Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

One Factor Behind America's Poor K-12 Education System

By: inoljt,

During my high school years, I had the acquaintance of a fellow student – a person who still holds a strong presence in my memory. This person was one of the most ambitious, most determined individuals in the school; today she goes to one of America’s top universities. She may very well be the next president of the United States – and this is a serious statement.

One day this student asked me an interesting question: “What do you see me doing when I’m fifty years old?”

I teased, “I see you as a high school English teacher.”

She laughed, “I would kill myself if that happened.”

More below.

This simple sequence provides a powerful illustration on why America’s K-12 education system is so bad. The best and the brightest view teaching K-12 as a demeaning profession. Go to a class in Harvard, for instance, and ask what the students there want to do after they graduate. There will be lots of future investment bankers, lawyers, and politicians. There will probably very few K-12 teachers, if any at all.

In the countries with the world’s best education systems, places like Finland and Singapore, the conversation above makes no sense. Ambitious, talented people – like the classmate mentioned above – actually want to be teachers in Finland and Singapore. In America this isn’t the case.

This is a big reason why America’s public education system is so weak. A strong education system has good teachers. Logically, a country in which talented people want to be teachers will have good teachers. A country in which talented people belittle the K-12 teaching profession – say, a country like the United States – will probably not have good teachers.

The college system provides another example of this. In America being a professor is quite a desireable job; a lot of very intelligent people dream of teaching college students. Not coincidentially, America’s university system is the best in the world.

The great conundrum, then, is making the K-12 teaching profession desireable to people like the classmate mentioned above. In other words, one needs to change the culture. That is a very hard thing to do. Short of boosting teacher salaries to lawyer-like levels – something which will cost at least several hundred billion dollars, and which nobody is thinking about even in their wildest dreams – there is no easy solution in sight.

There is, of course, more to the problem of American public education than this. Education involves not just teachers, but students as well (indeed, students are actually more important than teachers). Even the best teachers cannot make gold out of students who just do not care for school. And, if one is honest, there probably is also something to the claim that American students are generally less motivated than students in, say, South Korea.

1 comment

  1. Jjc2008

    and while I agree that we need to improve salaries, improve public perception by insisting on respect from society as opposed to the constant scapegoating of teachers since the Reagan administration, I must take issue with many of your assumptions.

    First of all, a high IQ does not necessarily insure a person will be a good teacher.  Teaching, in my view, is an art, not a science.  Students are human beings not widgets in which one can pour their knowledge into to guarantee learning.

    A good teacher is instinctively good at reading people, especially young people; at being able to see through their eyes and adjusting lessons as needed to fit the needs of the student.

    A person can be brilliant in math and still not be able to teach or inspire.  So before we make this (the teachers are the problem) an issue, think clearly about all the variables.

    The best, best, best most gifted teacher ever may not do well if the turnover in her class is over 50% or if students do not show up.  The revolving door in poor neighborhoods has a huge impact on learning, as does a high absentee rate.  

    Children who have parents who value education will do better than their counterparts who have parents who hated school.  

    Poor nutrition and early childhood neglect will impact learning.

    I could go on and on and on and on.

    Please do not buy into the right wing meme of blaming teachers.    They do this in an effort to destroy unions, destroy public education because many see dollar signs on the heads of poor children…just another opportunity for some to steal from the poor.

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