He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Problem with American Education

One of my favorite libertarian economists, Walter E. Williams, comments on the demise of public education:
American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university. As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest academic respect. Were we serious about efforts to improve public education, one of the first things we would do is eliminate schools of education.
One thing I like about Williams is that he is not afraid to call a spade a spade. Williams is responding a recent report that found 15-year old American students ranked 33rd in math literacy among industrialized nations (and 27th in science). And, as usual, we are so accustomed to throwing government money at everything that invaribly the answer becomes spending more tax-payer money on education.

Virtually everyone Christian I know teaching in the public school system has in one way or another confessed that Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' has been a colossal failure. Obama wants to allocate another $18 billion to reform federal education. Is there any indication this is going to actually work, given our track record?

The question of a child's education has become a boiling point in most conservative, evangelical churches (
especially of the Reformed variety). Especially over the last 3 decades, the condemnation of the public school system has taken an increasing religious/theological direction, perhaps due to certain theocratic presuppositions that have gained momentum on the Christian-culture horizon. But as one who finds most of those arguments dubious, what should one do?

I think Williams provides a much more compelling rationale for why Christians parents might want to look into other educational options....and not for the usual
religious reasons. Could it be that an individual might want to pursue private, Christian, Charter, or even home schooling options for the simple reason that public education is more and more a vastly inferior product? [Wow, such an 'un-spiritual' reason!]

Williams somewhat humorously notes, "Mathematics, more than any other subject, is culturally neutral. The square root of 16 is 4 whether you're Asian, European or African, or even Plutonian or Martian." Might we add to that list

[Kuyperian backlash, anyone?]


Adrian C. Keister said...

Interesting post. I would definitely agree that public education in America has fallen on hard times. The reasons for that are, in my opinion, quite varied. I'm not sure if education departments, as bad as they are, are solely to blame. As for Williams' article, it was interesting, though I wouldn't agree with all of it. For one thing, I doubt if the statistics of the international math tests are terribly well-done. I wonder, for example, if the South Korean dollars per student figure takes into account the personal tutor that practically every kid there has (that's why few parents in South Korea have lots of children: it's too expensive to pay a tutor for each of your kids).

I'd say that the problem with public education is the fact that it's, well, public. The education establishment has virtually no incentive to perform well, and indeed has loads of incentive not to do so.

If you haven't read it yet, I'd highly recommend Douglas Wilson's Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning for a (usually) dead-on critique AND solution for America's educational woes.

In Christ.

Drew said...

Totally stumbled on this post...

The issue e notes is correct - it does have to do with the overall quality of teachers. But it's not necessarily the schools of education since they basically teach to the accreditation standards such as NCATE.

The issue is that there is no competition in public schools and no incentive to improve. Charter schools perform better in many cases because they reward teachers for better teaching and student performance, and they need to be competitive to admit and retain more students. Colleges compete for students all the time and if your education program is awful, you lose money. Not so with public schools. They get paid anyway and the unions force already bloated administrations to pay for sub-standard teachers.

But the unions and the administrators who work for the states like this because they get to fill their coffers in a predictable manner and maintain their monopoly over the system. This is why vouchers are not a bad idea. Forget freaking out about the religious implications since so many privates are religious. Pay attention to the competition that a voucer will create and hopefully make private education more appealing to lower income families in order to increase competition with the public system. Businesses that are failing should go out of business or get better. Somehow our public schools are able to avoid this economic fact and maintain mediocrity.

Adrian C. Keister said...

Reply to Drew.

I'd agree with most of what you say, except for the voucher program. I don't think vouchers are a good idea, and here's why: he who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man. This happened with Grove City College (my alma mater). If you take government money, you will eventually be forced to teach what the government wants you to teach. And, as we have seen, what the government wants to teach is drivel.

What would improve the competition (which I definitely agree would be good) without the problems of vouchers are tax breaks. There, the government can't say the money is theirs, because it never passed through their hands. The parents would then be in a position to pay for the private school of their choice, without the private school being shackled to government funding.

In Christ.

aaylnx said...

"Could it be that I pursue private, Christian, or even home schooling options for the simple reason that public education is very often a vastly inferior product?"

Hmm. Matt, is there some kind of announcement you need to make?


Matt said...

Adam, note the redacted change above -- not sure why I switched to the first person singular there! :-) There's nothing to annouce.

Adrian and Drew, I don't think Williams would argue this is only explanation (i.e. the education departments). In fact, he would agree 110% with you that that state-run systems are fraught with inefficiency problems inherent in the system. But I think the education system (as illustrated here) has been grossly polluted by a lot of really dumb ideas that simply do not work. My mother still teaches at a Christian school (5th grade) and can attest to these 'new math' measures first hand...and that's a Christian school! Of course, the education problem is a multifaceted one, but I think Williams pinpoints a significant problem area that no one really wants to address.

Matt said...

Just curious....how did you guys find this blog? I don't typically generate much chatter in my 'comments' section! :-)

Anonymous said...

Just a quick plea, mostly in response to the block quote by Williams, in favor of the teachers, speaking not only as a former public school teacher and as the son of a public school teacher. Granted I was a band director, so I didn't have the same difficulties that most teachers would have. I have seen, however, how my mom is forced to deal with the red tape and legislation and rules and standardized tests in her own classroom.

While there may be flaky teachers out there in the public school system, I've been blessed to have never met any of them. My colleagues were always the most hard working and amazing people. Real concern for the kids even when the PARENTS of the kids were often incredible flakes. Whether it was letting the kids smoke pot at home or have sex with their boy/girl friend instead of going to school, there were some real looser parents out there who made it pretty difficult for teachers by not giving any support from home.

My mom too (an elementary teacher at an inner-city public school) has spent countless nights weeping because she has little kids whose parents refuse to read to them or help them practice their math because they are too busy getting loaded. Others who are not loosers don't have the time to support their children's education because they are working 2 jobs. The little kids have older brothers or sisters raising them; older brothers or sisters who are usually loosers (drugs, crime, etc).

Here's where I'm going with this. While I'm right there with you that we are having MAJOR problems in our public schools, I think that Williams' quote contains more heat than light. I'd like him to spend a few weeks walking from classroom to classroom of some of our nations public schools - not from 8-3 when the kids are there (though this is a good idea too) but from 3-9, the other 6 hours many teachers are hard at work.

To be fair to him, however, I'm sure he'd walk in on some real moron teachers, probably the ones who are lazy bums at best and child molesters at worst. But I'm also sure he'd be amazed that so many amazing teachers have been trained in the "slums" of teacher education programs.

At the end of the day, however, I totally agree with you, Matt. Private or home schooling is my educational method of choice!

Matt said...


I can sympathize with much of what you say here, especially as a product of the Texas public school system...and a reasonably good one. Not once was I ever offered drugs, the teachers were paid better than other distracts, and hence the distract was known in the state as being one of the better-run ones.

I'm sure we can all relate stories, about the strengths and weaknesses of every kind of school system.

But the stats don't lie. The scores in the public education sphere continue to stagnate...while the private (including 'Christian'), charter, and yes even home schooled kids are scoring better in standardized tests. All the while, we continue to be taxed more and more (whether Bush the past 6 years or Obama 2 years from now) with marginal improvement at best.

Granted, in citing Williams, I'm showing my libertarian colors through and through....and Williams makes a compelling case methodologically why a *state-run* education system will never do as well as *private* education. Of course, that's not always possible...and so I think of J.G. Machen in 'What is Faith' calling it (somewhat humorously) a 'necessary evil'!

Adrian C. Keister said...

Don't have much time to reply at length right now, but I will say how I found your blog: mutual interest. You can search people's blogs by their interests, and you have interests in either literary criticism or hermeneutics. So there you go.

In Christ.

Anonymous said...

Yep, good call Matt. I do find it *quite* interesting that even the charter school in Escondido was able to provide a stronger education for *much* less money. Even in my great experience teaching in Garden Grove Unified, I was still reminded that there was a 5 story office building downtown which housed administrators of EVERY kind! Money money money money . . . money! (I couldn't add the tune to the text, sorry.)

James Pate said...

No Child Left Behind has gotten criticism, but I think that it has accomplished some good. Test scores have gone up in some areas. The minority achievement gap is starting to narrow. Even critics acknowledge that special education is starting to get attention. Whatever problems NCLB has, they can be mended. I like the program because it at least holds the schools accountable--it requires them to produce results, rather than throwing money down the drain.