Saturday, April 26, 2008

It's the students, stupid!

During the 1992 presidential campaign, which took place during the end of a recession, Bill Clinton's team had a saying: "It's the economy stupid!" The people in that successful campaign wanted to remind each other over and over that the way to win the presidency was to focus on the economy, the economy, and the economy some more. When I hear people, especially people who are considered experts, giving us their brilliant ideas as to how we can fix the problems of education in America, I want to shout out to them, "It's the students, stupid!"

When "the experts" bemoan the state of American education, there is no more attractive target for their attacks than teachers. In February, Time Magazine ran a cover story titled, "How To Make Better Teachers," complete with information on how other nations like Finland do it. The very clear implication of articles like this is that American education would be just fine if only our teachers were better.

Jay P. Greene, a consistent critic of American public schools, now has a blog, and you'll never guess what he has posted about! Surprise, surprise! Greene has posted about the need to get better teachers into our schools. Argh!!!

Now let me make it clear that I am all for doing everything we can to get the best teachers we can, and I have had a number of posts dealing with how I think we can do that. I am also very open to the idea that many of the methods and ideas that have been promoted by education schools and university high brows have been questionable to say the least. But anybody who spouts the theory that the biggest problem we have in education is that we don't have good enough people doing the teaching is barking up the wrong tree.

Greene points to something going on in American education that should give him a clue about where many of our problems lie:

A new report from the McKinsey Company examines education systems from around the world, revealing some of the central problems of the American system in the process. In international examinations of student proficiency in mathematics and science, American elementary students score fairly well. American middle school students slip to the middle of the pack while American high school students rank near the bottom, behind all of our major Asian and European competitors.

Obviously, something is wrong.

Okay, so our kids do fine in the lower grades, and get worse as they get older. It would be reasonable to ask what is happening at the upper grades that isn't happening at the lower grades to cause so many kids to do so poorly. But Greene never asks that question. Instead he jumps to the conclusion that all American teachers are lousy:

The McKinsey report emphasizes the crucial nature of recruiting high quality teachers. Successful school systems recruit their teachers from upper tier of university academic achievers. A South Korean official summarized this practice succinctly “The quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”

South Korea in fact engages in remarkably different education practices when compared to the United States. South Korea spends less per pupil, but pays their teachers more. This feat is accomplished through larger average class sizes- which are approximately twice as large in South Korea than in the United States.

Korean teachers however are paid much better and enjoy greater professional prestige than their American counterparts. The McKinsey report cites data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showing that a 15 year veteran teachers in South Korea is paid an average of 2.5 times GDP per capita. In America, the average is a little more than 1 times GDP per capita.

Higher pay and prestige allows South Korea to recruit teachers from those in the top 5 percent of their university graduating classes. Korean schools have many applicants for every teaching job. Meanwhile, in the United States, the low upper cap on the pay fails to attract many of our brightest and most ambitious students. American schools on average recruit teachers from the bottom third of American university graduates.

Additionally, American schools once had a near monopoly on employing bright university educated women. That monopoly has since retired to the dustbin of history and will not be returning. Our national preoccupation with lowering average class size has also impacted lowered the average effectiveness of the teachers we’ve hired. The average class size in American schools has plummeted since the baby-boomers went through the system, but our test scores have remained flat.

Americans have been obsessed with lowering class size, while Korea has emphasized getting the brightest students possible into the classroom while thinking nothing of packing 40 or more children in a classroom. Who made the right choice?

This is a prime example of an expert who doesn't have a clue because he's never actually had to teach in an American public school classroom. It is so frustrating because so many people take guys like this seriously.

Now, I'm not going to object to higher salaries for teachers, but I have a question for Jay. If the heart of American education problems is lousy teachers, then why do our third graders do well? Do all of our "smart" teachers flock to the early elementary grades? Do all of our "stupid" teachers flock to the high schools? It seems to me that Greene doesn't even attempt to explain this, so let's take a look at it.

The biggest difference between kids in the early grades and in high school is the way they react to adults compared to the way they react to their peers. Pleasing their parents, and pleasing what amounts to be their surrogate parents, in other words, their teachers, is very important to kids in kindergarten and kids in the first, second, and third grades. Pleasing their peers becomes increasingly important as they get older. By the time they are in high school, peer relationships dominate.

Greene uses South Korea as his example. I can't claim to be an expert on South Korean education, but let me take a couple of guesses. My guess is that South Korea does not treat a student's education as a property right that can't be taken away without due process of law. I would also guess that there aren't many teachers and administrators in South Korean schools that would ever have to worry about being sued if they suspended a student for too long, or disciplined the student in some other way.

Well, that is the way things are in American schools, and believe me, it takes its toll on education here. It begins to make a noticeable difference when kids are in middle school, and by high school when the most difficult kids in our schools have learned what they can get away with, and when students are much more concerned about how their peers see them than how their teachers do, the effects are profound. Without ever having seen a South Korean high school, I have no doubt that teachers have much more authority and order in their classrooms, and I doubt very much that it's because they are superior people to American high school teachers.

I think I have as good a reputation as any teacher in our school, but there was one class I had this year that was nearly impossible to manage, because there were so many kids who were disruptive, and there were so many kids who lacked any motivation at all. I don't care who the teacher is, learning is going to suffer in such a class. I would challenge any teacher from South Korea, Finland, or anywhere else to do a better job with that class than I did.

Jay Greene scoffs at the importance of class size, and you know what? When the kids in a class are motivated and respectful, he's right. The best regular American History class I ever had was one of the largest classes I had ever had up until that time. Most of the students had wonderful attitudes, and the few who didn't were influenced for the better by the many who did. I have also had lousy classes that were relatively small, because there were a few disruptive kids in them. But in the great majority of classroom situations in America, whether Greene understands it or not, there is simply no question about it--a teacher can be more effective when a class is smaller.

I have all of our school's sophomores in American History. This year I have the one nightmare class I referred to earlier, two other regular classes that are below average in performance and behavior, and one basic class. The basic class has actually been the most enjoyable of the bunch for me. The sophomore class this year is the worst class of students, as a whole, that I've had during my thirty-four year teaching career. I've actually grown to like almost all of the kids as the year has gone by, but I've never been so frustrated so often during a year. I'm sure there is more than one reason for this, but as I've tried to find out why this is, one thing has struck me. Because of cuts our school district has been forced to make, these kids have been stuck in large classes all the way up. Don't try telling me that class sizes don't make a difference. Somebody needs to tell Jay Greene that this isn't South Korea.


Blogger TeacherDee said...

I taught at a Title I school here in Nevada for several years. We had a group of kids who, because of how the numbers fell, were always privileged with very small class sizes from first grade until fifth grade. They were a testimony to the benefits of class size reduction, especially for second language learners. These kids, as fifth graders, were bright and intuitive. They were critical thinkers. They were months ahead of fifth grade classes before them.

For as long as I worked there, the district thought the solution to our low test scores was to throw a new "research based" program at us every year. We advocated for finding a way to reduce the class sizes, with no success. (Where I live, when you run out of classroooms, they start puting two classes (and two teachers) in one room. They have the audacity to keep calling it "class size reduction."

4/26/2008 9:19 PM  
Anonymous cranky said...


I couldn't agree more with what you've said. The simple answer is this: people in the top 5% of college graduates don't want to be glorified babysitters. They're in the top 5% because they love their subjects, and the idea of trying to convey that to ingrates is intolerable at any pay scale.

This is my sixth year teaching, and I'm pretty much ready to throw in the towel. And I am exactly the kind of teacher this "expert" is talking about: I was a National Merit Scholar, went to a very selective private liberal arts school on full scholarship, and graduated summa cum laude with honors in history (and I have a master's in education, which doesn't mean anything, really, other than a pay bump). According to this guy, they should be going all out to recruit and retain people like me. But I've had it. You could give me a $10,000 pay raise and it wouldn't matter--I went into teaching to teach, not to be adolescent day care. It's not that I look down upon students aren't my intellectual equal--it is a challenge to be able to articulate a point in the clearest and most simple way to those for whom learning does not come easily. However, when you have to stop every five minutes in a disciplinary whack-a-mole game with one idiot after another causing a disruption, you just want to say the hell with it and not bother. And God forbid you want to try to do something for students who are bright and motivated--half the time they're lumped into a class full of future felons anyway, and you're going to have just as much trouble trying to do anything worthwhile for them.

I am tired of having good students--not necessarily bright students, but students for whom school is recognized as something important and worthwhile--being robbed of their education by 5% of the student population. I am tired of spending most of a class period running around controlling a handful of students who act 5 years younger than their age. I am tired of spending my planning period filling out disciplinary referrals just so I can get a handful of the worst offenders out of my class for 2 or 3 days. Until we can come to our senses and make the "No Child Left Behind" Act become the "Ninety-Five Percent of Children Not Left Behind is Pretty Damn Good, If You Ask Me" Act, we're doomed. At the high school level, real, honest to goodness content knowledge is required, and people who take their subjects seriously are rarely going to go into this job, and if they do, rarely make it to retirement. And as long as we (that is, the government, the ed schools, and the unions, who are just as bad about this kind of stuff as anybody else) are maximalist in education goals, nothing will change.

4/27/2008 12:53 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Teacherdee, your fifth graders, my tenth graders = same message. Class size matters!

Cranky, thank you for that. That should be a post, because "experts" need to hear that. It's also great to hear that from someone who actually was at the top of his class because I'm afraid I can't make that claim. In high school, the only way I'd have been valedictorian would have been if 239 kids would have mysteriously disappeared.

4/27/2008 3:08 AM  
Blogger M said...

Not only that but in Sth Korea they are more inclined to teach en masse/rote learning (which lends itself to big classes) - whereas in the US there is a big push towards individualising everything - to cater for what parents believe to be 'giftedness'. If teachers are expected to cater for individual needs (which is fine) there NEEDS to be smaller class sizes. Otherwise let's just go back to opening a text book and barking at print. It's no wonder that the system isn't working when all these expectations are put in place but no provisions for it!

4/27/2008 6:27 AM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

Maybe what happens as the child gets older is that he figures out that what he wants to learn at that moment does not get covered. He must march lockstep with the other 27 kids in the class and move on to the "next thing."

Grant you, that is one way to ensure that every child has a shot at learning what a preposition is, but not a way to develop a specialized learner. Maybe in those years a child stops being an ACTIVE learner and becomes a PASSIVE learner, one who has figured out that the teacher is the one doling out the knowledge rather than searching it out for oneself. Any teacher who is tired of feeling he must "entertain" the students is a victim of the system even as he participates in it!

I see this in my older ps-educated child. He is gifted and bright and asks many "good questions." But he doesn't want to find out the answer on his own; he wants YOU to tell him.

This is not necessarily a "bad" thing or a criticism of public schools. But I do see my homeschoolers and I frequently just drop everything and say, ok! Let's find out about the octopus, since you are interested. We'll do that for science instead of what I had planned. We can get back to what I planned later.

The *good* thing about that is that it encourages an active learning situation. The *bad* thing is we may still be working on our second grade curriculum when the children are really in third because we do make several detours. So perhaps my child learns to distinguish a noun from a verb at age 10 rather than 7, but could tell you about the rock cycle in great detail.

Just my opinion. BTW, I think the BLANKET criticism of teachers is just plain unfair. Much of it must lie with the TAXPAYING PUBLIC for not voting differently.

God bless you. :]

4/27/2008 6:53 AM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

I just thought I would let you know that I linked to your post via one of my posts. Real change will not come about until we do something with kids who refuse to learn.

4/27/2008 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

I wonder if some of the class size debate doesn't tie in with the DI stuff you had on here about a year ago. You could fairly easily teach DI to a larger class, I'm guessing...

4/27/2008 1:57 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mrs. C., thank you for your thoughts. I was interested in what you had to say about active vs. passive learning. I assume from what you say that you favor active learning. Many criticize schools for not doing more of that, and they believe we should be more "child centered." On the other hand Ian mentions DI. I don't know if you are familiar with KDerosa, but he is one of the most effective critics of public education in the blogosphere, and he is a strong proponent of DI. DI is heavily teacher-centered. Which direction should we go?

Ms. Teacher, thank you very much. I am honored!

4/27/2008 2:36 PM  
Blogger Liza said...

There is a new documentary that doesn't 'knock the teachers' but rather asks students 'how are you spending your two million minutes of high school?'

It compares 2 students from the U.S., 2 from China and 2 from India.

The film is called Two Million Minutes. You can see a trailer at

4/27/2008 4:06 PM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

Mrs. C,
A lot of teachers would love to have the opportunity to teach beyond what is in the textbook, especially when they see a group of their students suddenly really interested in something. However, in my school district, we are told we need to teach Math and Language Arts according to a very strict and rigid pacing guide. If we deviate or add outside sources to the curriculum, we are reprimanded.

I have a little bit more flexibility than my math colleagues who are told daily what page of the math text they need to be on, regardless if students have understood the previous concept taught! The focus it appears to me and my colleagues is that the district is more interested in breadth of knowledge instead of depth. That to me is a travesty.

4/27/2008 4:15 PM  
Anonymous a homeschool mom said...

I agree with you in your post. I don't have a lot to add as I am not a teacher. However, it really irritates me when these experts come in and compare American students to the students of foreign countries. Have any of these experts actually lived in any of these countries, or do they just go there for a few weeks, observe, and come home? Do they see the pressure those kids are under to do well? Do they find out how much the parents spend on tutors to keep their kids up to speed? Do they know if the kids are expelled if they don't keep up?There is more to their education system than just the math and science scores and it irritates me when they think that if you implement a few of the strategies they use over there it is going to work over here. Culture plays a huge role.

I don't want to blame parents, either, but I do think that parents take a more "hands off" approach as their kids reach high school age. The kids' success is in their own hands, and since many don't find school important they see it as something to "get through" rather than to improve themselves. Of course, there are always those kids that have big goals and dreams and manage to be successful regardless.

Oh, one other thing I wanted to mention. I was an exchange student for a short time in Germany my senior year in high school. I am trying to scan my brain (it was awhile ago), but I don't recall any of my friends there having jobs. They always seemed to have money, though. I wonder if that makes a difference in education? Just a thought.

4/27/2008 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I don't know if you are familiar with KDerosa, but he is one of the most effective critics of public education in the blogosphere..."

To be fair, Dennis, KDR isn't too wild about most public schools, either. Consider this quote from one of his posts:

"Have you seen the state of private schools lately? The private schools that do well mostly do well because they are loaded with easily educable kids, not because they employ superior instruction. I visited my son's CCD class at our local parochial school last Sunday and there I saw the same rotten reading and math programs that our local public school uses."

"...he is a strong proponent of DI. DI is heavily teacher-centered. Which direction should we go?"

It might matter which grade and which subject. I have a hard time imagining many useful detours when trying to teach 1st graders reading (are they going to get very interested in the letter 'H'?). I can imagine a lot of interesting detours when teaching 8th graders history.

Maybe we aim for a more structured/DI-ish approach for things like math and reading and allow for a more fluid approach for things like history and literature. And maybe K-8 science.

-Mark Roulo

4/27/2008 6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But I do see my homeschoolers and I frequently just drop everything and say, ok! Let's find out about the octopus, since you are interested. We'll do that for science instead of what I had planned. We can get back to what I planned later."

This is one of the advantages that homeschooling (or any tutoring scenario) has. Homeschoolers can do this because:
(a) They own the entire stack of education from K-8 or K-12. If they spend a lot of time on ocopi now, they will remember it and also remember that the subject that was detoured from must be returned to at some point. Normal schools (public and private) aren't set up for this sort of grade-to-grade handoff. It can't even work if different 2nd grade classes get mixed up in 3rd grade because each 2nd grade class will have had a different detour and thus will have missed *different* 2nd grade areas of coverage.
(b) Homeschoolers tend to not worry so much about standardized tests because they know that when they detour octopi have been covered and banana slugs have not. On a standardized test that doesn't include octopi (because it wasn't part of the scheduled curriculum) this just shows up as a 'failed to learn.' The homeschooling parents know that they made a tradeoff.

I'd love for public and private schools to be able to do this, but I don't see any obvious way to do so *IF* there is a set of coverage areas that you want to cover by the end of some grade level. For some things (like literature), I think this is quite workable because there aren't any dependencies (it isn't like you need to have read Faulkner before reading Hemingway). For things like math and science, and to a lesser degree history, these detours can become quite a problem if a key area simply never gets covered (imagine a math class that doesn't learn fractions because they got distracted by set theory ... at the next grade level when the new math teacher plans on building on fractions, things are going to go very poorly). Again, homeschoolers can deal with this because they can just say, "okay, we've jumped ahead to set theory, but are 6 months behind on fractions" and adjust the curriculum to accomadate this. Institutional schools (public and private) can't really do this (especially when each student has a different 'gap').

-Mark Roulo

4/27/2008 6:46 PM  
Blogger Chano03 said...

You can't expect something that is set up to fail, not to. We have begun cut everything that is fun and interesting out of children's schooling, while testing more and more. Class sizes are huge compared to 20 or 30 years ago, has our country really changed that much or have we quit really caring about the U.S. education system. We have only screwed the public school system up more by enacting the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB has to either be completely thrown out the window, or a entire overhaul of the act is necessary. The current presidential candidates must be forced by the American public to state how they will fix the problems with the U.S. education system. So please make your voices heard.

4/27/2008 7:07 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

I'm going to respectfully disagree with many purist "unschoolers" and state that it's my opinion that students should be at least partially teacher-directed. The teacher presumably knows what the student NEEDS to know to function in the world. I do allow for almost unlimited freedom within that framework, however.

Ms. Teacher, I really felt for you in your comment. Testing is totally out of control in public schools. Our own district has parties for the children who have good attendance during testing, complete with prizes. They do "pretests" for ages before the test. To my mind, that invalidates the test because the student is familiar with the format and what is expected of him, but another post. The point being that while I find tests can be *A* valuable tool to measure progress, they are not the Lord God Almighty no matter how well they're marketed. What a shame that teachers and students are stuck on this awful treadmill! And if you do well and your children show great strides, next year you must do better! Yuck.

I am blessed to have full control over my students as there is no mandated testing or even reporting in the state of Missouri. I have 1000 hours of instruction to do annually in certain subjects, but no-one says that I cannot teach my child to read with the King James (I do) or that science cannot consist of material I bought from "Answers in Genesis."

So my children wind up with different gaps than your ps. kids. I think some of that is because I educate my children from an entirely different worldview. In fact, I may entirely disagree with you as to what constitutes a "good education."

To me, it would prepare my sons to be warriors for God, both physically and spiritually. My daughter would be a maiden of virtue able to run a household with five or more children, including the finances.

Somehow I'm imagining those things are not in the public school "mission statement." The Korean system of education probably has a different goal in mind as well. I *suppose* it comes down to what it is we want the children to know as adults. Then we back up a bit and design a curriculum accordingly year by year, precept upon precept.

Hopefully that didn't sound like a weasel answer, Dennis. I truly enjoy your blog and the folks I'm "meeting" here. I can appreciate your triumphs and struggles even though I may disagree with the entire system you enable. I like to visit blogs that make me think, most ESPECIALLY when I disagree with some or all of the content. So, when you see me comment yet again, I want you to know it's in a friendly spirit of bantering and chat.

What we all of us have in common is our love for the children we teach. :]

4/28/2008 4:04 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I agree with you to a certain extent that we shouldn't use South Korea as an exact comparison. It does, however, show what's possible.

Your argument, of course, is that there's cultural differences.

Two elementary schools in Elizabeth, NJ are in the top ten on scoring on the NJ state tests, in a city that out of NJ educational districts is in the bottom 20%. They don't appear on the face of things to be magnet schools (which would be pretty unusual for NJ anyway, especially at the elementary level). If you went in and asked the teachers if they were really teaching the children or were just "teaching to the test", I suspect they'd say they were actually teaching.

We should be doing the comparison between American schools. They exist, we should use them.

4/28/2008 7:26 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I really do appreciate the comments, but I want to get back to my original point. Regardless of what we say about teaching methods, it is possible for kids to get a good education in public school classrooms. I know that because it's happened in mine. Right now, it's happening in my AP
Government class, but I've also had it happen in a number of my regular American History classes over the years. I have had classes in which I've been thrilled with the learning taking place. But I've also had classes about which the major feeling I've had is embarrassment. I'm the same teacher in these different classes, and no, I don't have a split personality. The difference is entirely in the make-up of the classes.

Speaking as one public school teacher, in order to give what everyone says they want, I need to be given more control over the make-up of my classes. And the way to give me that control is to allow me to set clear, but reasonable, standards, not for ability and achievement, but for behavior and effort. And that means that I'm allowed to dismiss those who refuse to meet those standards from my class. If I were ever given the power to do those things I would make these guarantees: 1. The kids who would be dismissed would be those who either didn't deserve to be there because they were so willing to ruin the education of others, or they wouldn't actually be losing anything because they don't care one bit about learning. 2. After a couple of years, there would be very few who would have to be dismissed. 3. The education happening in my class would be something that everyone could be proud of.

4/28/2008 5:06 PM  
Anonymous Mr Teacher said...

As a high school teacher working in London, I read your recent blog post and the attached comments with interest. Yes, there are unfortunately lots of bad teachers working in lots of schools. But my experience tells me that most teachers work hard and really do care about their job- and I agree that we do not get sufficient credit from certain quarters.
Disruptive students should be held to account for their actions and we must come down harder on those parents who are less than useless.
My blog, Mr Teacher, can be found at

4/29/2008 12:01 PM  
Anonymous EDin08 said...

Hi Dennis

I just wanted to make sure that you were invited to our education "Blogger Summit". We hope you can make it and feel free to share this invitation with any other bloggers in the area that might be interested. The invitation is attached below.

ED In '08 Blogger Summit


Strong American Schools is excited to announce the ED in '08 Blogger Summit. Conference details are as follows:

May 14th - 15th
Palomar Hotel, Washington DC
Registration is Free!

An opening reception is scheduled on the evening of Wednesday, May 14th. Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres will be served before the screening of a new documentary film on education, Two Million Minutes. A Q&A session with the filmmakers is set to follow.

Then join us for an all-day conference on May 15th. Nowhere else will you have an opportunity to meet and network with fellow education bloggers, participate in panels, attend workshops, and help tackle some tough questions on the state of education in America.

Space is limited, so be sure to RSVP today!

Register at

5/01/2008 10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5/02/2008 9:54 PM  
Blogger The Vegas Art Guy said...

I'll bet that Finland and S Korea don't have our version of ELL classes either. They either learn Finn or Korean or they don't go to school, and yet here we have to accommodate everyone and pass NCLB while babysitting kids whose parents could not care less about what Johnny does from 8-2 every day...

5/03/2008 4:25 PM  

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