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Thursday, January 19, 2006
The Snipet has argued much with leftist friends who adore our failed American educational institution. Reason: Stupid in America: Why your kids are probably dumber than Belgians For "Stupid in America," a special report ABC will air Friday, we gave identical tests to high school students in New Jersey and in Belgium. The Belgian kids cleaned the American kids' clocks. The Belgian kids called the American students "stupid." We didn't pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey's kids have test scores that are above average for America. The American boy who got the highest score told me: "I'm shocked, 'cause it just shows how advanced they are compared to us." The Belgians did better because their schools are better. At age ten, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age fifteen, when students from forty countries are tested, the Americans place twenty-fifth. The longer kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from countries that spend much less money on education. This should come as no surprise once you remember that public education in the USA is a government monopoly. Don't like your public school? Tough. The school is terrible? Tough. Your taxes fund that school regardless of whether it's good or bad. That's why government monopolies routinely fail their customers. Union-dominated monopolies are even worse. In New York City, it's "just about impossible" to fire a bad teacher, says schools chancellor Joel Klein. The new union contract offers slight relief, but it's still about 200 pages of bureaucracy. "We tolerate mediocrity," said Klein, because "people get paid the same, whether they're outstanding, average, or way below average." One teacher sent sexually oriented emails to "Cutie 101," his sixteen year old student. Klein couldn't fire him for years, "He hasn't taught, but we have had to pay him, because that's what's required under the contract." They've paid him more than $300,000, and only after 6 years of litigation were they able to fire him. Klein employs dozens of teachers who he's afraid to let near the kids, so he has them sit in what they call "rubber rooms." This year he will spend twenty million dollars to warehouse teachers in five rubber rooms. It's an alternative to firing them. In the last four years, only two teachers out of 80,000 were fired for incompetence. When I confronted Union president Randi Weingarten about that, she said, "they [the NYC school board] just don't want to do the work that's entailed." But the "work that's entailed" is so onerous that most principals just give up, or get bad teachers to transfer to another school. They even have a name for it: "the dance of the lemons." The inability to fire the bad and reward the good is the biggest reason schools fail the kids. Lack of money is often cited the reason schools fail, but America doubled per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years. Test scores and graduation rates stayed flat. New York City now spends an extraordinary $11,000 per student. That's $220,000 for a classroom of twenty kids. Couldn't you hire two or three excellent teachers and do a better job with $220,000? Only a monopoly can spend that much money and still fail the kids. The U.S. Postal Service couldn't get it there overnight. But once others were allowed to compete, Federal Express, United Parcel, and others suddenly could get it there overnight. Now even the post office does it (sometimes). Competition inspires people to do what we didn't think we could do. If people got to choose their kids' school, education options would be endless. There could soon be technology schools, cheap Wal-Mart-like schools, virtual schools where you learn at home on your computer, sports schools, music schools, schools that go all year, schools with uniforms, schools that open early and keep kids later, and, who knows? If there were competition, all kinds of new ideas would bloom. This already happens overseas. In Belgium, for example, the government funds education—at any school—but if the school can't attract students, it goes out of business. Belgian school principal Kaat Vandensavel told us she works hard to impress parents. "If we don't offer them what they want for their child, they won't come to our school." She constantly improves the teaching, "You can't afford ten teachers out of 160 that don't do their work, because the clients will know, and won't come to you again." "That's normal in Western Europe," Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby told me. "If schools don't perform well, a parent would never be trapped in that school in the same way you could be trapped in the U.S." Last week, Florida's Supreme Court shut down "opportunity scholarships," Florida's small attempt at competition. Public money can't be spent on private schools, said the court, because the state constitution commands the funding only of "uniform, . . . high-quality" schools. But government schools are neither uniform nor high-quality, and without competition, no new teaching plan or No Child Left Behind law will get the monopoly to serve its customers well. A Gallup Poll survey shows 76 percent of Americans are either completely or somewhat satisfied with their kids' public school, but that's only because they don't know what their kids are missing. Without competition, unlike Belgian parents, they don't know what their kids might have had. John Stossel is an ABC News correspondent and co-anchor of 20/20. His special Stupid in America airs Friday, January 13, at 10 pm.
posted by Jack Mercer @ 1/19/2006 04:25:00 PM  
  • At 1/20/2006 09:46:00 AM, Blogger SheaNC said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 1/20/2006 09:48:00 AM, Blogger SheaNC said…

    Funny, Jack, none of my "leftist friends" "adore our failed American educational institution." I've known my shre of leftists, and they condemn American education too. Why do rightists feel this need to claim that the left defends a failed system, when that is not true?

    Also, I'd like to know how Belgian parents feel about the teaching of "intelligent design" in their schools.

  • At 1/20/2006 01:34:00 PM, Blogger chickenhawk said…

    It sucks that bad teachers get to stick around and good ones dont get rewarded. There is a problem in this country that is for sure. I dont know what the solution is, perhaps the states should go to schools, find the best teachers and bring them together. My best friend is a high school teacher, does very well and is very well liked and started the lacrosse program at his school. That there is a good teacher, whose job extends beyond the walls of his classroom. He cant stand the teachers union and cant stand the fact that it would be so easy to do some things differently, but they dont get done. Quite a few public schools around here have tech programs which at least help kids learn a trade and they can get good jobs. There is more that can be done. Oh and the SATs are absolute garbage too and economically bias. Bias is bad. The SATs are bias. The SATs are bad.

  • At 1/20/2006 01:45:00 PM, Blogger Smorgasbord said…

    Public education is an enormous topic that can't be summed up at all adequately by articles like this.

    Obviously competition is good, I've never heard anyone deny that ever - and I know literally hundreds of people in education.

    Stossel's gripe against unions is idiotic though, as gripes against teachers unions usually are. Teachers unions are comprised of teachers and, as such, they tend to know how to best serve the students they work with every day. Most school boards, by contrast, are comprised of bureaucrats who know nothing bout education or children. Politicians make matters worse by legislating idiotic "standards" that don't make any sense, and their simply getting involved in general (politicians, like their bureaucrat counterparts, know NOTHING about how to teach children).

    You will find that cities and towns which have empowered their teachers to teach the students and minimized all the other nonsense consistently do better than municipalities where everyone from the trash man to the mayor claim to be experts.

    I can't speak for the NYC teacher's union, but I can speak for the Boston teacher's union, which is an outstanding organization that has only served to improve public education despite constant obstacles placed in its way by bureaucrats, politicians, and people like John Stossel who simply don't know what they're talking about. Imagine if John Stossel or George Bush or the mayor of your town came into your place of business without ever having done your job and told you you're doing it wrong. I bet you wouldn't like it.

  • At 1/20/2006 05:39:00 PM, Blogger Jack Mercer said…

    Speaking as a former educator who was educated overseas, I think the problems are quite obvious, Gents. The main one being that no one is willing to do anything about it.

    (A quick personal example--When I attended classes at the University of Maine I was doing the same algebra I learned in a 40 child classroom where a combination of 5th and 6th grade was being taught. (This was in Australia). At UM I tested out of Alg 1 and they put me in 2 to my extreme boredom. The professor let me show up on test days to take tests. I did not crack the book the whole semester and got an A+ in the class. I aced every mathematics class UM had to offer largely without an ounce of study.

    The problem is the system. Its broken. I know many dedicated teachers who are tremendous individuals, but could not teach their way out of a paper bag. They learn the wrong way to teach in College, and bring it into the classroom after graduation. Add to this problems with discipline, emphasis, cohesion, and many other problems and you have the sorry mess that is American public education.

    Shea, in regards to your statement:

    It is the left education monopoly that defends so vehemently our current system, wants to dump more money into it (which has proven to be a continued waste--the United States is the top spender per pupil in the world from some reports) and baulk every time competition is suggested in terms of school vouchers or competition, or even change itself.

    We have had tons of chances to change our educational system through innovative approaches, but have been constantly and consistently stymied by "conservative" leftists in this nation.

    Who is against school choice? The Left. Who is against school vouchers? The Left. Who is for pouring billions down the bottomless hole of public education? The Left. Who resists new and innovative concepts and teachings within the public schools? The Left. (Btw, the Belgians would likely embrace new thought into their classrooms. That is why they are so far ahead of our brain-dead system). Who supports the education lobby? The Left. Who comes out in defense of the public education system when its failure is pointed out? The Left.

    Shea, you can't tell me that the left is "progressive" when it comes to education. Even when teaching at Penn State I was appalled at the backward thinking of the largely liberal faculty, and the fact that they were anything BUT "progressive".

    Smorg, failure is failure no matter what kind of effort is being put into it. We need to call it like it is. I think that the minute we stop making excuses for our failures we begin the process of improvement. That is a message I give the young people in my group and I have seen them achieve standards that even surprise them. We need more than improvement, we need radical change. Kick away the crutch and make our subsidized monopolistic and bloatedly inefficient education system try to learn to walk on its own merit. I am betting that it can't and never will.


    P.S. When the stakes are as high as our children failure is not an option and should not be accepted by any of us taxpayers. Good intentions are worthless and so are processes that yield no results. I have always wondered why people on the left are so accepting of such substandard product--Is it because you aren't directly paying for it? I wrote this a while back. What are your thoughts?

    News Snipet 'Blog: INCONSISTENCIES

  • At 1/21/2006 10:40:00 AM, Blogger English Professor said…

    I agree with sheanc, but I understand your point as well, Jack. That disagreement hinges, I think, on how you define "The Left," and that's a topic for another day.

    I'm left center, and I live in a good neighborhood. Our local schools are staffed by competent, caring teachers who are hamstrung by a system which serves the middle-range student adequately and the very slow or very advanced student hardly at all. I hate "No Child Left Behind," which a)leaves some children behind, b)keeps some children from getting ahead, and c)discourages critical thinking.

    I believe that people on the Left who are anti-voucher fear that school vouchers will leave our most marginalized kids even farther behind. Doubtlessly your readers, and the people who Stossel is considering, care deeply about their children's education; they are educated enough, and have time and energy enough, to be actively involved in choosing the best school for their children. But not all kids come from such homes. Those whose parents work multiple jobs to stay afloat, or don't speak English proficiently, or come from a culture which does not challenge authority, or are just too lazy or dumb to care: those kids, the fear is, will be relegated to the absolute worst of the schools and be permanently left behind. At least in theory, all local schools are supposed to offer relatively equal levels of education, so that the disadvantaged kids get the same schooling opportunities as the more fortunate ones.

    A few more points: parts of the country do a great job training high-schoolers for real vocations, and other parts behave as if your only option outside of college is fast-food worker. And I'm not sure it's fair to compare the educational system of a country the size of Belgium's to the US--seems like apples and oranges to me.

  • At 1/21/2006 01:42:00 PM, Blogger Kevin Mark Smith said…

    I find it interesting that most teachers in private schools aren't the products of "teachers' colleges." Most are well-educated in business schools, and even liberal arts colleges. Many in the more prestigious schools are even published, while some are transplants from the private sector and are therefore more realistic about how truly asinine public school concepts such as politically correct education are.

    In all the schools I am familiar with in Kansas (Northfield, Wichita Collegiate, and Wichita Independent, not to mention the miriad of sectarian institutions), performance on SAT, ACT and other standardized test are substantially better, and the graduates if such schools are far more capable of contributing to society that public school graduates.

    You can use the "but we have to teach dumber and economically challenges kids" argument, but that argument didn't stop public education forty years ago (even with segregation) from maintaining a higher literacy and graduation rate than today's public schools, so it won't fly now.

    I agree with Jack. The system is broken. Poor kids need the same choices as the wealthy ones, and vouchers are the only way to bring some equity into the equation. Forget public education competing itself into competency. The administators in charge are simply too hardened to change. Perhaps they are the products of public education as well?

  • At 1/22/2006 02:44:00 PM, Blogger Jack Mercer said…

    Hi EP!

    Always good to hear from you. Especially on this topic. I have written an article or two on America's contemporary "left" and will try to get a link or two put up for your reference.

    I agree with your second paragraph, but want to point out that America's schools were failing long before NCLB. American schools have never truly learned HOW to teach critical thinking because the whole basis of learning in the U.S. is primarily based on a rote learning. EP, I underwent culture shock when I moved from the Australian educational system to the U.S. Every time I can back from Australia I was promoted either one or two grades above where I should have been. I graduated from 12th in the United States at age 15. I underwent all kinds of testing in the U.S. because they thought me prodigious. This was not the case, the difference being educational systems. I am not being mean-spirited or belligerent when I point out the obsolete nature of our current system--just pointing out the obvious.

    In terms of voucher, that is the only way that our marginalized children can get away from failing schools and into performing ones--that or school choice. I have no idea why the left can't see this and why their thinking is so backward from what it should be. It's not even logical, EP, so maybe you can help me understand how they arrive at this conclusion. The introduction of competition does away with inferior products, and it even those with most basic knowledge understand that competition benefits the consumer. When there is a monopoly (like now) the ones hurt most are the consumers (students).

    Here is the reason we can compare systems. The United States has refused for decades to embrace a bifurcated system typical of most industrialized nations. We spend more per pupil in the U.S. than they do in Belgium and turn out an inferior product. Apples to apples we have a bloated, bureaucratic, and self-serving system who continues to fail on a global scale. long as it has its defenders, I guess we can look forward to little or no change.

    Kevin, good to hear from you too!


    P.S. Just a quick note. EP, I always appreciate counterpoint. Let me know your thoughts.

  • At 1/22/2006 03:55:00 PM, Blogger Thomas said…

    I think intelligent design will solve all our problems. Because that designer is, for lack of a better word, so damn intelligent.

  • At 1/23/2006 10:28:00 AM, Blogger Smorgasbord said…

    With regard to my comment and your response, Jack, my major disagreement with the Stossel article was his criticism of unions. Contrary to popular belief, most teachers unions are catalysts for meaningful change in public education, while most school boards take the views you assign to "the left" - basically supporting failure. Again, it's because school boards are run by bureaucrats and teachers unions are run by teachers.

    I guess you can criticize the way teacher's are taught but that has nothing to do with vouchers or unions. That's an entirely different issue.

    Vouchers, in theory, are an okay idea but they're far from completely thought out. I'd support a voucher program if a comprehensive system was worked out, not by politicians, but by teachers, principals, and other education professionals.

  • At 1/24/2006 11:20:00 AM, Blogger Doug said…

    There are poor teachers, but the primary reason NY city schools turn out idiots is the children are uncontrollable. They have zero discipline, zero attention span, and zero interest in learning anything. Their parents failed them long before they walked through the door of a school.

  • At 1/24/2006 12:29:00 PM, Blogger Smorgasbord said…

    True enough, Doug. That's probably the biggest problem any urban school system faces. I learned it from experience in Boston.

    It's also yet another reason why we need to give more (more than zero!) policy making authority to teachers and people who actually interact with this population...

  • At 1/24/2006 11:01:00 PM, Blogger English Professor said…

    "they thought me prodigious"--and maybe you were! :-)

    I am not a defender of all public schools; believe me, I could write my own book on the problems we encountered getting my son through high school, so don't get me started. I think one thing that might help would be for teachers to be more well-trained in their academic specialties, not in the intricacies of daily lesson-planning. But I've never taught public school, and hope never to do so, so I can't say for sure.

    Jack, what I tried to do in my comment above was identify one of the reasons lefties resist vouchers--the fear that kids with great parents will get them into great schools, and the bottom rung of schools, which are there by default to gather up the "left-overs," will become worse than ever.

    I don't know if you ever visit's a good guy, and he has just posted his reasons for opposing vouchers.

    I agree with your reader about discipline problems in schools--they can drag the whole classroom down with them. I won't even teach elementary Sunday School any more--I just don't have the patience to deal with kids who see it as a blow-off hour.

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