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April 10, 2003

American Public School Education and Its Discontents


Thanks again for putting me on to a posting by Jane Galt on education. She argues that the major problem with American education today is that there are no longer hordes of overqualified women willing to teach school for substandard wages. Also as you recommended, I sent her posting (which you can read here)to Teacher X, the ex-corporate executive who is transitioning to a job teaching middle school math, for his comments.

As an overqualified man willing to teach school for substandard wages, Teacher X didn’t seem too impressed by Jane Galt’s argument. However, he was intrigued by two articles linked to her posting by a commenter, James Joyner. The first was “A Time for Truth” by Walter Williams which you can read here and the second was “Put Teachers to the Test” by Diane Ravitch which you can read here. Both discuss the poor academic credentials of today’s public school teachers and, intriguingly, of the teacher training professoriat. I quote from his email:

Friedrich--I agree with nearly everything Walt Williams and Diane Ravitch have to say about teachers and teaching. I particularly agree with Williams. There is one factor, however, that is not included in their discussions. I call it the baby-sitting factor. I am not sure whether most adults understand the weirdness of hanging out with 25 or so modern young people all day long. Granted, my experience has only been in urban school districts, but in general the kids have no manners, no attention span, and no intellectual interests. There are exceptions, but they are rare. This reduces the teaching/learning experience to a war of mental attrition between the teacher and the student. While a few—very few—students are really "cooking" intellectually, the rest pick up a few little things in a very inefficient manner.

Even the poorest (economically) of my students were basically spoiled brats. Paying attention to a teacher was not on the agenda. When I was a student, even a very young one, I was paying close attention most of the time. I thought my fellow students were too, but maybe I'm wrong about that. (I would give anything to be able to return to 1961 and observe my own 5th grade class from my current perspective.)

At any rate, the people who are best suited to tolerate the slow, aggravating process of teaching modern kids basic skills are those who "love kids no matter what" and are "high on life." Both of these qualities generally don't co-exist with higher levels of thinking skill, intellectual achievement, and organizational ability. Most teachers' personalities allow them to put up with damn near anything thrown at them without a complaint, and their bosses (that is, administrators and parents) require them to put up with a great deal.

One last issue—Jane Galt is right about one thing: it is amazing how small a percentage of school budgets are spent on regular teacher salaries. I estimate that it was about one-fourth of the total in [a large urban school district] and about one-sixth in [an affluent suburban district.] The rest is frittered away on adminstration, special ed teachers, and (apparently) school construction and renovation expenses that seem extortionate. It's pretty outrageous. And in the end, society, with its fast paced, instant gratification, entertainment-oriented, TV influenced lifestyles, seems to get exactly the kind of teachers that they deserve. Sorry for being so negative, but I regrettably think this is a pretty accurate description of modern public-school education.

Maybe getting the public to take a hard look at an ugly situation will be a first step towards improvement.

Guarded cheers,


posted by Friedrich at April 10, 2003


Interesting, thanks. I'm eager to keep getting bulletins from Teacher X. What does he think about vouchers, for instance? And does he think all kids should get routine high school degrees? Or should some other track open up for kids who aren't the academic types -- ie., maybe be allowed finish up school per se at 14, and then develop some kind of craft-and-vocation track? I seem to remember Camille Paglia (who's a teacher) arguing for that kind of approach.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 10, 2003 11:20 AM

You might also point Teacher X to the writings of Richard Mitchell. Start with Less Than Words Can Say and proceed from there.

Posted by: Ian on April 10, 2003 1:42 PM

I have been ruminating on this all day after reading the post this morning. Overall, I agree with Teacher X's assessment of life in the classroom. I got a degree in secondary ed 20 years ago and, thankfully, realized half way thru my student teaching that I am not a teacher and I dont like kids enough to do it. But I have been watching my kids go thru public school and am totally amazed at the level of ignorance in basic subject matter that teachers exhibit.

My one BIG exception is to his comment about frittering away budgets on special ed teachers.

The common argument against continued high level funindg of special ed programs in school is that they are used those programs as a dumping ground for difficult-to-teach kids who have no real disablilty, often from parents who are low income or a minority. If teachers taught better, the need for the programs would diminish. And that may be true in many cases.

HOWEVER, as the parent of a special ed kid, who happens to be bright, white, middle class, and living with 2 college educated parents, without those teachers, she would still,in 7th grade, be struggling to learn basic skills like reading. She is not suffering from any common socio-economic indicators for troubles learning in school.

In reality, special ed functions as a way to give kids who dont learn well in a traditional school at least a hope of what their quote normal peers. Cutting budgets for those programs only exacerbates the problem.


Posted by: Deb on April 10, 2003 9:10 PM

I am very sorry for speaking carelessly and inaccurately in the portion of my message regarding programs for children with special needs. I wrote the original message while I was feeling a bit cranky about teacher job availability and pay, and I chose several of my words poorly. "Frittered away" is probably an appropriate term with regard to many administration, technology, and building issues, but it is not appropriate in the context of teachers and programs for children with special needs. While it is true that certain special needs programs are quite expensive for school districts (due to their low student-to-teacher ratios and specialized equipment costs), and some programs probably do negatively impact regular teacher salaries, there are obviously many valuable benefits for both the students and the community as a result. The money is most certainly not being "frittered away". Please accept my apology and try to excuse the clumsy and insensitive wording of my original message.

Posted by: teacher x on April 10, 2003 10:11 PM

Teacher X,

Any corporate exec who decides to teach math to middle school kids deserves a huge round of applause from everyone!!!! And a break when they are feeling frustrated and cranky.

It's a complex issue but I have always said teachers dont get paid nearly enough for what they do. My hat is off to you for teaching.


Posted by: Deb on April 11, 2003 9:09 AM

And thank you also for not pointing out that Mom can't proofread or edit her own writing. Mistakes such as I now read in my original post are just what my daughter is being taught to look for. Shame on me!


Posted by: Deb on April 11, 2003 12:17 PM

Kudos to teacher x. Sooner or later we, as a society, have to deal with the fact that true learning is almost always hard work, and that if we don't make our kids pay the price to really learn the 3 R's, we are hurting them first and foremost, and society at large secondarily. We understand this in sports, theater, music and other areas where a lack of fundementals sticks out like a sore thumb. Give me 25 first graders and let me teach them for 3 years and solely focus on the 3 R's, while demanding complete comprehension of these subjects before moving on to grade 4, and I would bet that they would be far ahead in many ways of a typical middle school student in real intellectual ability.

Posted by: Bill on April 11, 2003 2:05 PM

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