U.S. education failure: Running out of excuses

13 Dec

Education tends to be populated by idealists and dreamers who are true believers and who think of what is possible. Otherwise, why would one look at children in second grade and think one of those children could win the Nobel Prize or be president? Maybe, that is why education as a discipline is so prone to fads and the constant quest for the “Holy Grail” or the next, next magic bullet. There is no one answer, there is what works for a particular population of kids

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post is reporting in the article, U.S. school excuses challenged about a new book by Marc S. Tucker, “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.” In his book, Tucker examines some of the excuses which have been used to justify the failure of the American education system.

Here are some common excuses for poor U.S. performance and why Tucker thinks they are wrong. I also have included commentary from Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, an expert on PISA.

  1. Our scores are lower because so many of our children are from immigrant families speaking different languages. Tucker says “the reading performance of children without an immigrant background in the United States is only marginally better than the performance of all students. It turns out that Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong, all with percentages of immigrant students equal to or greater than the United States, all out-perform the United States in reading.” Loveless says Tucker needs to prove that immigrants in those countries are as poor and culturally deprived as U.S. immigrants.
  2. Our suburban kids do fine, but our national average PISA results are dragged down by urban schools that serve low-income students. In fact, Tucker says, the U.S. suburban average is only slightly above the average for all developed nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors PISA.
  3. If top-performing countries had to educate as many disadvantaged students as we do, they would not perform as well. PISA has results for what it calls “resilient” students, those who are in the bottom quarter of an index of economic, social and cultural status but who score in the top quarter of the PISA achievement measures. The higher portion of students like that in a country, the theory goes, the better its schools are doing in educating the students who are most difficult to teach. The percentage of resilient students in the United States is below the PISA average. Twenty-seven countries, including Mexico, are ahead of us. Loveless wonders if this says anything besides “countries that score higher than us score higher than us.”
  4. If we spent more on education, we would have better results. In fact, Tucker could find only one OECD country, Luxembourg, that spends more per pupil than we do, even though we score only average in reading and below average in math and science. The key factor, he says, is what we spend the money on. If we measure teacher compensation by how much teachers are paid compared to other professions requiring the same years of education, only three OECD countries pay their teachers less than we do.
  5. If we emphasize reducing class sizes, our students will do better. The PISA data shows otherwise. Countries that give higher priority to raising teacher salaries than reducing class sizes have better achievement rates than countries like ours that do the opposite. Loveless says he is sympathetic to this argument and the previous one, but would like to see evidence of causality.


There are certain elements that successful schools share.

The Wisconsin Department of Education has a good guide about successful schools. Chapter One, Characteristics of Successful Schools , lists key elements:

Chapter 1 describes the seven characteristics that comprise a successful school. Briefly, they are:

  • Vision: having a common understanding of goals, principles and expectations for everyone in the learning-community
  • Leadership: having a group of individuals dedicated to helping the learning-community reach its vision
  • High Academic Standards: describing what students need to know and be able to do
  • Standards of the Heart: helping all within the learning community become caring, contributing, productive, and responsible citizens
  • Family School and Community Partnerships: “making room at the table” for a child’s first and most influential teachers
  • Professional Development: providing consistent, meaningful opportunities for adults in the school setting to engage in continuous learning
  • Evidence of Success: collecting and analyzing data about students, programs, and staff

Like, unhappy families, failing schools are probably failing in their own way.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Chapter 1, first line
Russian mystic & novelist (1828 – 1910)

It seems everything old becomes new once again, although a relentless focus on the basics never went out of style.

Good Schools really are relentless about the basics.

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

One Response to “U.S. education failure: Running out of excuses”


  1. MDRC study: ‘Success for All’ shows promise | drwilda - November 1, 2013

    […] Moi opined about the state of education in U.S. education failure: Running out of excuses https://drwilda.wordpress.com/2011/12/13/u-s-education-failure-running-out-of-excuses/ Education tends to be populated by idealists and dreamers who are true believers and who think of […]

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