Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Does Public Education Dumb Down America?

At the risk of sounding like an ultra-libertarian, or fundamentalist religious person, I have to ask the question: Does public school education, as we currently see it in the United States, actually diminish the intellectual capacities and development of our nation's children?

Let me begin by laying bare my own prejudices:
1. My mother was a public school teacher.
2. From the 1930's to 1950's a job as a public school teacher, particularly in big cities, was a plum--it offered security, a middle class wage, summers off and getting teaching jobs was highly competitive. The faculty of the best public high school in our home town--Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School--was comparable to faculties at many good colleges.
3. My own schooling from K-12 was in public schools.
4. My oldest son went to the same public schools I did.

So I have a worm's eye view of public schools, with a decided bias in their favor.

Looking at studies of how well educational efforts succeed, comparing achievement in the USA vs European vs Asian school children is discouraging, from an American point of view. Of course these studies are likely flawed and may be comparing apples and oranges, but the United States consistently comes out looking like a mediocrity, despite high levels of spending. We get far less out of our spending on education than the Europeans and Asians do, if we can believe cross cultural testing.
Schooled by fish --Obadiah Youngblood

There are less scientific, but possibly no less revealing ways of assessing the educational effects of public education in different countries. One of these is listening to people interviewed on TV or radio from England or Germany or Iceland and comparing the capacity for expression, clarity of thought, and the references and allusions you hear people making.

I have learned I am not the only American to listen to these foreigners interviewed and find myself thinking: These Brits (Icelanders, Germans)  are just consistently smarter than we are. Or at least they sound that way.

Listening to the parents of Dutch, Swedish, Irish children who get parked in American schools while their parents are doing a tour of duty at the World Bank or the Embassy or some international company, you understand they are not favorably impressed by American education.  They try to say as little as possible, but if you really probe them they say it: You spend so much time accomplishing so little.
The more time our kids spend in these schools, the dumber they get.

I'm not ready to draw firm conclusions from such diverse and unsystematic sources, but I am struck by how many fewer hours Scandinavians, Brits and German kids spend in school every day and every year and I wonder whether the "crowd control" aspect of American education has somehow purloined the quality of the education we inculcate.
Look at those TV shows where kids from local high schools compete with one another as teams representing their schools and listen to the questions they get asked. At least they are fill in the blank answers, but still, the questions are narrow points of knowledge: What was the name of the man who accompanied Mallory to the top of Everest? Sure, nice if you know that, but really, what does it matter?

My son and I visited a classroom once where the teacher asked the students, who had been reading letters sent home from the commander of a Negro regiment what they had noticed about the attitude of the officer and the students answered: "He began by calling them "niggers" but after a few battles he was calling them heroes and he said he was honored to lead them.
"In my school," my son said, "They would have asked the name of the major's horse."
That is the difference between smart and stupid. No other way to describe it.

Watching kids in Iceland get out of school in the early afternoon, watching them walk home, walk to the swimming pool, the playground, where they played with other kids without parental supervision, listening to kids (who learn English early) and observing their enthusiasm for what they are learning is an experience which makes anyone think: What is their secret?

Remembering my own high school days, arriving at 9 AM leaving class at 3:30 going off to team practice until 6:30, home by 7 PM and homework until midnight. Five hours of homework which was essentially busy work. Designed to keep you busy, not to enlighten.
I particularly recall my science courses: We had the usual chemistry teacher who was just a chapter ahead of us in the text book and could answer no questions.
But we had a young graduate of the University of Maryland who was all about teaching us the newest and most sophisticated biology she had just learned in college. But her idea of rigor was piling on volume of reading to be done at home prior to class and then lecturing during class. I cannot recall anyone asking questions. We had 50 pages of reading to do every night, five days a week and 100 pages for the weekend. We got lots of knowledge, lots of volume laid on us. But quantity is not quality.
When I got to college and majored in biology, I got to understand what quality meant, and that turned out to be nothing like what I was told was the most rigorous, fantastic high school  biology course in Maryland.

In fact, the more our biology teacher piled on, the less we learned. The more guilty we felt and the more we decided the study of biology was an ordeal, not an awakening.

Of course, compared to our middle school biology courses, which consisted of memorizing long lists of species and genus, classification and descriptions, the high school biology course was a joy.

The trouble was, these teachers were themselves not very well educated. They thought memorization was learning. They thought "content" was immutable, like learning Greek, would always be with you.

In college we learned concepts, and it was like going from Latin recitations to "Blue Planet."

Maybe it's the first sign of on rushing Alzheimer's but as I watch American TV, listen to radio, I find myself saying: These people are really stupid. 

Not so much with the BBC or with foreign programs.

Some how, we are surrounded by so much stupidity, it is becoming the norm.
It cannot all be Trump's fault
Can it be he  is simply  the result, not the cause?


  1. While you have understandably focused on the academic education there is also the very important socialization which goes on in a public high school. Look at almost any private school and you will see a very homogeneous group of students. One of the best parts of a public school education is meeting lots of people who you never would have otherwise met (and may not interact with much going forward) but they are our fellow citizens. I really believe that anyone who attended a public high school would have readily recognized Trump for the self-centered, egotistical blowhard he is, almost instantly! (Even his parents knew he had real problems - the only kids in those days (I am his age) sent to military schools (except maybe in military families) were kids with real behavior/adjustment problems. Clearly his military school did NOT cure him!
    One other thing I clearly remember from public school is the course on how the government works (Civics) we had in ninth grade. I find myself wondering if they still teach it. My grandson says they do but I wonder if any of the people I see interviewed on TV at night ever had that course. It should be required!! People really seem to have forgotten how the various branches of government are supposed to interact - and the role a free press plays in education the population. Our current Dictator Whanna-Be is busy attacking the press (Fake News), the judicial branch (biased judges), and congress. Now he is even going after the FBI as biased. This is a dangerous, maladjusted individual - and we learned how to deal with these types in public high school (where their wealthy parents could not protect them except by moving them to a private military school environment).

  2. Anon,
    This is the best argument against "home schooling." The isolation can be got around to some extent by other sorts of connections and activities, but mostly these are controlled by parents, I'm led to believe, so the kids remain tightly reined. One thing about public institutions, whether the schools or the army is they wrest the kids away from the control of parents and expose them to control by a larger, often more diverse, group.

    I'm not arguing against public education so much as the place it has arrived in the USA. Having had a glimpse of school kids in Iceland, Paris (very briefly) and having read or seen TV programs, and Michael Moore's film ("Where do we invade next?") and having read Andrew Hacker's stuff on math education in our public schools I'm inclined to think it's time to rethink our goals and methods.

    Mad Dog

  3. Mad Dog and Anon,
    Once again I am in agreement with both of you. There are many public schools out there that fail to churn out the best and the brightest, regardless of what student potential originally entered the system. Talent squandered. Sometimes this is due to a lack of funding-but certainly not always.

    New ways of educating the citizenry need to be explored, as well as employing methods from the past that worked. Civics instruction, as Anon mentioned, is a fine example of the latter. It's essential students learn not only how the government works, but why knowing this is important. I also have to agree with Anon that the diversity one experiences in a public school can be invaluable...

  4. Maud and Anon,
    There is something that happens in the lifetime of an institution which causes ossification and inflexibility.
    Must be some way around it.
    Reading Patrick O'Brien and you can see the same forces in the British Navy.
    Makes one believe that given the choice between good people working in a dysfunctional system and bad people working in a functional system, the former works better than the latter.
    Mad Dog