Our failing schools

It isn’t possible to list and discuss every single problem public schools in America face today. It would probably even be unwieldy to discuss just a small percentage. But there are some big issues that need to be tackled.

Researchers found that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straightforwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology. At the other extreme, 13 percent explicitly advocate creationism, and spend at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.

This presents an obvious issue: teachers aren’t telling students a fundamental truth about the world. That’s more than a shame and we need to correct it. First, fire every single biology teacher that professes creationism to students. Second, give the teachers that are too timid or ill-prepared on the topic better tools. (I don’t know why a biology teacher should be ill-prepared to teach something so basic to an entire field, but here we are.) There are plenty of computer programs, textbooks, popular books, videos, documentaries, etc out there that can bring evolution to life for students.

But there is a deeper issue here. We have national standards for education that just aren’t being implemented. Sometimes it’s because the standard is only recommended, other times it’s because of bad teachers, and still other times it’s because of conflicting local standards. I know how popular it is to claim that local governments should be putting forth their own ideas on education, but it isn’t that black and white. There are necessary levels students need to be obtaining in order to be prepared for higher education. When local governments are given too much power, we often see lower standards.

That’s no good.

There is an expectation on the higher education level that students often are not meeting. This either slows down introductory courses or forces students to take sub-100 level classes in order to catch up. It’s a waste of money and time. Part of the solution has to be better implementation of national standards. This is what colleges and universities across the country need. It is at that level that the tempo is being set; we need to force our primary and secondary schools to meet that challenge.

And if anyone wants local control, by all means, draft proposals that require students to exceed far beyond anything our national standards might demand.

The original study can be found here. Thanks to Nancy H for the links.

29 Responses

  1. Here comes the “too much big government in our lives” complaints, in 3…..2…..1….

  2. “First, fire every single biology teacher that professes creationism to students. Second, give the teachers that are too timid or ill-prepared on the topic better tools.”

    Wouldn’t it be easier to also fire “the teachers that are too timid or ill-prepared on the topic”?

    It’s not fair to high school students to be stuck with a teacher who should have never been allowed to graduate from high school.

  3. When local governments are given too much power, we often see lower standards.

    Is this a subjective hunch or have you seen some studies/reports to support it? As a rule, I tend to think that the more things can be done locally (and the more locally the better), the more appropriate for the area and better the education (social support, environmental rules, or other arena) can be.

    There are always exceptions and that is why we need a federal gov’t to make sure local rights aren’t being trampled/obligations aren’t being ignored, but I tend to support local solutions as much as possible.

    My degree is in education and taught very briefly (turns out it wasn’t my strength – largely because of all the governmental paperwork I had to comply with – and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just that it was a reason I had to get out of education). I have not seen any studies or research to bear out the claim that giving local entities results in worse education.

    Just curious.

  4. I love your last paragraph – being able to opt out of a federal mandate if you can show an alternative technique that’s more effective should be common to law. You would really benefit from Bruce Yandle’s Bootlegger and Baptist theory – that legislation is pushed by people who think its the right thing to do AND people who will profit from it, there’s a great episode of Econtalk about it.

    As for firing creationist teachers – I’d love to too, but the teachers union would never allow it.

  5. As far as I know the federal government doesn’t have any implicit authority to require all public schools to teach ___________.

    Probably they could make it a requirement for receiving federal education money, the same way they get us with the drinking age.

    And just out of curiosity why would you assume a bunch of use bureaucrats at the federal level could create a better curriculum than state or local useless bureaucrats?

  6. useless*

  7. Human Ape,

    Wouldn’t it be easier to also fire “the teachers that are too timid or ill-prepared on the topic”?

    Maybe, but they may be well qualified in teaching biology excluding evolution. I would rather work with those teachers. But the ones teaching creationism? That’s illegal and blatantly false. Kick ’em out.

    Dan,

    Is this a subjective hunch or have you seen some studies/reports to support it?

    There has been a steady move towards more and more local control, especially since the end of the Cold War. We’ve lowered standards which in turn has forced colleges and universities to accept, even expect, less from students.

    I’m all for local control when that gives results. The standards we see with private schools tends to be higher than public schools, and that’s an example of a more exacting control. So it isn’t that federal standards or recommendations are necessarily great. It’s that the local level just hasn’t been working.

  8. Having been in education and having studied it, I tend to think that we have societal factors that weigh more in school performance as much as anything.

    Studies show that the number one predictor of academic success is parental support for education. That can mean any home – wealthy with advantages or poor and uneducated – can produce academic achievers IF the parents support that goal.

    Our problem then, it seems to me and what the studies show that I’ve read, is that we have family stressors that make parental support for academic success difficult.

    Two parent homes where both parents work (and I’m not knocking that, it’s what we do in our home) limit the time and energy that families have for supporting school. ONE parent homes – and especially those with limited extended family support, or where the parent is busy working simply trying to survive – have an even tougher time being supportive of school.

    We devalue our schools and our educators, overload our parents, teachers and students, place too much emphasis on pleasure-seeking and frivolity and then our schools don’t do as well, that should not come as a surprise, if we think about it.

  9. I think we place too much reliance on cash flow for improving schools. If throwing money at them could fix their issues, everything would have been fixed long ago.

    I think I read someplace recently that America is right up near the top of the list on per student spending.

    Looks how much that’s helped.

  10. Back in the “golden days” (sarcasm) of education in the 1950s and 1960s, we weren’t trying to educate everyone. in the 1950s, only some 50% of children graduated from high school. Predictably, those students who stayed in school were likely from homes where they valued education.

    Other children who dropped out could go on to find factory, farm and trade labor and it worked out relatively okay.

    Now we’re trying to educate 100% of our students and that is a different animal than merely educating 50%. It will require more extensive work (read “programs,” “support,” and “money”) than we had in years past to compensate for those homes where parents can’t/won’t support their children to academic success.

    That’s what the studies I’ve read suggest to me.

    Where federal guidelines/programs can support that, I am okay with it. But as a rule, I prefer local answers.

    The point of your post here seems to be mainly geared towards expecting science teachers to teach science, not philosophy (“creationism”). I’m fine with that, too. Ideally, though, that ought to come from the local level. Federal mandates to stop teaching creationism (for example) will likely only meet stubborn rejection. I’d be wary of pushing federal solutions too hard or too much.

  11. Massachusetts schools are at the top of the list of US states and are ranked very high world wide. This is because they have high standards and enforce them. Students are tested against the standards and teachers are accountable.

  12. Well I guess the world needs ditch diggers too.

    The school Michael and I graduated from has a 40%+ drop out rate.

    At least we’ll never be short on ditches.

  13. My local (Massachusetts) school district had a grades 9-12 dropout rate of 1% in 2008.

    The local high school in the city I am currently located in Florida has a dropout rate of : 4.3%

  14. Nate…

    If throwing money at them could fix their issues, everything would have been fixed long ago.

    Oh, money can definitely help. Research tends to show this, as long as you’re not relying solely upon the Heritage Foundation as “research.”

    Smaller class size helps improve academic performance. Ideally, below 15-20 students per class, at least in elementary school.

    source

    The average US class size is ~24 students in grade school.

    Just common sense tells us that a bigger class will have more behavior problems, more potential interruptions, less teacher time per student.

    And how do we get smaller classes? Money.

    Money CAN help.

    No one is advocating “throwing money” at education randomly, but supporting programs (that cost money oft-times) that research shows helps education can, you know, help.

  15. I guess the world needs ditch diggers too.

    But not ~30% of the population’s worth of ditch diggers.

  16. Well Dan, that’s not entirely true.

    No one is just trowing money at the schools, that’s correct. Than again we are already spending more than almost every other developed nation on the planet.

    My point was money isn’t the solution. More education funding won’t solve ANY problems if it isn’t spent properly and given that we spend so much more than almost everyone else and we still somehow manage to “suck”…

    I don’t have much hope for increasing funding.

    We need to look at how and what the precious education dollars are going to, not just how many there are.

  17. I know, it was a tongue-in-cheek kind of comment.

  18. Yes, we need to look at how any of our dollars are being spent and spend them wisely, using research-based, borne-out-by-success solutions, which may vary from place to place and community to community, even family to family.

  19. There’s your problem. Where does all the money go? private schools, on the whole, spend less per student, with far better results.

    Clearly having to run the school like a business makes a difference.

    You can see that in the publicly funded, privately run charter schools. Less per student and better results.

    Very odd indeed. There might be something to this.

  20. private schools, on the whole, spend less per student, with far better results.

    Apples and oranges. Show me some research-based support that shows evidence that private schools (ones that turn no one away and are a mix of people from all social strata does as well as public schools – ie, compare apples to apples) and we can talk, based on studies and research.

    That would be my bottom line on education. Rational, research based.

  21. You can see that in the publicly funded, privately run charter schools. Less per student and better results.

    Do you have data for this? I have heard the opposite, that charter schools make no difference.

  22. And so, show me research that supports the conclusion…

    having to run the school like a business makes a difference.

    If research supports that approach as one solution, I’m willing to listen to that research.

  23. Well to respond to all of that at once:

    Dan… Not all private schools do, you are quite right to say that. I would look at the thousands of parochial schools for the best comparison, they usually have as low a tuition as you’ll see and accept a large variety of students. I don’t know of any that do much looking at academic records before acceptance, at least in my area.

    Bob… I’m looking at California. To qualify for the public money they have to meet certain goals or else they lose their funding. They seem to receive less money per student as well. Even if they make no difference, the fact that they MUST meet standards is an improvement over the typical public school, and for less money. That would seem like a net improvement. I’ll do some digging and see if I can find some more data on that one.

    Dan again… By having to run a school like a business I don’t mean make a profit like a business, although that could be an important incentive for excellence. Competition between schools for students and funds certainly would do something to separate the chaff from the wheat, as far as methods and structure.

  24. Michael can attest to the anecdotal evidence of the parochial school he attended and the performance of the resulting students.

  25. Well, I am a product of public schools, as are my children (and my parents and most of my friends). I can give gobs of anecdotal evidence in support of public school.

    And anecdotal evidence has its place. But, I place more weight on research-based and proven evidence.

  26. So the California case has to do with standards and NOT related to charter schools. I made that case here 2 hours ago about Massachusetts schools.

  27. By having to run a school like a business I don’t mean make a profit like a business, although that could be an important incentive for excellence. Competition between schools for students and funds certainly would do something to separate the chaff from the wheat, as far as methods and structure.

    Money may be one motivator for improved schools. Thus, paying teachers more might be one reasonable approach to improving schools. If you’re allowing that more money is an incentive to do well, then that would apply to public school teachers, as well, yes?

    But most teachers that I had the privilege to work with were/are fairly self-motivated. They want to see children succeed, to read, to understand how math and science matter, to see history come to life in the eyes of their children. They just need the resources and support to do this. And that support often comes at a cost.

    One problem we have in education is that children are not cars. There isn’t ONE TRUE AND RIGHT way to educate all children. They’re each unique, each have different learning styles and motivators. Which is one reason why I am wary of top-down solutions from people who aren’t close to the locale/students.

    As much as we might want to think of it as science, teaching is as much art as it is science. Or so it seems to me.

  28. I wish I had more time for this, but I’m a bit hamstrung with things to do right now and not enough time in which to do them…

    I’m afraid, that although I know what I’m looking for, since I’ve seen it before, my google-fu is not strong.

    I couldn’t agree more with your last line, Dan. In fact I would say it’s more art. That likely why we have so many problems figuring out how to address problems with it.

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