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The Real Problem with Waiting for Superman (aaronsw.com)
85 points by duck on Oct 9, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 104 comments

I found this article pretty hilarious in that it goes on and on about how the movie fails to provide any clear examples of what makes a good teacher and then fails to provide any clear examples of what makes a good teacher. It's like the author not only assumed that we knew what he was talking about, but that we already agreed with him and hence didn't need to be persuaded by examples. This wasn't really an argument so much as a long-winded expression of a single persons opinion.

Also, the last time I checked, you can't just "memorize" your way into passing standardized tests outside of perhaps spelling and vocabulary tests.

Also, the last time I checked, you can't just "memorize" your way into passing standardized tests outside of perhaps spelling and vocabulary tests.

Have you taken a standardized test lately? I'm 23, and I've taken at least a dozen of them. Every single one I have taken has tested my ability to learn the test at least as much (if not more, cough SATs cough).

Color me cynical, but i believe it's a scam, perpetuated by the powers entrusted with administering these tests, who in turn are influenced by lobbies for the 'test prep' industry.

Have you obtained perfect scores on all those tests? Perfect scores on the SAT


are still rather rare.

Since you asked, I do tend to do very well on standardized tests. I actually did get a perfect score on that particular test. SAT scores are an excellent example to examine. The SATs are notoriously coachable, and there's an entire ecosystem around gaming the test. Last year alone, the industry took in over 4 billion dollars. I didn't get a perfect score my first try, but it wasn't a question of my understanding of the material. The questions I got wrong were "trick" questions, and all I did to get a perfect score the next time was buy the giant book of practice tests and do them every weekend, one by one, which helped me recognize the trick questions.

According to at least one independent study (i.e., not funded by Kaplan), test prep doesn't help you as much as you think.


I agree that the SAT doesn't really test intelligence or knowledge, per se, but a specialized skill set that you do receive from studying for the test. For whatever it's worth, I received a 2350 on my SAT, which is in the same margin as a 2400 (I actually only answered one question incorrectly in the entire test).

No one said memorization of pointless random stuff is easy.

And a pretty biased opinion at that: "At the end of the day, we have an economy that works for the rich by cheating the poor and unequal schools are the result of that, not the cause."

Having come from a poor family, my single mother the child of a dirt-poor, subsistence-farming family, and having done fairly well for myself all things considered, I am almost always skeptical of anyone that says the poor don't have a chance. Not that public schooling was much help, but when people spout this garbage, I want to ask them where the hell I came from if the US doesn't give you a fair shake. I've not seen failure from anyone that was truly determined, but I have seen a pampered, upper-middle class tell me I couldn't make it, over and over again. Hell, I've seen my own family tell me I couldn't make it. I could imagine beliving them if I were anywhere else on earth.

The most inspiring thing I've ever seen is Baxter Humby, right after defending his title as super-middleweight Muay Thai champion (with only one arm and at the age of 34, no less) grab the microphone like a giddy schoolboy and tell the stunned audience after his mostly one-sided fight (I have never seen a one-armed man dominate the ring like that) that the only limits we have are those we place on ourselves. I'm thoroughly sick of dour people like the author of this article help people limit themselves.

Humby aside, it's true: you don't need to listen to anyone tell you that you are oppressed here. Prove it to yourself: make enough money to travel abroad, and see if those people are oppressed, to give yourself a point of reference. You'll learn a few things on the way up.

Statistically, someone raised poor is far less likely to become more successful financially vs. someone raised wealthy. You may be an exception, but why is that so hard to comprehend? Personal drive is but one portion of following a path to success. Of course, personal drive comes from somewhere - were you born with it or did it grow in you from your various interpersonal relationships with family, friends, peers and mentors? What about those poor people who did not have the same personal drive growth from their family, friends, peers and mentors? Another aspect in the path to success, at least as valuable as personal growth, is luck. Luck to be born in a wealthy family. Luck to be born in an environment where experiences with family/friends/peers/mentors instills a strong sense of personal growth. Luck to meet someone who opens a door.

I never said a lack of money was not a disadvantage. I pointed out Humby as an example of someone with what might be considered a totally insumountable disadvantage (one friggin' arm, the guy's a hero).

Lots of poor people stay poor and are likely to continue; my point is that, of all places on earth, the poor have a pretty good shot here, and that the attitude that we're somehow unfair to them in this country is totally unfounded and, in fact, damaging to people who don't need the added disadvantage of being discouraged.

Life's playing field has never been level, but it doesn't do anyone any good to make these assertions that one disadvantage or another is too much.

As far as your question about personal drive, it came from an intense desire to not eat another bowl of instant ramen, ever.

And on the topic of luck, it's a common saying that the harder you work, the luckier you get.

Everyone has opportunity in America - some people are weighed down by past experiences, family and personal. I believe that's the biggest preventer of social mobility.

"fails to provide any clear examples of what makes a good teacher"

I can provide what I believe the be an example of a good teaacher: When I was in highschool I had a number of teachers but the one who stuck out the most a man who taught us religious education (I went to Catholic school.) On the first day of class, this man, to show just how important he thought that this one point was, dropped to his knees and shouted. His enthusiasm grabbed my attention and made the lecture much more interesting.

This man tought us more classes and each one he tought with a sense of dynamism and enthusiasm which was infectious. He knew his subject matter, was passionate about it, was intellectually curious, wanted us to be so as well. Not only did he hold himself to high standards, he held the class to high standards as well, and all of his together made us, particularly me, want to learn.

I once had the privilaege to sit in on the disertation of a man who was discussion what he believed the best approach to education was. His conclusion was that a teacher's role was was to act as a sort of guide to the student. To inspire the student and motivate him to learn. His belief was that teaching was first and formost, a relationship between the student and the teacher.

I agree. Growing up I loved school, but I went to a very small school with a very strong sense of community. I knew all the teachers and they all knew me and it helped to make learning a very rewarding experience. I think the crux of it is this: most of my immediate role models growing up loved to learn and loved their subjects and I learned from them to learn and an appreciation of the same subjects.

In today's public schools, there is a certain lack of interpersonalization eityher due to management style, regulations, or budget issues, which makes it harder for the teachers to connect with the students and teach. I don't know what the root cause of this is, but I think it is a major factor in the ineffectiveness of the system.

An objective standard for what is a good teacher or not can never work. It will be immediately gamed. It's like art, movies, music, etc. You and I immediately know if something is good or not, but we cannot write a set of rules defining good.

A good start. Building a Better Teacher: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html

For those that don't want to login: http://www.bugmenot.com/view/nytimes.com

Great article, thanks.

I read your argument, and then thought about what you wrote while reading your comment again. Then I realized that your argument is an argument against your argument.

Good teachers engage their students and make them think about problems around them and how to solve them. They present history as then ask if it's happening again around them. They teach English and then explain why learning the proper way to talk and write helps make their own expressions more poignant and well received.

In today's school system's the teachers are judged solely on the test scores of students and it's unheard of that a student might simply be a 'c' student instead of being the teachers fault. Teachers have to teach the tests and no longer have the proper time to teach theory and critical thinking. School lengths change at the whim of the school board depending on why survey has been read saying that 50 min classes are better than 90 min and so on. The school system has become a political playground and we are seeing the result of focusing on 'grades' over education.

I still fail to see why there is always this choice proposed that you can either have a educational system driven by test scores or have teachers who are able to teach students correctly, but not both.

Time and time again I hear the argument that teachers now have to "teach the test". If it's possible for a teacher to "teach the test", and students can pass it just by route memorization, well then surely these are some pretty horrible tests!

It's rare to hear people want to reform the actual format and content of the tests to ensure that "teaching the test" is less possible. You could argue, for example, allowing more free-form answers, or creative test formats that allow students to display critical thinking skills to the grader would do just as much to reduce the "teaching to the test problem" as throwing out tests as the primary means of evaluating performance, but you don't really hear this argument all that often.

Admittedly I know little about it, but I find it pretty hard to believe that the best teachers, who do engage their students and provide them a solid education, end up with classrooms of worldly students that end up failing standardized tests.

I agree, the issue as it's argued tends to become a false dichotomy. I've always found testing to be one of the most effective techniques for learning. That's not to say standardized tests are most effective types of tests for learning, but they certainly have their place in a public educational system.

But hell, what do I know? I also think rote memorization gets a bad rap.

Standardization is orthogonal to the issue of a well designed test. A simple illustrative example, based on a test of height:

Poor test design: no rule against standing on your toes.

Standardized test: all results must be reported in meters, as opposed to subjective units ("a wee bit taller than the person giving the test").

In one sense, of course, you are right. But I was using the term as a shorthand for the state standardized tests used to measure academic progress grade by grade (e.g., CAT, TAKS). These state standardized tests tend to measure the minimum requirements for a grade level.

But for a test to be a learning technique, it must challenging enough to make the students study new material. Otherwise, it's just an excercise in "monkey see, monkey do."

Personally, I think the future of standardized tests will be like ACT's Compass college placement test, which progressively adapts to the level of the student as he/she is taking it, yet still results in a comparative standardized score.

What? I know Ivy League graduates that can't pass state issue driving tests. I've read articles about computer scientists that can't configure a thermostat. Badly designed marginal tasks are not an accurate measure of person's performance.

The opinion card trumps the opinion card ad nauseum. However, I prefer well written (and civil) opinionated film reviews if for no other reason a strong opinion creates discussion and interest.

Further, specific and concrete examples of "good teachers" presented by either the film maker or reviewer would have been absurd (but the review's point was the the film didn't even attempt to address the issue of a good teacher). The notion of a "good teacher" is absurd, I think, because it doesn't exist. Consider your kindergarten teacher and advanced math prof. One was probably nurturing and kind, the other an expert in a complex subject. What do these two people have in common that can be communicated in the 90 minutes alloted to a film or the 5 minutes alloted to a blog post?

How does one master the material yet fail the test?

That never happens. But I think you can pass the test without ever mastering the material. Sheer memorization will allow students to pass tests and only have a minimal understanding of what they have covered.

I recommend everyone see this movie and decide for themselves.

I don't know if it will have this effect on everyone, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it. For me, seeing this movie was one of those experiences that divide your life into the part before it happened, and the part after.

I recommend everyone see this movie and decide for themselves.

If you don't want to see the movie but do want to learn more about the subject, see the long compilation of links about charter schools, teachers' unions, and bureaucratic fighting that characterizes the modern school system here: http://jseliger.com/2009/11/12/susan-engel-doesnt-get .

I originally started that post as a reply to a particular article, but as I kept coming across more and more information about how the system works, the bulleted list of links kept growing.

If you're pressed for time, read the first two: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/31/090831fa_fact_... and http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/15/081215fa_fact_... .

I'm excited by the number of people who have said this about the movie, as well as the debate about 'the right education reform' that the movie has spurred. Regardless of which side each person is on, it's clear that everyone is uniting under a common goal - to improve our nations schools - and it's inevitable that we would all have slightly different approaches and goals.

What I wonder is how many people like yourself will take that sudden gnawing question and begin working towards the change you believe in. Will it create a new wave of activists, movers, shakers and changers? Or just change the popular topic of conversation at cocktail parties and social news websites?

I'm with pg on this. Being European, where public school is more like the charters here, the poor state of US public education today horrifies me.

Would you mind explaining why it affected you so? What exactly are you thinking about? Are you trying to solve the issues it discusses?

I haven't seen it yet so I can't comment much (though I watched the NBC specials and have read quite a bit about it), however from my understanding it covers just a thin sliver of the real problems within our schools that have existed for some time already. In addition, I haven't heard that it offers much in terms of solutions, other than one that isn't especially exhaustive or touches anywhere near the root of the problems. Instead, it seems to shift power from one bureaucracy to another and shift teacher focus even further from student development and learning to surviving evaluations on the teacher and student fronts.

Anyway, the movie isn't out yet where I live but I am very curious to watch it and see if this is true for myself.

On another note, do you think we'll see a spike in Y Combinator funded education related startups as a result of this? :)

It's largely propaganda designed to promote Bill Gates' version of white supremacy dressed up as school reform. They're not advocating that Exeter replace its curriculum with KIPP, what they're advocating is for low-income minorities only. And the curriculum isn't designed based on the best practices from educational research, but rather it's designed to change the culture of minorities (to quote the NYT).[1]

The fact is that poor kids learn just as much or more in school as wealthy kids, they just start several years behind because of bad parenting.[2] And over the summers when wealthy kids are learning and going forward, the poor kids are actually going backwards.[3] Which is why the average 13 year old white kid has the same standardized test scores as the average 17 year old black kid.[4]

In addition, one of the most famous findings from all of education research is that within-school effects are greater than between-school effects.[3] That means that school tracking has a much greater impact on how much your child learns than whether they go to a good school or a bad school. (The movie touches on tracking but doesn't really explain it.) Especially since kids are sorted into tracks based more on their race and looks than on their ability. [5]

Anyway all the problems the movie mentions are completely true, and they need to be solved, but spreading good parenting best-practices and the changing systemic design of school itself are much better solutions than implementing KIPP, which as far as I can tell (after reading a bunch of articles and a book on it) is a huge step in the wrong direction. There is zero evidence that the program works at all in the long term, especially since it conflicts with all of the research on intrinsic motivation. These kids might make some academic gains in the short term, but in the long term it's hard to believe that they'll be anywhere near as well off as even middle class Americans. The fact that these programs produce decent test results in the short term has basically zero predictive value for determining the long term outcomes. Maybe they'll be better than I think, who knows, but advocating replacing our current school system with this for only low-income minorities without having the longterm data is a huge scam.

It's a shame because the Harlem Children Zone actually has a great baby college program for parents, but the movie just mentions this in passing. In reality programs like would be an excellent use of tax dollars because they are actually consistent (for the most part) with the current research on best practices for parenting, unlike KIPP which is just completely pulled out of some guy's ass. (Although most of these programs don't yet show good longterm results, so more tweaking is needed.)

It says a lot about America that our most popular school reform movie is targeted at people who don't read books.


[1] "Can the culture of child-rearing be changed in poor neighborhoods, and if so, is that a project that government or community organizations have the ability, or the right, to take on?" http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/magazine/26tough.html

[2] C.f. What It Takes To Make A Student

[3] C.f. Equality And Achievement

[4] It Take A City

[5] http://alexkrupp.typepad.com/sensemaking/2009/02/index.html

I haven't seen the movie and I haven't read nearly as much on education as you have, but if this is an issue you are passionate about, you shouldn't accuse Bill Gates of "white supremacy". That marks you as a crackpot and makes people much less likely to take you seriously.

Right now wealthy white kids and low-income minorities are educated in pretty much the same way. It's a terrible system, but at least it's more or less equal. What Bill Gates et al. are advocating is creating a completely separate system for low-income minorities, with dramatically more hours spent in schools and away from parents/community. If that's something we want to have an open and intellectually honest debate about then I'm all for that once we have the data, but forcing this program on minorities in secret in bullshit.

I understand what you're saying, I'm just suggesting that your message might get more traction if you phrase it differently, or consider what his motivations might actually be. The guy has donated $1.5 billion to fund scholarships for minority students in the U.S., $750 million for vaccines in Africa, and many other initiatives that I can't remember right now. The idea that he is a white supremacist is laughable. He's practically Robin Hood - extracting wealth from mostly white, mostly corporate America via illegal means, in order to give it to minorities who are poor.

On an interesting side note, Steve Sailer has said something like what you're saying about this topic, although I imagine he's coming at it from a different angle than you: http://isteve.blogspot.com/2009/05/todays-universal-preschoo...

while i agree with your basic point (personal judgement on Gates not adding value to the comment) I'd like to point out that even if someone does some good to non-wasp people he can still be a white supremacist.

E.g. Cecil Rhodes was held in high estimation from the Ndebele people to the point of receiving a king-like burial ritual from them, but he still thought that british were god's gift to mankind.

Fair enough. For the record I have no doubt he's acting with good intentions. I just think the outcome will be unfortunate.

awaits fulfillment of Godwin's law

You're making some very strong comments against KIPP, which I think (after watching a documentary on it) puts you directly at odds with the KIPP administrators who have years of data and research to back up their work.

You say they're missing long term data - how else do would they acquire the relevant data without actually implementing the schools? It's not a huge scam, it's an experiment in lifting up the bottom of our society. And it seems to be working.

I don't care if it's pulled out of some guy's ass, as long as it works and validated.

"Directly at odds with the KIPP administrators who have years of data and research to back up their work."

As of a year ago when Paul Tough's book came out all they had were standardized test scores. Not sure if there is any new research, but as far as I've seen there are no studies on longterm outcomes yet.

"How else do would they acquire the relevant data without actually implementing the schools?"

Ignoring the fact that the KIPP methodology is at odds with established research on what leads to good outcomes, I'd say that we should implement the schools. But we shouldn't force all schools to adopt this system until we know they work. It's not the schools that are a scam, it's the movement to spread the system throughout the country without properly validating it first.

How long should we wait? We have copious evidence of how flawed the current system is.

> How long should we wait? We have copious evidence of how flawed the current system is.

You could minimize the damage done by "the current system" (control group) by making the majority of schools into testing grounds for various competing educational theories, and see which one produces the best results.

It's by and large not possible for the state to change the parenting practices of actual parents; if it were, the innumerable attempts from the Progressive era forward would have been successful. It's also not possible to make large-scale systemic reforms and changes of schools without somehow dealing with the problems of teachers' unions: if you don't somehow deal with the problem of teachers who aren't just bad, but who actively don't care or aren't learning how to teach better, the idea that you can effectively implement the kinds of changes you're talking about is improbable at best.

It says a lot about America that our most popular school reform movie is targeted at people who don't read books.

I read books and haven't watched the movie, but in effect if not intent you're arguing for the status quo. You can't change the status quo without changing the teachers' unions. You can't easily negotiate with them either, so charter schools are an imperfect but useful way of isolating the problem to the extent possible.

The state may or may not be able to improve the parenting practices of actual parents, but it definitely can wage a decades long "war on drugs" that disproportionately ensnares the poor and minorities in the legal system and follows up on that by imposing disproportionately severe sentences on them. By doing so, it can help tilt the balance towards bad parenting in such communities by ensuring that more children in those communities only have a single custodial parent, at best.

But please, let's continue to act like we can solve the problem by demonizing the teachers unions.

I completely agree with reforming the unions. Ideally we would just eliminate them. The only problem is that will never happen because schools have a 100+ year history of being extremely abusive toward teachers. The unions prevent any real change for the better, but they also keep a lot of bad stuff out of school as well.

Is there something special about U.S. that makes schools abusive towards teachers?

Because there are many countries without teacher unions that don't abuse teachers.

Yes. The U.S. has always had a popular culture that is deeply anti-intellectual and teachers are (or were, at one point) a form of intellectual.

"Is there something special about U.S. that makes schools abusive towards teachers?"

For one thing our puritanical roots. Before unions teachers regularly got fired for things like interracial dating, going to a bar, being in town after dark, etc.

Do you have any reason to believe the US would continue these practices if we eliminated unions today?

Way back in 1910 small town America, you could be fired from all sorts of respectable professions for many of the things you mentioned. Certainly, no one would want their money manager doing disreputable things like what you mention. And yet even without a union, I've managed to avoid getting fired for interracial dating. I've even gone to a bar in town after dark with my boss!

I think you are engaging in the post-hoc fallacy.


The unions are easy scapegoats, but as you point out, there is a reason they are what they are.

Let's also not forget that the good old days of American schooling depended on a society where slightly over half the population had severely limited opportunities in the workforce. Even with the unions, teachers wages were depressed, and the entire profession devalued because other careers and jobs weren't open to women.

You can't loudly proclaim that education is a complicated problem that defies simple solutions while at the same time oversimplifying the entirety of the nation's problems in false dichotomies, saying things like: The film has other flaws. It insists all of America’s problems would be solved if only poor kids would memorize more: Pittsburgh is falling apart not because of deindustrialization, but because its schools are filled with bad teachers. American inequality isn’t caused by decades of Reaganite tax cuts and deregulation, but because of too many failing schools.

Well, I suppose you can. But you can't if you want me to take your rhetoric seriously.

The author, Aaron Swartz, harps on the fact that the film doesn't show enough teaching and instead "hides behind charts and graphs." The author would rather the film show "terrified kids up on the big screen." This seems to me like favoring anecdotes over data.

The author also attributes the crisis in American education to standardized tests. He doesn't back this up. Standardized tests work well in countries like China and India, from which so many of our engineering grad students hail. Granted that no standardized test is perfect, it boggles my mind that Swartz would call it the educational crisis.

Those brilliant Chinese and Indian grad students are cream skimmed off the top — there's not just millions of merely good students in universities in their home countries, but also two billion mediocre students doing manual labor.

If standardized tests didn't work (i.e., didn't separate good students from bad ones), how could they be used to skim the cream off the top?

I don't think there is any proof that it is specifically the standardized tests that cause that minority to succeed, but rather the value parents and culture places on education. That makes all the difference.

Take ten smart kids and stick them under an oak tree and you'll have a better school than a 100 million dollar facility full of idiots. That's the real problem, and there's no solving it.

I am not sure if that's a solution for education, or the summary of a certain Pink Floyd song.

What if you just have middling kids? I agree with the gist of your statement, but I'd back up a bit. Put 10 kids from families where education is a key concern under an oak tree and they will do better than 10 similar kids at the fancy school. I'm all for making teacher's unions more responsible, but they aren't whats failing inner city/rural schools. Its culture, family, and community. If a respect for education doesn't exist in a community no amount of money, technology, teacher reform, or grants will make a difference.

I disagree. While all those things you note (culture and family) are extremely important... remember that kids spend a LOT of time in school. In fact it might be the majority of their waking hours. Schools make a huge difference. And good teachers do too.

I've seen great teachers in horrible schools make a huge difference. The tough part though is that follow-up with kids is tough. You see a class make incredible improvements one year and then over the next four years have less than stellar teachers again. They slowly give back what thy've gained.

This is why the Harlem Children Zone is an example of the right step.

You realize that the Harlem Children's Zone was not particularly effective, and simply benefited from a downward drift in difficulty of tests, right?


I'm familiar with this data. I'm not sure a downward drift is an accurate way to state it -- some said it became too predictable. All they did was simply change the line for what is considered "proficient". The actual test scores from year to year didn't really change though.

Here's a nice graphic from the NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2010/08/01/education/01sch...

The real problem is that we have an artificial line for proficiency. If you look at the graphics you can see that they can move that line once again, and again largely affect minority schools downward, even if they make substantial gains over the next few years.

It would be far better to have each school release mean/median/stdev or deciles of their scores. This will really give you a much better idea of the improvement in a school.

But anyways, back to HCZ. They've still shown great improvement, even if proficiency has taken a step back from 100% in some cases due to a change in the proficiency line.

The teacher is oddly missing in your scenario.

I have a feeling - that was the point.

Perhaps he was alluding a school structured something like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudbury_school

I have a few friends who went to the original Sudbury school, Sudbury Valley School.

One of them recently suggested that supplementing their school's non-curriculum with Sal Khan's online exercises (explained here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRf6XiEZ_Y8) might make for something close to an ideal education.

Do you feel like your friends got a good education? Did they feel like they did?

She got an excellent education in being an independent thinker and a very creative person -- but she's been using the Khan Academy over the past few weeks to learn Algebra II.

They have wireless Internet ;-)


You have a point, but guidance is important. Without it, there's no structure (which is worse than a rigid structure, imo), hence no directed focus, hence no learning except by accident. A teacher, or parent, or anything else that would fulfil the role of a guide in a child's thought process and experimentation yet at the same time "step out of their way", if you will, is what educational systems should be striving for, in my humble opinion.

Of course, since I'm so humble, I may be wrong and ignored. :-)

So what you're saying is that all problems are caused by idiots, and things are as good as they possibly can be given the existence of idiots and the fact that they are apparently in majority, therefore it's futile for us enlightened folks to try to improve education in general, and the best course of action is to join Mensa and home school our kids.

I agree standardized tests focused on memorization aren't educational, but surely tests that require problem solving ability (math) are worthwhile. Without standardized tests, how else are we supposed to quantify how well students and by extension their teachers are performing? The author doesn't suggest an alternative here.

Your question more or less assumes that standardization is the right answer. Let's start a step or two back: Do we need to measure students and teachers at all? Presuming we do, why do we need to do it via standardized tests? Do they even measure what we want to know?

My daughter goes to a school that does well by these measures. It _is_ a good school, but the teachers basically teach to the test* -- given the rather punitive structure of the laws, they don't have much choice. Performance is directly tied to funding. Is that really the best way to teach kids? I'm doubtful.

I think we do need good teachers, but I'm not at all convinced that test scores are a good way to measure that, anymore than lines of code are a good way to measure programmers. I do want kids to learn, but I'm not very convinced this is the best route to that.

I don't think there is any easy solution. Kids with parents who value education tend to do better -- that's a huge factor. Resources certainly help; those of us who care tend to live in better school districts (often with higher tax rates) -- is that really a sensible way to run the schools? I mean, it works for me, but why should we under-resource kids whose parents don't care about education? But there is no doubt that you can pour money at this problem and get nowhere if you spend it poorly. (That's true of all problems, though.)

All this emphasis on education can go overboard. Where I live, even in grade school they get only one short recess a day (unlike the two, slightly longer, ones I grew up with). Does that make sense? In a nation with a national obesity epidemic? And, even in very early grades, they come home with a LOT of homework. When are they supposed to go outside and play?

*I don't mean they literally teach the tests, but they certainly spend a lot of time structuring their materials around the way test questions are phrased, and in teaching kids test-taking strategies. Do I think fourth-graders should need to learn how to take tests? No.

@adamc - I understand you want to do everything you can do encourage your daughters education and I'm sure that will serve her well. I'm my experience, however, I had more to do with my own motivation in school than my parents. I tried harder when scores mattered. Throughout elementary school, I spent most of my school time day-dreaming and most of my time outside of class blowing off homework. I could deal with being scolded by parents and teachers. My parents cared how I did in school, but I didn't.

When grades started to matter in middle and high school, my competitive side came out. I decided I was going to get better grades than most because that would lead to a future with more options. I also cared more because my peers cared more and I was socially self-conscious. When I started trying harder, I started learning more and became genuinely interested in subject matter. My grades lead to me getting into a good college where students were far more motivated on average than my high school. That ended up being where I met my best friends and eventual startup co-founder.

Did my best learning experiences come from studying for tests? No, they came less structured classes and from my own programming projects during and after college. However, I do feel that grades and standardized tests lit a fire under my booty to try harder and eventually led to me meeting more motivated people.

I think one of the major issues with standardized test is how they are structured. I spent most of my education in Canada (Quebec) and we had test government created test at the end of the semester for each subject. These test were usually used to adjust the grades given during the semester to more reflect the performance on this test. Teachers could give you all As but the end of semester test would tell if you really learn most of what the class was supposed to teach.

I finish high school (last 2 years) in Florida where I had to take the FCAT. The first thing that I found dumb about this test was that it wasn't at all tied to the subjects I was learning. It was meant to test more generic level concepts, in turn this exam was a pure joke and proved nothing other than a lot of kids have trouble writing an essay.

My point is, standardized test should be used to keep similar classes at different schools from diverging too much curriculum wise. An algebra class at school X shouldn't be completely off from the same course at school Y. Testing random problem solving skills and language isn't going to help with that.

How would you know if the kids learned anything unless you test them? Would you get on an airplane where the pilot did not take any licensing tests, and all you know is he showed up for flight school?

I think the problem with education is the same problem we have with health care. That is, the belief that every single problem can be solved by just increasing the budget.

Let's face it, American kids are generally lazy and poorly-disciplined and this is the primary reason that our schools suck. We always want to blame the teachers, teacher unions, school administration when we really have to blame ourselves.

Even much better teachers and organized schools won't be able to educate kids who don't want to learn. Subjects like math, science, and English aren't "boring." American kids are just too lazy to put in the work to appreciate them.

The real gap in American education is an "effort gap."

I attended a lower-middle income Southern California high school with a primarily caucasian and latino student population. Neither group of students cared that much about school and test scores showed it. We did have a great sports teams. The city over the hill, Rowland Heights, had a primarily Asian student population. They had great scores, graduation rates, etc. However, their football team sucked. The asian parents pushed their kids hard to learn. The parents of students at my high school only pushed them on the sports field and not in the classroom.

Pedagogy, class size, quality of teachers, testing/not testing - these things are all important but miniscule in impact when compared to actual student effort. I think charter schools do well in large part to the fact that they attract kids who care. Their success will diminish once you include kids who don't.

Instead of asking "Why Johnny can't read," we should be asking "Why Johnny doesn't get off his ass and study."

I wish I had time to go into this -- it's a critical issue with our life today. But I don't, so I'll make a couple hopefully pithy and not snarky comments.

First of all, you have to measure things and you have to have somebody accountable for things. This is true no matter what the thing you are talking about. I don't see how much hand-waving and complaining about society's morals and values is going to get you beyond this extremely reasonable requirement.

Second -- and this is ironic -- folks have been complaining about the quality of schools for years. Some of you guys act like this is the first you've heard of it. We've dropped boatloads of money in education. Wake up and see where all this centralized planning, factory-mentality, and unionized system has gotten you. I think it's great people are paying attention. We've missed you. Welcome to the party.

It's a very complicated situation, and I don't see a solution emerging any time soon, unfortunately. I know I called out unions and such in my graph above, but in reality it's a very complex situation. The best I can come up with is that you're better off giving the money to the parents in the form of vouchers and letting various systems compete against each other. Or you can keep trying to make one-size-fits-all solutions. Good luck with that.

To emphasize just how long this has been an issue:

Why Johnny Can't Read was published in 1955.

"Federal Aid to Education" was a big political issue before "Sputnik ended that debate" (it was launched in 1957; http://www.jerrypournelle.com/view/2010/Q1/view613.html).

Heinlein also touched on this in Have Space Suit—Will Travel in 1958.

Here in Memphis, where we recently received a $90 million grant from the Gates Foundation, it would be nice JUST to graduate kids who could read on a middle school reading level. Forget sending them to college or trying to create some kind of creative class out of these kids, they don't even have the basics. THAT is the problem. We aren't even getting these kids a mediocre education where they can read, write, add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

This is going to sound a bit Machiavellian, I'm surprised that the fear of failure has not been brought up as a strong motivator. I'm assuming the selection bias in the movie shows hard working impoverished children who want to do better in school-- but are they not motivated when they consider the alternatives?

My wife works at the best school in the county (not country!). If a student fails a single test, she is told that the kid will be sat down after school, retaught the course work, and be given the test a 2nd time. Any student with a learning disability on record (including ADHD) is all but exempt from any standards set by the teacher.

Furthermore, teachers are encouraged to "round up" to look better for the school district. If a student fails a class, they will spend time in front of a computer for 3 weeks to make up the credit. If a student fails to have enough credits before graduation, they will still let you walk the stage and you can simply come back during the summer to sit in front of a computer.

There's no social stigma of failure in the school's culture anymore, and that also comes from the family life (the F from jamwt's post). The student could care less about grades because the parents don't care and they will just have them work at the shop after high school.

This carries on with the teachers. Tenure is a very dangerous asset that a teacher can have, and it keeps the bad teachers in. Students will come into my wife's English class without a basic knowledge of sentence structure and many other things that ought to have been known by this age, and the grade level below her shows videos for a very large amount of time. They will read 1/4 of Romeo and Juliet and just watch the rest on TV without any analysis of the material.

This is a social and political system in which individual failure has been discouraged, removed, and subsidized. While positive reinforcements (good grades, more money after graduation) can certainly help, the fact that the lack of hard work can be shrugged off so easily has to be a component of school under-performance.

I question the entire notion, seemingly sacrosanct for decades, that one mode of learning should be made compulsory for all. Did we evolve with this mode of learning? No.

And what about the idea that government is somehow the ideal institution to dispense enlightenment? Would we trust it with dispensing the news or even the authoring of a comic book?

Maybe someone who has voted this confusing essay up could explain why.

The author is saying, the problem with education in the US is not that poor teachers are nearly impossible to fire, but is really something else?

It seems an improvement making it easier to fire poor teachers would be of great help. Why is the author highlighting this idea as an example of a bad idea? To me, this would be the most positive single change that could be made.

The point being that the worth of a teacher is measured by their students' scores on standardized tests. So which teachers are 'good' and which are 'poor' (i.e. what the 'correct' method of gauging teaching success), seems to be the arena of disagreement.

Well, switching our schools to a model of choice, where parents choose where to send their kids, really is a meta-solution beyond test scores. Test scores are used to exemplify kids' behavior because it's easy, it's concrete (in the "what gets measured gets managed" sort of way), but I doubt most parents who flee district schools for charter schools start or end with test scores: instead they consider culture, goals, outcomes, safety. The test scores are used to prove good charter schools can be, and are better than district schools, but they aren't the only measure - just the most compact one to communicate.

There's a more general problem that judging a teacher concretely, fairly, consistently, is damn-near impossible. I don't think there's an easy answer to the question of what an administrator would use in the absence of value-added education (i.e. the application of test scores), but I'll bet the parents act independently of that system, and serve as a check on it.

I think that depends on the quality of the parent, and the values (and/or critical-thinking ability) of the parent(s) in question.

I'd argue, in an individual case: yes, in aggregate, you're subject to the common thought and culture of the group, which is open to change over time as outcomes present themselves.

In terms of actual solutions, I think programs like KIPP are promising. If someone can demonstrate the right way to run a school system on a small scale, we can learn from it and encourage adoption of those changes nationally.

KIPP does well, but it is very much at odds with the way a normal school is run. KIPP schools demand a hell of a lot from the teachers who work there. You need people of high ability and dedication who are mostly motivated by the intrinsic reward of a job done well. These people are like the Special Forces of education, and I don't think there are that many of them. I'd love to be wrong.

It's true that you cannot mass replicate a system that depends on exceptional people.

It's sort of like vast quantities of high quality goods were not produced until people figured out how to produce such without requiring highly skilled craftsmen.

Sorry for the length. I'd write a tl;dr but I can't stomach the idea of people reading random shit online being picky about their time.

I try not to generally opine too much. I think maybe I'm too cynical, too weary of ideologues when I usually just see shades of gray, too ambivalent given the fact that I feel "public" knowledge (including my own) is painfully devoid of the real complexities that make these issues difficult to solve.

But I've been feeling strangely compelled to say something on this issue and this movie because it feels kind of personal. I have several close family members that have spent significant portions of their career (from teaching to counseling to administration) in California public education for the last 40 years. (My opinion, however, is based on my observations of their experiences, but doesn't necessarily directly reflect their own beliefs.)

Now, this is a simplified model, of course, but there seems to me to be this function that (roughly) determine's your "success", using the common score-based or elite-college-acceptance-based measure, in educational pursuits:

S = ?I + ?F + ?P + ?T

S is Success

I is Intelligence ("Nature" IQ, Personal Ambition, etc.. innate properties)

F is Family Factors ("Nurture", Education of Parents, Expectations, etc)

P is Peer Group (aka, the ambient F + I of your adjacent students)

T is Teaching (quality of instruction, instructional program, instructional personnel)

They're not entirely independent, but close enough to do fake science. For the sake of argument, let's say "I" is fixed for each individual, so I'm ignoring it.

The big question, it seems, is what exactly the constants are at each question mark.

I believe these films and essays and ponderances and political campaigns that focus so entirely on the "T", are focusing on the wrong thing. It probably has the smallest constant--and the least impact, positive or negative.

Granted: there are numerous, valid arguments to make about tenure being terrible. There are myraid complaints that can be fairly leveled against unions. Yes, public educational programs can sometimes be uninspired, obsolete, and unambitious.

But fantastic teachers in "bad schools" do worse (in their students' aggregate S terms) than apathetic teachers in "good schools." If you talked to teachers, and they were in a candid mood, my guess is you'd discover this is widely accepted.

They know how hopeless it can be to fight upstream in a "bad school"... and that's because the F and P factors are stacked against you, and those constants are much larger.

Teachers, even good teachers, seldom can trump the influence of family and peers.

If we take the charter schools in the film as an example, I think self-selection bias is at play. It really fits _perfectly_ with the forumla and the low-T-constant theory:

The parents who elect to enter the lottery are exhibiting a strong "F" factor, and, if they succeed in winning a slot, their child enters an environment with a bunch of other kids from high-F families, resulting in a great "P".

And yes, the teachers might be better too, and the instruction might be better. But the teachers themselves are self-selecting! The very act of teaching at a school where people fight to get in generally provides a student body full of willing students coming from encouraging families. Of course those kids will learn!

And the "better" the teacher is, the more mobile they often are and the better shot they have at the "good" teaching jobs.. aka, the classrooms full of willing students.

Granted, there are amazing, indefatigable teachers who spend a career teaching in "bad" classrooms, but they're the exception, not the rule. In my observation, the common case is enthusiastic, smart, well-educated young teachers can stick it out for a few years. Then, they're human after all, they capitulate, exhausted, and drag their shattered ideals to a different school with a more receptive classroom environment (if they remain in teaching at all). It's job satisfaction; it's self-preservation. (Analogy: generally, great hackers don't want to be test engineers even if that's possibly where they could do the most good.)

I say: the real problem is cultural (and literally, cultural, not racial). Maybe, it's who our heros are, and our parents' heros are, and the dubious-expected-outcome nature of the "American Dream." Maybe it's what's viewed as "the way out" by older brothers and sisters and friends. Maybe's it's a generation's assumption that the last 100 years of American prosperity was inevitable, predestined, God-given, and not the product of a whole damn lot of work by their predecessor citizens. Hell, I dunno, cause figuring that out is the hard part that probably has many potential answers.

If you really look at all those other countries that ourscore the US--I think it's worth examining the cultural assessment of the value of study. The classrooms, the teachers, the salaries, and the very students, are a natural outgrowth of that.

But that means it's the F, and consequently the P that have the biggest constants. The T is--honestly--noise. A blip in the trend line. Good teachers can accelerate good students, but they don't make them.

So why isn't this the predominant dialog?

Teachers and teaching are an easy scapegoat because, yes, they have evident problems, and because it's sort of deceptively intuitive that if people aren't learning, it's because they're not being taught. But I think, really, the criticism centers on them because teachers aren't us--every family, and critically, every voter. People want an outlet for their anger when Americans are undereducated. But what politician will face the camera and say to the voting population "it's mostly your fault"? Who wants to go see a movie where the audience is the villain? (Aside: actually, that sounds kind of rad.)

So, shades of gray reality check: I have no idea what the answer is, but the first step seems to be ensuring we've actually identified the problem. That's the programmer in me talking.

Beautiful analysis, thank you.

To take your analysis one more step, I would like to break out the "I" component of your model a bit further. The "I" could comprise of "N" (inner nature/general intelligence) and "B" behavior, as I believe behavior can fluctuate independently of inner nature/intelligence and so should perhaps not be grouped.

Most behavior (B) early on arises out of primary influences. These influences are mostly people who one idolizes or looks up to, which depends some on one's inner nature (N). For some, the family (F) is the main influence and role model, other times friends/peers (P) are, and other times other societal influences (movies, media, community, etc.) are the leading influencers. Within schools, where a large part of a child's life is spent, teachers (T) are the primary influencers.

Given this, and given that influencing children is easier than influencing parents/adults/community/media, reeducating or focusing on teacher quality sounds like a good option. The "T" improvement would then improve the "B", the "B" improve the "P" and "F", and life would be very hypothetically good.

S = ?F + ?P + ?B + ?T + ?N

So here I'm not saying that teachers are a primary fault for the problems, however my main point is that I do believe they can supply massive positive influence (just like the P and F can), which in most cases they aren't doing. Perhaps this shows that the role of a teacher needs to be rethought from authoritative instructor focusing on knowledge transfer; to friend, mentor, care-taker, and personal guide to each individual in hopes of supplying inspiration.

Right. Let's not overlook the fact that T can influence both B and P. The equation is nonlinear, and IMO dominated by cross-terms.

Teachers and teaching methods that are engaging, for example, will tend to promote better behavior within the classroom. Teachers and methods that inspire most of the class to think learning is "cool" and worthwhile will improve the whole peer group. There is a lot of feedback involved. Unfortunately, as you point out, the expected "role of a teacher" isn't really well geared to produce excellent teachers using excellent methods.

Don't apologize for the length. It's a brilliant and inspired analysis. If everyone who had something significant to say would refrain from saying it because of its length, we'd be poorer on the aggregate. Thank you for sharing it.

IIRC in "freakonomics" (and underlying papers) quite a bit of time is spent analyzing why kids are successful or not, and proving (for economists' values of "proving") that peer influence is by far the most discriminating factor, even above family.

So the function that "seem to be" was at least also statistically recongnized and studied :)

(Also, it would point in the direction that what is needed for better education is a more homogeneous mix of the kids, I guess)

Yeah, I remember that from freakanomics. I'd imagine there's an age where the monotonically-decreasing F and monotonically-increasing P line cross on the plot--maybe middle school years...

>The big question, it seems, is what exactly the constants are at each question mark.

I hate to do this, but mathematically it wouldn't matter what those individual constants are since they're all being multiplied together. The equation you want probably looks more like

S = ?I + ?F + ?P + ?T


S = I^? x F^? x P^? x T^?

Yes, you're right. Additive is what I meant, fixed.

This is a much better argument than is usual in these discussions. But I think it suffers from a common flaw: your observation that the students of good teachers in bad schools tend to do less well those of poor teachers in good schools.

This metric is not that useful, for reasons you correctly identify. What would be useful (as far as evaluating teaching goes) but which people seem quite averse to measuring, is the rate of relative improvement, ie the first derivative of aggregated test scores over time.

I'm not sure it suffers that flaw--I may not have articulated it well, but my point wasn't that teaching cannot be improved, or these methods do not improve it. Or that it's not worthwhile to improve it... it certainly is! (implied: and your method may very well be a valid way to achieve that improvement)

It's a re-examination of goals, in a way. Improving teaching is a goal, but only so much as it serves to better educate students. So: is that the largest component in the US's current production of poorly educated students?

If I were making a movie, to invoke emotion and to inspire people (read: wide audiences) to think and to change, is that the most valuable way I could challenge the audience? Is that the part of the equation with the largest impact? I'm arguing it isn't.

I see what you mean, but it's the only part we can solve via education policy. Important factors like economics or revenue stability need attention too but are outside the control of educators.

Although I loved your entire analysis, I'd upvote you just for your second sentence. Priceless!

> At the end of the day, we have an economy that works for the rich by cheating the poor and unequal schools are the result of that, not the cause.

There may be some backing argument that would change my mind entirely, but this seems like crazy agenda-before-the-horse thinking.

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