Rhettoracle's Blog

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Is the American education system in trouble?

Before we launch into all the issues, we first have to examine the question “Is education in trouble?”  The reason so much is changing (and thus the reason for the creation of this blog) is because our country has accepted the notion from the media that America’s schools are failing.  This is simply untrue.  Are there problems with our schools?  Of course!  Are there schools that are failing?  Of course!  But is our whole education sysem going down the toilet?  I firmly say no.  The rest of this entry is my attempt to help you understand why I make this claim…

1) This country proudly educates everyone. We integrate students with special needs as much as possible into a regular classroom to give them an education in the “least restrictive environment.”  Because of the ever growing efforts to include as many students as possible in the regular ed classroom, more and more students who in the past never took the standardized tests (the ones that are used to measure the US against other countries), it appears that the US is falling further behind.  Rather, our scores are falling because we are making a greater effort to include everyone, and thus those who might not be, shall we say, capable of taking these standardized tests are now doing so and hurting our scores.  Years ago, students had to either sink or swim.  If they couldn’t cut it in regular classrooms, schools pulled them out and put them in “special classes.”  Those students never had to take standardized tests.  The problem, then, was that this idea began to get abused where educators would put people in those special classes who might hurt test scores for the school.  Why do that?  Because schools that scored better were given more money.  So what are other countries doing?  Many other industrialized nations have a much more sophisticated system of putting students into tracks and educating them accordingly.  Therefore only those truly college bound students end up taking the same standardized tests that ALL of our students take.  In other words, these measure compare other countries’ best and brightest with our entire melting pot, and thus the test results compare apples to oranges.

2) America’s schools are failing is the same argument that people were using for political gain back as early as the late 1800s.  Back then the argument was over the centralization vs decentralization of school systems.  All of it was born out of the idea that schools were failing our children.  So then, if you buy into the argument that schools are failing today, you should also buy into the argument that schools were failing 100 years ago too.  Afterall, there were people then making similar claims about schools just using different ideas to fix them.  The only difference between the claims then and now is 1) the antidote the reformers want to use, and 2) today we have “evidence” from research that schools are not doing well.  And if I’m not mistaken, in the last 100 years, the United States has led the world in medical, scientific, and technical advances.  We landed on the moon, for goodness sake!  And Al Gore invented the internet *grin*!  How could our education system be failing?

3) In addition to all this, I have anecdotal evidence in my former students who have gone on to greatness – they have gone to schools like Duke University, they have embarked on careers such as being an attorney, and they have returned to the classroom to educate the next generation of Americans to greatness

No, this system is not broken.  Could it be better?  Of course!  Are we pursuing the correct path towards improvement?  Absolutely not.  I hope over the course of this blog that I can shed some light on why our current course of reform is ineffective and what could be done instead to make things better.


April 21, 2010 - Posted by | Failing Schools | ,


  1. You are wrong! Although some of the features mentioned in your “explanations” may have contributed to the bad results of the international tests, I can testify on the basis of my over 50 years experience of teaching at the university level in the USA and elsewhere in the world that the American education considerably deteriorated and is now among the worst in the world. One of the things I observed already for some time is that the knowledge of the American graduates with BA degree is not better than the knowledge of those who graduated from the European 8 year secondary school (the so called “gymnasium”). I finished the “gymnasium” in 1952 in Czechoslovakia. This was a necessary precondition for being accepted to any university-level school. At that time anybody who graduated from the Czechoslovak gymnasium must have passed the so called “maturity” exam that included the following parts of mathematics: arithmetic, geometry, algebra and calculus up to derivatives and integrals. Nobody would have been admitted to the university without that knowledge. Now a few years ago just before my retirement from the Boston University, I taught the introductory economics course for students in the Boston University BA program. At the very beginning I tested among other things how much mathematics they know. I gave them the following question: Let y = 10 + x and z =100 +.1x. Draw the graph of y and z and find the point x at which y=z. could you believe that only 16 out of 80 students could answer it correctly?

    Comment by Oldrich Kyn | May 7, 2010 | Reply

    • First of all, Oldrich, please let me thank you for finding and reading my blog. I am honored that someone of your background (that is, college professor of economics from BU with an extensive career) took the time to post. So thank you kindly!

      I do have two concerns with your comment to my post. 1) As my post says, I don’t think it is perfect, and I certainly believe the American education system needs improvement, but I certainly wouldn’t rank it as worst in the world. Despite my distaste for international comparisons, we still aren’t ranked at the bottom in the world. So I’d like to see the data that supports your statement of being “among the worst in the world.” 2) I would appreciate your thoughts on how to improve education in the United States. It is easy to criticize, but it is another matter to offer reasonable and sound suggestions on how to improve it. If you happen to read this reply, I would greatly appreciate your feedback – especially with your perspective of having gone through a completely different education system growing up. Thanks!

      Comment by rhettoracle | May 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. Some documents about the decline of American education are on my website:

    I also believe that the bad education may be one of the important causes of the current economic depression.

    Now here is what I believe is wrong with American education:

    Memorize or think.

    In most cases teachers make students to memorize many facts and statements that are presumed to be true but they do not teach them how to think. My view is that students should be taught how to think and how to learn on their own. That is if students are to learn about some object or theoretical hypothesis, they should be instructed to search for information, formulate simplifying assumptions and then perform logical or mathematical steps to reach conclusions. In grading it should be less important whether the answer was “true” and more important whether it was logically derived.

    Verbal versus visual and other types of thinking.

    Almost all the education is verbal. Teachers write sentences on the blackboard, textbooks are mostly just text and now with the computers even the slides contain mostly words. This is because it is assumed that “communication” requires words that the memory is simply a stock of words and that without words rational thinking is impossible. But this is wrong there are also visual and other forms of communication, memory and thinking. It seems to me that for majority of people visual memory and thinking is faster and more frequent than verbal. My conclusion is to use more pictures and even animations in teaching. See for example


    Abstract learning or learning by doing?

    There are two distinct ways of learning. Some find it easier to learn abstract theory first and then go to applications. Some others prefer to learn by doing the applications and only after that extract the common theoretical abstraction. These two types require quite different structure of schooling.

    Short-term and permanent memory.

    As it is well known when learning the information enters first in the short-term memory and only some of it is transferred to the permanent memory. One way of making this transfer is repeat some words again and again. In the visual case look at the picture or object for long time. But more effective way follows from the fact that brain transfers to permanent memory immediately something that is related to strong emotions. Therefore boring lectures and textbooks are soon forgotten while when combined with something very interesting they are remembered for the long time.


    Differences in student abilities and interests.

    It is quite clear that children are already born with distinct abilities and both their DNA and environmental characteristics lead to further differentiation. Because of that, both the optimal learning process and individual interests make them different from others. It is therefore obvious, that it is wrong to treat students in schools as if they were identical. Society should provide a set of different schools and within each school different type of classes so that distinct students can find their own best path through the educational system. In addition to that even in a single class the teacher should always keep in mind that not all his students learn the same way and allow several alternative ways in assignments and examinations.


    Single and multiple paths education systems.

    One of the worst aspects of the American educational system is that it provides de facto only a single path for all distinct students. Everybody is expected to go to the primary school, then to high school and now about 50% of them but in future almost all to college. On the other hand at least some European countries have the multiple paths system. After the primary school some take 8 years of the school that prepares them for university. According to the above that would be mostly the “abstract theory” thinkers. The others “learn by doing” people take a distinct only 4 years school after which they go either directly to employment with vocational schooling or to secondary specialized 4 year schools.


    Probably one of the main causes of the decline of American education is the way examinations are done.

    1) Most of the examinations contain “True/Falls” or “multiple choice” questions. That leads students either to memorize the “correct” answers or to select the answer by chance. Almost no thinking is needed.

    2) Many professors provide to students the list of all questions that may appear on exam. This is used to minimize the student’s risk of failing the exam. But risk is a very strong incentive to learn the subject completely, while with knowledge of the possible exam questions students just need to memorize the “right” answers that are usually provided by somebody.

    3) Virtually all the exams are written and almost no oral examinations are performed. But oral examinations are more effective in finding the student’s way of thinking and also make cheating unlikely.

    4) In addition to final examination there are usually one or more of so called midterm examinations and various tests and assignments that are graded. The tragedy is that under the students pressure those exams are frequently “noncumulative” that is only the topics taught after the previous exam are included. The course grade is than calculated as the mean of all exams. The devastating effect of such a system of examination is obvious. Because the questions once graded will never appear again, students quickly memorize “right” answers just before the exam and then forget it. It never comes into their long-term memory. Also the content of course was split into several small pieces and students do not need to consider the interdependencies of those pieces and therefore never really learn the complete content of the course.

    There are some additional problems. One of them is SET – Student Evaluation of Teachers.


    I think that some radical changes in the American education system are needed.


    Comment by Oldrich Kyn | June 4, 2010 | Reply

    • Excellent thoughts – and I would agree with you on much of what you had to say. And I would agree that some big changes need to happen, but I still would say that our system is not “broken”. Rather, it is outdated, and needs changes. If I can oversimplify what you explained, essentially it boils down to how can we do a better job teaching our children to think? Here is the one major drawback: how do we reconcile your ideas within our current cultural climate and legal framework in US public schools? (And I would guess that this is why you concluded by saying radical changes are needed.) Our country has accepted the philosophy that all children deserve to be educated. To illustrate the extent to which this philosophy exists, let me offer this example: I was in a meeting to determine whether or not a student sitting across the table from me should be allowed to come back to school (instead of receiving home-based instruction). Sitting across from me was the young man in question – I’ll call him John. So why were we having the meeting? Because John was involved in a drive-by shooting the previous school year, and then over the summer committed armed robbery. (to be fair, both charges were just that – charges.) He had not yet had his day in court for the two incidents. So under the “innocent until proven guilty” system, he is entitled to an education, and so our school district had to pay for a teacher to meet this student 10 hours / week so that he could be educated at home. The result of the meeting? They kept him on homebased instruction (thankfully he was not in my class). What’s my point? Simply that our country says EVEN this child deserves as much of an education as possible. Is that right or wrong – I don’t have a comment on that. Simply, this is the direction our country has decided to go.

      From my original argument, this is why I said that there is “room for improvement.” 1) we need to get lawmakers out of the way and let teachers teach. 2) We need to have comprehensive reform on teacher tenure – it’s a shame that someone who sits at a desk and gives handouts is just as likely to keep his job as someone who engages students. 3) We have to get back to the old way of tracking students. Not all students were meant to go to a four year college. We need to best prepare our students according to their needs and wants. 4) we need to reform professional development – stop bringing in “experts” to teach me how to teach 12th graders how to read – if they don’t have it by that point of their schooling, they are not going to get it. 5) let’s find a way to get parents back into the lives of their children. Maybe if “John’s” parents were in his life, he would not be facing charges for the two incidents in which he was involved. Additionally, do you know that on any given parent-teacher open house night, out of roughtly 70 students, I might have the parents of 5 – 10 students show up to meet with me? It all starts in the home. If there is an emphasis on education in the home, there will be an emphasis on learning in the classroom. Unfortunately, most of my students come from broken homes where the parent’s only concern is how they are going to get their food stamps traded in for cigarettes or how they will get their next “fix”. And when the children of these people show up to school, do you really think they want to learn? Their interest is on how much “bling” they have and how “tricked out” their car is.

      Most of us teachers are doing the best we can with what we have to work with. If you know how we can incorporate your suggestions into our current culture and legal framework, please help us!

      Comment by rhettoracle | June 5, 2010 | Reply

  3. I agree completely with ” Years ago, students had to either sink or swim. If they couldn’t cut it in regular classrooms, schools pulled them out and put them in “special classes.” Those students never had to take standardized tests. The problem, then, was that this idea began to get abused where educators would put people in those special classes who might hurt test scores for the school. Why do that? Because schools that scored better were given more money. ”
    I wrote a post about violence in schools and
    tenured teachers at http://www.nearmissblog.com/2010/12/tenured-teachers-and-school-violence.html

    Comment by Isaac | December 27, 2010 | Reply

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