considering how much more childhood poverty we have

  21. 21
    Maude says:

    After Sputnik, we had gym classes in school. With those hideous blue gym suits.

  22. 22
    John Cole says:

    Happy birthday.

  23. 23
    Sir Nose'D says:

    Wonderful post–I look forward to Parts 2 and 3.

  24. 24

    This probably belongs as a comment on Freddie’s next post, but it’s on my mind now.

    Some years ago (too long ago to even look for a link) at a school board meeting, one of the board members (!) responded to a parent who wanted to know why some of the schools in our city (Austin) were excellent and others were worthless. The parent was upset because the lines for which neighborhoods go to which schools were being redrawn and his children were going to be moved from one of the excellent schools to one of the worthless ones.

    The board member responded thusly: It’s the American way. It is good and right that some schools be good and some be bad so that parents are motivated to work hard so that they can buy a more expensive house, which will of course be in a neighborhood assigned to a good school.

    Or, as I thought as I read his remarks, if you are not rich it is because you are lazy and we will punish your children for your laziness by denying them a decent education. It’s the American way.

  25. 25
    arguingwithsignposts says:


    I think this whole notion of “natural American superiority” comes from a historical and geographical accident.

    Indeed. If you look at the 1900s, the europeans were kicking our asses in the sciences. And look at how many of the scientists who helped develop the manhattan project were here because of the nazi persecution of the Jews.

  26. 26
    Chris says:

    Having never been in the American educational system until college, I have no first-hand knowledge of it. I do remember hearing “public schools are in crisis and failing our students” from virtually everywhere and if I thought about it at all, I suppose I kind of internalized it: stupid that it never occurred to me that this might be yet another phony crisis, like “Social Security is failing!” that the right and the “establishment” has been trumpeting because it fits their dogmas and not because it’s actually true. Thanks for the article, most instructive.

  27. 27
    jl says:


    thanks for the link, very interesting.

    the childhood poverty rates in the US are so outrageously high, it is easy to forget the gulf between us and nearly every other high income developed country.

    I followed the links to this post.

    he Real Lessons of PISA
    By Diane Ravitch on December 14, 2010

    I’m not sure how reliable the information is about Shanghai, but the post says it supports rather than punishes poorly performing schools:

    ‘ Interestingly, the authorities in Shanghai boast not about their testing routines, but about their consistent and effective support for struggling teachers and schools. When a school is in trouble in Shanghai, authorities say they pair it with a high-performing school. The teachers and leaders of the strong school help those in the weak school until it improves. The authorities send whatever support is needed to help those who are struggling. In the OECD video about Shanghai, the lowest-performing school in the city is described as one where “only” 89 percent of students passed the state exams! With the help sent by the leaders of the school system, it eventually reached the target of 100 percent.

    Finland is at the other end of the educational spectrum. Its education system is modeled on American progressive ideas. It is student-centered. It has a broad (and non-directive) national curriculum. Its teachers are drawn from the top 10 percent of university graduates. They are highly educated and well prepared. Students never take a high-stakes test; their teachers make their own tests. The only test they take that counts is the one required to enter university.

    Last week, I went to a luncheon with Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish education expert. I asked him the question that every politician asks today: “If students don’t take tests, how do you hold teachers and schools accountable?” He said that there is no word in the Finnish language for “accountability.” He said, “We put well-prepared teachers in the classroom, give them maximum autonomy, and we trust them to be responsible.”

    Emphasis added.

    Part of my training is economics. I went into economics statistics because then I was officially excused from having to believe the theory as if it were a revealed religion.

    Since the Cold War ended, the US has gone ideologically mad, and spread the idea of he superiority of hard core, punishing, winner take all, competition beyond whatever areas of life where it does work to a philosopher’s stone that is the miracle cure for all problems. It is proving to be a very stupid idea, but one that is very profitable if you have enough money already. It may doom the country as a leader in anything except frustration and failure.

  28. 28
    jl says:

    And Happy Birthday the Freddie dB.

    I just noticed the congrats. You learn something new everyday.

  29. 29
    Suffern ACE says:

    You will need to post articles like this again and again. There are reasons to be concerned with the education of the young, but then there always are. But the issue isn’t a broad failure of schools and their infernal teachers.

  30. 30
    Citizen_X says:


    I find it the height of irony that Burnsie considers appeals to authority to be suspect.

    But that’s what’s so off-base about his complaint. Freddie’s post is not based on appeals to authority; it was a well argued post loaded with data, which Burns never engaged at all! It’s just bog-standard “yew think yer so smart, college boy” anti-intellectualism.

  31. 31
    Chris says:


    This. And our status as a prosperous and mostly untouched nation after WW2 is, in turn, part of the larger point that we were protected by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from any other major power that might have wanted to conquer us, and thus were spared the experiences of the European continent in the last couple hundred years. Much easier to develop a stable and working system in that context.

    But that’s not what people want to hear, they want to hear that American specialness is divinely ordained and/or specifically about us rather than a few accidents of history. So we get this bullshit about ruggedness, salt-of-the-earth, work ethics and True American Values.

  32. 32
    mattH says:

    First, hope it’s a good birthday.

    Second, and echoing jl, this explains pretty much everything. It’s Poverty not Stupid. If you want to fix the “problems” in education, you have to look at mitigating the effects of poverty.

  33. 33
    Smiling Mortician says:

    @Citizen_X: Burns’ comment was the WTF-iest of all the WTF moments I’ve had so far today, and that’s saying something.

    Freddie, happy birthday. Thanks for this post. I’m looking forward to the next installments.

    My anecdotal contribution to the dialogue: as a college writing teacher in a rural area for the past two decades, I have observed that the basic skills of incoming freshmen have gradually improved over time — notwithstanding the boilerplate bitching of my colleagues (and myself, on occasion).

  34. 34
    mattH says:

    Aw, PeakVT beat me to it. ;)

  35. 35
    Vince3 says:


    I find it amusing that all the monster assholes among the BJ commentariat exhibit implacable venemous hatred for Freddie DeBoer, and basically writhe around spitting venom in response to everything he writes. Dude gives migraines to all the right people. He’s clearly on to something. Did Swift say anything about a confederacy of trolls?

  36. 36
    Chris says:

    I think you should be wary of urging too much of a focus on empiricism in educational policy debates. You’re assuming that people are engaged in using empirical data in good faith, and that they’re capable of interpreting it intelligently. My sense is that neither point is true.

    As a parent with kids in elementary school, I have seen empirical data used primarily for two purposes. First, to shut down discussion of school practices that seem objectionable. (E.g., “We need to use elaborate behavioral reward systems that teach unquestioning obedience to authority, because data shows that it leads to a decrease in office referrals!”) Empirical studies are routinely cited as justification by people who have not scrutinized those studies in any way or even read them. But when “experts” start citing research to support their empirical claims, the average person throws up his hands, and the institution gets its way.

    Second, to divert attention away from underlying value choices. Suppose the empirical data were to show that corporal punishment leads to higher standardized test scores? Who gives a crap? I’m against it regardless of empirical data about its effects. But by focusing entirely on whether particular practices “work” (usually to raise short-term test scores, which is a bogus measure anyway), the debate is shifted away from what kind of institution we want our children to be living in, and what kind of values they are absorbing there.

    In my view, the obsessive focus on test score data has made schools into significantly more authoritarian, less humane places. But the invocation of empirical data and expert authority is enough to stop most parents from questioning educational policy decisions, even though those decisions often hinge on value judgments that parents are just as qualified as experts to make.

    More on this general subject here.

  37. 37
    Ohio Mom says:

    First off, for anyone intested in what is happening to public education, Diane Ravitch has a new blog that’s turning out to be a must-read on this subject, and as an added bonus most of her commentators are also smart and perceptive (well, there is already one resident concern troll, but isn’t there always)

    Now about this Mr. Manhattan: I too have a child on the autism spectrum so I know that finding the right school placement is critical. But I also know that not everywhere is New York City.

    Here in suburban southwest Ohio, my wonderful school district manages to do just fine by children with severe autism and without 1:1 staffing; the children should be learning to do some work by themselves and function as independently as possible! I’ll add as an aside that Mr. M. would know that if he wasn’t so stuck on ABA, and knew something about other proven teaching methods for children with autism.

    Mr. M. is making the old mistake of mistaking his personal experience for a universal one. But maybe that is a requirement of writing the Atlantic’s business and economic column

  38. 38
    Josie says:

    Two things that have been and will always be true about education are:

    1. We are attempting to educate every single child in the country, which will cause us to struggle more than countries who can pick and choose whom to educate.

    2. Schools that have involved parents who support the school’s mission in a variety of ways will do better than the others.

    What we have to figure out is how to get parents in other schools similarly involved and how the community can help with that. That will solve our educational problems. The problem is not, and never has been, the teachers.

  39. 39
    Scamp Dog says:

    @Citizen_X: To top it off, deBoer doesn’t mention any solution he wants us to buy into, he’s just telling us how crappy and evidence-free our usual debate is. He even comes in with evidence that the debate’s usual assumptions are crap. I suppose it’s possible that deBoer may try to sell us on some flaky scheme, but I wouldn’t bet a cent that Burnsie’s right about deBoer’s next posts. Or that Burnsie is right about anything, come to think of it.

  40. 40
    Peregrinus says:

    I come at this from a different viewpoint, because even though I studied a good deal of educational policy and familiarized myself with the current situation, I’ve been a private school kid all my life, and teach in a Catholic school at the moment.


    And yet, at the school where I teach, we’ve become less authoritarian and more humane – so much so that students might be tagged as problems for most of a year before even ending up on disciplinary probation.

    I think part of the problem is also how teachers are viewed, and how that view is passed down to the children. This is incredibly non-empirical, but when I go back home to San Juan and tell people I teach for a living, most say something along the lines of “good for you” or “we need more people like you teaching.” Up here, even the parents of my students sometimes give me a look of “you should be doing something else with your life.”

    If the profession of teaching is a respected one, and parents back that up at home, I think you ease discipline requirements quite a bit. A lot of my issues are with kids whose parents clearly aren’t reinforcing the idea that we should be listened to.


    This is the solution I see. But first you have to get the parents on board with the idea that they’ve gotta put time in, too – and while a lot can and are willing to, some don’t see it as their responsibility (especially given how much time kids spend at school or on school activities nowadays) or don’t have the time.

    The Jesuits talked about the dehumanization of modern life some decades ago. That’s got a huge impact on whether parents are able to help their kids.

  41. 41
    PeakVT says:

    @Ohio Mom: Pretty much all conservative economics writers make that mistake. “I’ve got time to study mutual funds, so 401Ks are a great idea!” “My job at a think tank is secure, so free trade is a great idea!” “I’ve got time to drive my kid across town to a better school, so vouchers are a great idea!” Etc.

  42. 42
    Chris says:

    @Peregrinus: I don’t think teachers are the problem at all; if anything, I think they are the primary buffer between the kids and the increasingly authoritarian educational philosophy being imposed top-down by school administrators and policymakers. But I also don’t think it’s right to blame behavior and discipline problems entirely on the disrespectfulness of children (and their parents). I think the obsessive drive to raise test scores has caused schools’ expectations of kids to become increasingly unrealistic. Yet when kids fall short of the schools’ expectations, it is always because there’s something wrong with the kids, and never with the expectations.

    As for parent involvement: if you want parents to be more involved, try giving them some more say over what goes on in the school. Right now, when I complain about specific practices that I think are making our school more authoritarian and less humane, local school officials always pass the buck to some higher state or federal authority. If you don’t like your neighborhood school’s practices, apparently you have to appeal to President Obama and the entire Congress. How empowering!

  43. 43
    Peregrinus says:


    I do agree with that, though I would add that I think schools’ expectations are becoming unrealistic in two ways. One is the way you’re suggesting, that expectations are becoming too high in terms of test-taking preparation rather than any genuine attempt at learning, but I also think expectations are becoming too low in terms of how kids should act.

    In part, this is because I’m from a different cultural background (born and raised Puerto Rican), and where I come from (or at least this used to be the case) it’s just not an expected thing that you’re going to do half of what kids can get away with in classrooms here in the States, even if you go to a public school – and I don’t say that as a slam on public schools, but rather on the idea that public school kids are inherently badly-behaved. I also think in general we were expected to mature a lot earlier and get our shit together, behavior-wise – up here the age for that seems to be moved forward. But these are non-empirical observations and based on a really small subject population.

    In part I think you’re particularly right when it comes to the fate of minority and poorer kids in the system. African-American or Latino or Native American kids get shafted when it comes to behavioral problems in all the literature I’ve read, and so far I haven’t seen any statistically-significant data pointing the other way in terms of a general trend (though some schools and districts are making huge progress here). Here I think you can trace a lot of the problem to the AD(H)D “epidemic” – while conversely a lot of minority and low-SES kids are dealing with undiagnosed, real issues with hyperactivity and attention deficit, and their behavior is seen as an issue of discipline, a lot of wealthier and Caucasian kids are diagnosed with it and it’s treated as an excuse.

    As for the parents – honestly, at this point I almost agree with that solution. Republicans want to eliminate the DOE, but I think a constitutional amendment to make education a federal responsibility would be a massive help, just because of the economy of scale involved. Local governments can and should have operational control over their schools, with the help of the community.

  44. 44
    Brachiator says:

    This is a tough and worthy topic. I look forward to seeing how it develops.

    One caution that I imagine will be dealt with is how tough it is to assemble good data and to come up with reliable comparisons. For example, one of the linked stories here has a reference to high scoring Shanghai, but notes that only 35% of Chinese students continue their education beyond high school. However, the supporting link to this claim takes you to a story about mainland China overall, not specifically Shanghai. Maybe the statistic would be the same, but you can’t be certain.

    BTW, some of the reports about frustration and dissatisfaction with elements of the Chinese system are interesting, for example one student who notes an over concentration on grammar vs communication.

    Also the reliance on after school tutoring in Shanghai and elsewhere makes it harder to tease out the effects of primary and supplemental instruction.

    The link on the relationship of PISA scores and poverty is not as clear as claimed. I wonder about the variation in results among the Scandanavian countries, where there is presumably some similarity in social and economic systems.

    That’s just a quick glance. As I said, I look forward to see how these posts and comments develop.

    Oh yeah, and happy birthday, Freddie!

  45. 45
    Ben Cisco says:

    Happy Birthday, Freddie.

    My mom and two of her sisters were teachers; this post reminded me of them talking shop. Of course, this was many moons ago; their biggest complaints involved meddling from elected officials and others that had “no damned clue about teaching kids.”

    Come to think of it, maybe not all that much has changed.

  46. 46
    Chris says:

    @Peregrinus: I’m sure we could have a whole separate comment thread about whether the ADHD epidemic is a cause or a symptom of the schools’ behavioral expectations. In any event, I don’t think cutting recess and lunch time in a never-ending quest for more “instructional minutes” and “on-task time” is a recipe for improving behavior. Neither are educational approaches that make no effort to accommodate the kids’ own interests and inclinations, or to give them any meaningful autonomy, and instead simply dictate what they must know, when they must know it, and how they must behave.

    I just don’t think you can divorce the discussion of how reasonable a school’s expectations are from the fact that the kids (and increasingly their parents) have no say over their own treatment. If I had to sit through a lot of what I see going on in the schools, I’d be acting out, too. Respect is a two-way street, isn’t it?

    I can see how there might be economies of scale in federal control of education, but I think that is outweighed by the degree to which federal control effectively removes educational policy from democratic control. Arguments for federal control always seem to be some variation on, “I like centralization of education because that way we can impose good policies on people against their will.” I don’t trust the federal government to know better than local communities on educational policy, and I think the value of uniformity is outweighed by the values of pluralism, differentiation, and responsiveness. I think this is especially true because local control is the system most likely to give a meaningful to say to the people — parents and teachers — who know the children as individuals and not just as data points, and thus is most likely to promote a humane educational environment.

    Right now I live in one of the “bluest” counties in America, but my kids’ schools might as well have been designed by George W. Bush (and arguably were). There’s the triumph of centralization.

  47. 47
    Peregrinus says:


    Yet local control is also part of the problem we have right now, from an economic standpoint. This has been the case ever since desegregation caused white flight into the suburbs – you look at the metro area I’m in (Rochester) and you have a struggling central city school district with a large population but not a lot of incoming cash, and a number of suburban districts flush with money that can afford to provide up-to-date services. The state government is cutting the budget for that district anyway, and the federal government can’t step in and unilaterally fund them. I agree that the feds aren’t as likely as local communities to treat kids as individuals, but I also think that local communities can have their priorities just as wrong.

    Quite honestly, given some of the things I’ve seen since I got up here, I also think a lot of American parents have their heads up their asses and pass that rectal-cranial inversion on to their kids. Respect is a two-way street, but right now that respect isn’t on the side of the schools, as the genesis for this post proves, and from what I’ve seen in my limited studies of ed policy, schools are incredibly defensive about their policies right now. Alleviate the burden on schools of having to struggle against “the triumph of centralization,” with shit like Race to the Top forcing schools to scramble for federal funding by implementing stupid policy, and that could change, and you might have a better opportunity for open dialogue. Part of the push for private education is disguised as delivering a more individualized service – because, fairly often, private schools are exempted from state tests or from following other rules that hem them in. Public (non-charter) schools don’t get that luxury, so it’s not surprising that they get het up about criticism of their policy, however on point it might be.

    If you want to talk about what other countries do, most of the top ones have federalized education, or at least a federalized teaching corps. Certainly France, Germany, and Finland do, and while their classroom environments can vary, kids are apparently getting educations just fine through them.

    As for the rest, this is the cultural difference we’re talking about. I was taught to keep my head down, hunker down, study, get good grades, and not make trouble, but none of that was from school. That was at home. And I went to a school with very humane methods of discipline – most of the time teachers would take you aside and talk to you privately (sometimes publicly) about what the problem was. I’m clear on the idea of positive reinforcement, private correction, and developing relationships – I try to do that with my kids as much as possible. At the same time, I continue to think that kids aren’t told enough how to behave outside of school. A lot of parents do the job, and it’s obvious. A lot don’t.

    I guess what I’m saying is that while I think we’re agreed on policy prescriptions – I think cutting recess and lunch is the most horrible idea I’ve heard of since I made it up here – there are differences in our background, and our situation in re: education, about why those changes need to take place. The issues in my classroom and with administration are more akin to somewhere like a wealthy Long Island or California district than to what you might find along the average line.

  48. 48
    Chris says:

    I agree about the funding issue: local communities should not be left to their own devices for funding. There, the state and federal governments should step in. But they should butt out when it comes to policymaking. That may sound unrealistic, but we were a lot closer to that thirty years ago than we are today.

    It seems at least equally unrealistic to wish for federal intervention, but just federal intervention that’s completely unlike the NCLB/Race-to-the-Top federal intervention that we have now.

    My own kids get less than fifteen minutes for lunch; their recess time has been cut back, and the teachers routinely withhold recess as a punishment for kids who don’t “behave.” (Can’t sit still? Then no recess for you! Brilliant.) In Chicago, more than half the elementary schools offer no recess at all. But if the kids seem more ill-behaved than they used to be, it must be because their families aren’t teaching them the proper respect. I get awfully tired of hearing that, and of the institutional lack of introspection that it embodies.

    If there has been a (relatively recent) increase in behavior problems, I think it’s much more likely the result of changes in educational practices than of changes in the nature of children and families. But even if kids’ upbringing has changed, what of it? The schools can’t control that, and those children are still the people the schools have to serve. Shouldn’t the schools focus on their own possible contribution to the problem, which they at least have some control over, rather than complain about how poorly parented their students are? And wouldn’t that focus necessarily involve some interaction/negotiation with the actual population they serve, rather than just a top-down imposition of someone else’s idea of what the “expectations” must be?

  49. 49
    mclaren says:

    Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhkay…first, a guy who pens a sentence like “Shockingly, many school systems are not well functioning” needs to go back to fifth grade so he can take remedial English all over again.

    What he probably means to say is “shockingly, many school systems are not functioning properly,” or something of that sort. “Not well functioning” is not proper English. You write that, and your fifth grade English teacher gives you a D+ and prescribes some grammar lessons.

    Second, and of far more significance, the evidence now appears to be converging that the U.S. K-12 education system is in crisis — a crisis of “teaching to the test” in which students no longer learn essential basic skills because they’re so goddamn busy taking tests that their brains have been locked down into pigeonholed 4-bubble standardized test mode and the hell with connecting the dots and gaining actual critical thinking skills from, say, an English composition course, or basic numeracy from, say, an alegbra course. To say nothing of learning deductive reasoning from a geometry course.

    Naturally, I’m “insane” and “demented” and “deluded.” This video of former Bush admin education secretary Diane Ravitch proclaiming that “No Child Left Behind has left schools with a legacy of `institutionalized fraud'” does not exist. Or, if the video does exist, it must be a fake.

    And this massive protest against standardized testing at a McGraw-Hill awards ceremony didn’t happen either.

    And, needless to say, the article “Standardized Testing: The Monster That Ate American Education” doesn’t exist either.

  50. 50
    Brachiator says:


    My own kids get less than fifteen minutes for lunch; their recess time has been cut back, and the teachers routinely withhold recess as a punishment for kids who don’t “behave.” (Can’t sit still? Then no recess for you! Brilliant.) In Chicago, more than half the elementary schools offer no recess at all.

    This is insane. How did anyone get something like this approved?


    If you want to talk about what other countries do, most of the top ones have federalized education, or at least a federalized teaching corps. Certainly France, Germany, and Finland do, and while their classroom environments can vary, kids are apparently getting educations just fine through them.

    But there is much more to this. There is a lot of similar discussion in the UK over issues of standards, testing, student problems, graduation rates, poverty, etc. France has tremendous problems in assimilating immigrants and adjusting their educational system to a diverse population. Both France and Germany have educational systems that offer a different set of educational alternatives to the social and political elites, and which may unfairly track some students into non academic paths. Federalized education, or at least a federalized teaching corps, may offer some alternative models, but you need to demonstrate more comprehensively the merits of what these countries have done.

  51. 51
    Brian says:

    The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado has just released their annual Bunkum Awards, given for the worst educational research of the year:

    Sadly, most of these papers will be used anyway to guide U.S. Educational policy by Obama, Duncan, Romney, and governors around the country. Seems to fit in nicely with the trajectory of this interesting series you are starting. I enjoyed the first installment. Keep it up!

  52. 52
    Ian McCullough says:

    My son just completed 2nd grade and as a ground level observer, it’s difficult to look at our education system holistically. He didn’t get a *bad* education, but when a teacher is being judged on the performance of every kid in the class they tend not to focus on the kids reading a few grade levels ahead. He went to a private school in kindergarten and hasn’t substantially advanced in math since entering public school. His first grade math book ended with material he had already mastered. That said, he had an outstanding first grade teacher for reading, and went from not reading to reading chapter books that year. His first grade education was overall outstanding, but TN has pretty low math expectations.
    In second grade however, he got a very Christian teacher in her last year of teaching and the class slowly got filled with more and more references to Jesus and God. This included such gems as telling my son that dinosaurs and man may have existed at the same time and that the moon orbited the Earth because, “God put it there.” I live in Nashville and Tennessee just passed a law allowing creationism in schools (;ga=107). Of course, the bill is totally not about Christianity if you ask the legislators, but the effect will be more God and Jesus in Tennessee classrooms.
    So for the six or seven people still reading, what’s the point? Well, a public school education is a mixed bag and a yearly crap shoot where your child’s education really depends on which teacher you get. My son got very little attention this year, because he’s a smart kid and a high achiever. His teacher focused on the kids who couldn’t read words like “we” and “us” and how can I really blame her? But talking to the other parents, we all had a feeling of vague dissatisfaction with our teacher this year. With a combination of kids who have serious educational deficiencies from lower-income families and a bunch of kids from middle-class families who want their kids to be given challenging work, none of the parents from my son’s class seemed very satisfied with their child’s education. This dissatisfaction gives the rhetoric of crisis traction at the experiential level making it hard to admit that really it wasn’t so bad.

  53. 53
    Peregrinus says:


    If you could guarantee that split (that is, funding from the government but no policymaking interference) I’d be up for it. I think that would still require some sort of federal responsibility for education, certainly a stronger one than the one written today.

    The other thing that worries me about federal/state/local splits is with things like the Texas textbook rewrite. When you have large markets that are actively working to damage education, there should be some type of counterbalance. I think here the solution might be closer to your ideal, since in New York neighboring school districts can have quite different logistics.

    I agree that there’s a number of ways in which schools nowadays don’t take kids’ natural behavior into account – the recess/lunch thing is a particularly obvious example. I teach at a school that has fifteen minutes for recess and thirty minutes for lunch, which makes no sense to me as the guys are in shirt-and-tie (and suitcoats, in the winter) the whole day, so not exactly playing-around attire, and digestion takes way longer than that. The result is worse for us teachers as well, I think, in terms of how they behave when they return to class.

    I don’t think kids are entirely different from how they used to be, but the last fifty years have seen an explosion in discoveries and retoolings in child development, and especially adolescent development. Thus, schools do need to adapt to deal with kids who aren’t growing up the way they used to in the 1950s, but to go beyond the very basic, you’ve also got to alleviate some of their other burdens, and I only see the opposite of that happening. Teachers and administrators get more crap dumped on them from above (so I see your point with federal policymaking) with each passing year and are still expected to meet the same responsibilities in re: their populations.


    To be honest, this is something I stupidly brought up, because my picture isn’t complete on these countries. I do understand that the UK is undergoing a similar debate to ours, but that’s the one I’m least clear on.

    The French/German tracking system, about which I know more, is a problem, but according to what I understand of the German system (which is, granted, superficial) there is real mobility between the tracks. It does require a sizable time investment, often about 2-3 years of courses, and I don’t think I’ve got a good enough picture of the consequences upon your subsequent professional life. However, contrast this with the US, where social and economic mobility is going down, and where you can end up fucked for life as early as elementary due to some of the same problems Chris is bringing up. There’s also the fact that in both countries there are stronger protections for you once you actually start working, or if you don’t end up working.

    At the same time, it’s undeniable that the immigrant population blew the whole thing wide open. I don’t know how Germany’s coping with it, but given European countries’ general sentiment towards immigration, I’d assume it’s not a very fair way. Whoever said upthread that part of the reason we’ve got this issue is that we intend to educate every child to the best of our ability nailed it – I think that’s a laudable goal and it should be met. But I don’t think it can be met strictly at the local or even state level.

  54. 54
    skonecdr says:

    The only problem with American education is that it is educating Americans. For a long time we understood that.

Comments are closed.