Stupid in America

Last Friday, 20/20 aired another John Stossel special title "Stupid in America". In an email to myself and some friends, Tom Hockett asked us what we thought of it. My response was as follows:

Stossel's report...Is right on. While some of us had the liberty of going to school in good suburban schools, most people in America receive a crappy education. Education research has shown that there are far better ways of educating individuals (Montessori method in particular) than are currently employed. By high school, most students have lost any desire to actually learn, something that used to excite us as young children. And teachers are not motivated to help the students learn in a manner that is inspiring or exciting.

As a good friend of mine once reported...
"After teaching railroad safety to thousands of students from kindegarden to high school, I witnessed a slow degradation of interest in school. The grade school students were bright eyed and excited to be learning. Every day was an adventure. Middle school students had lost some of that passion, though there were still sparks here and there. But by high school, they all looked like they had been beat down into submission. None of them were excited about being in school."

Because schools don't have to compete with each other, there is no motivation to push for changes or to challenge the status quo. Teacher unions compound this lack of action. There is little hope that public schools will change on their own. It will require outside intervention to make it happen.

The only problem I have with Stossel's report is his advocacy for vouchers. While vouchers do have positive short term results (as isolated tests have shown), its the long term consequences I'm worried about. It never fails that if government money is offered to private enterprises, those enterprises will come addicted to that money and will eventually submit to greater and greater controls and restrictions. In time, these "private" schools will come to resemble the "public" schools in every respect, till they become indistinguishable.

The only real solution is total dismantling of the public school system (or conversation to a private system). I know this will never happen in my lifetime, but it is the only thing that will work. Perhaps vouchers could be used as an intermediary step toward a private system, but politicians would never advocate such a radical plan and most special interest groups advocating vouchers don't emphasis enough that vouchers is only a step toward total privatization.

So in the end I'm not hopeful toward any proposed solution. That is why Brenda and I will never send our child to a public school. Either we'll find a good private school or we'll home school.

This email sparked some good conversation about our school system; some of the limitations with it, some of the limitations with the Stossel special, and what is the most appropriate solution.

Justin Deal sums up the problem:

And, the crappy schools just keep churning out more idiots who will continue to lack objective reasoning. And thus, we are probably screwed.

I'm probably not as pessimistic as Justin, but he makes a good point. Parents that grew up in a poor school system indoctrinate their own children with I don't care attitude. Teachers working with such children become frustrated and give up trying to fix the parenting miscreants. Either the teachers lack of effort or the administrators lack of support further exasperates the situation. A war starts where everyone starts pointing fingers at everyone else for their lack of responsibility. It becomes much easier to attack others than to assume responsibility for their own actions. They don't think objectively about what the child needs nor what they can do to best help that child to succeed in life (not just school). As Justin also says:

I didn't know about logic till Logic 101 in college. For Christ's sake, 18 years go by, and you don't learn about logical thought? No wonder so many people are braindead.

No wonder indeed. School has become a place to indoctrinate children, not teach them how to think critically. That for the most part is because it is a public institution.

As for some of the limitations of the Stossel special, Tom Hockett had some insightful comments:

I know Stossel cited the results of the 2003 PISA -- Programme for International Student Assessment, but give me some context. Are there other, similar tests that support or refute the results of PISA? Also, I've heard/read there is more than one international measure of K-12 student creativity, ingenuity, independence, etc. (all attributes that I personally value near the same level as I value base intelligence), and I've read/heard that U.S. students smoke the competition using those measures. Why didn't Stossel attempt to report those findings, a.k.a. the "good news?"

I commented back that despite our supposed poor education, we still produce some of the most productive and happy adults in the world. Why is this ignored in his report? Well, like Tom noted, Stossel had a agenda. It brought an alternative educational funding initiative to the forefront of national debate. Surely, the are improvements that can be had in our education system, even if it ranks highly in multiple areas. But I still believe that the issue should be more fundamental than "what works best".

I am not a pragmatist. I am an objectivist. I want the objectively right solution. I want total privativation of our educational system because the government has no right to steal my money for any cause. The fact that the education may be substandard is irrelevant (although sad none-the-less).


  1. A couple thoughts.

    Thomas Sowell once said something like: "Not only can Johnny not read, and Johnny can't write, but Johnny can't think. And he doesn't know what thinking is. Johnny confuses thinking with feelings." For a really scary account of public education read Thomas Sowell's "Inside American Education." The first 100 pages are on K-12. It is scary.

    Michael Barone wrote a book called "Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future" in which he talks about how the business environment in America is able to talk children who don't have an education, and don't know how to work, and help them grow up and get an education on the job. So even with the horrible public school system, our country has a chance because business is able to help our youth overcome the handicaps of the public school system.

  2. John:

    I'm interested in many aspects of your post on "Stupid in America," but one of the more intriguing things that caught my attention was this comment: "Education research has shown that there are far better ways of educating individuals (Montessori method, in particular) than are currently employed."

    I would love to get my hands on education research that proves the strength of any educational method. Montessori is fine. I'll take it. Can you point me to a study?

    My feeble attempts to unearth solid quantitative studies (ones published in peer-reviewed journals and that have results that have been repeated upon further testing) that support or refute the efficacy of any educational method have been fruitless.

    Actually, the Montessori method would be of particular interest. While I don't know much about it, I'm interested in learning more. Also, I was under the impression that grading and assessment were discouraged by Dr. Montessori, which would, perhaps, make it even more difficult to do the following:

    * Johnny is 7 and beginning the second grade. He's white. He lives in Smithfield, Ill. He comes from a middle-income family. Throughout the second grade, Johnny learned arithmetic using the "Montessori Method" at St. Mary's Catholic School in Smithfield. An "excellent" teacher -- who has taught the Montessori method for 10 years -- taught Johnny.

    * Timmy is 7 and beginning the second grade. He's white. He lives in Smithfield, Ill. He comes from a middle-income family. Throughout the second grade, Timmy learned arithmetic using "Method A" at St. Mary's Catholic School in Smithfield. An "excellent" teacher -- who has taught Method A for 10 years -- taught Timmy.

    * At the end of the second grade. Timmy and Johnny's arithmetic skills were tested. Johnny scored 20 percent higher than Timmy.

    * Therefore, Montessori is better than Method A.

    This is the kind of study that gets my attention, and I haven't seen, much, if any of it out there.

    Yet I hear, read and see a lot of folks saying that one educational method is better than another. Where's the proof?


  3. Tom,
    You bring up some good questions. Unfortunately, I probably do not have the answers you are looking for. Since I have not studied much education theory in general, mostly the Montessori Method, my answers may be a bit biased. My love affair with the Montessori Method is more philosophical than empirically based. However, there are several studies, now going on 70 years or more that demonstrated how phenomenal her method was in educating children. From what I’ve seen, many pre-schools and elementary schools have adopted portions of her method, so it may be difficult to differentiate between particular methods today.

    I'll write more about the Montessori Method in my next post.


  4. This probably isn't definitive enough for Tom, but this seems pretty legitimate:


    I'd encourage you to come to your own conclusion, but to summarize from what I read:

    After adjusting for gender, race, socioeconomic factors, etc., kids who attended Montessori schools from ages 3 to 11 and then attended public schools went on to score higher on the ACT in Math and Science than kids who did not attend Montessori schools. (Scores in English and Social studies were statistically the same.) So aside from any benefits while attending the Montessori school, the affect is clearly a long-lasting, and likely fundamental one.