Saturday, September 02, 2006

Stupid in America

That is the title to John Stossel's special that was on 20/20 on Friday night. It originally aired earlier this year, but Stossel ran an edited version of the same special last night so he could insert some updated events that have happened since the first time the special aired.

Stupid in America: How Our Schools Cheat Our Kids does not say that our kids are stupid. It says that our national school system, as it operates, is stupid. The problem is that our dysfunctional school system is turning out American kids who get clobbered on international tests by other countries who spend far less per student than we do.

That is one of the primary themes of Stupid: that we spend an obscene amount of money per pupil in this country, yet teachers and administrators constantly whine about how broke they are and that they need more money. More is never enough! Even if you take inflation into account, we spend twice the amount of money per pupil that we spent thirty years ago, yet academic scores have remained either flat or have gone down. Essentially, we are paying twice as much for a product that is either the same, or even sometimes worse.

One of the creepiest moments of Stupid in America comes when John Stossel interviews Randi Weingarten, who heads the New York City Teachers Union. This woman looks like she came right out of central casting. Think about what you would expect a person in this job position to look like and act like, and Randi Weingarten fits the bill. She's loud, abrasive, and obnoxious.

What is really ugly about this woman would be her radical, paleolithic views on the role of the teachers union. When the NYC teachers were having trouble getting a new contract, Weingarten and the Union rented out Madison Square Garden for a teacher rally. Seeing as how the teachers are so hung up on money, I would sure like to know how much it cost to rent out Madison Square Garden, and I would love to know who exactly picked up the tab? In a sit-down interview with Weingarten, Stossel savaged every argument Weingarten brought up to defend this broken system that she insists is just fine. Weingarten, with this holier-than-thou smirk finally pulled out the shameless card and explicitly said that anyone who criticizes teachers doesn't care about children. What a tool!

Another telling segment is when the same academic test is given to some students in a typical Belgian high school and some students in a high-ranking New Jersey high school. Average score for the Belgians was 76%; average score for the Americans? 47%! It was pretty embarassing to watch the reactions of the Belgian students when they were told of their scores and of the Americans' scores. As one Belgian student said, "If the American students did that badly on this test, then they must be pretty stupid."

I don't think American students are stupid; they are just as intelligent as any Americans in history. No, American students are ignorant. It is astonishing what they should know, but don't. More disturbing is what American students think they know, but don't. That showed with this Belgium vs. USA test. Both groups of students thought they did well on the test. The Belgians did, the Americans didn't, and the American students were "shocked" - to quote one student - to find this out.

Stossel's argument as to why our schools are failing and schools in countries like Belgium are not has to do with competition. Belgian students have their government education money attached to them, and they and their parents can choose to attend any school they want, be it secular or religious, academic or vocational. In the United States, students are forced to attend the school in which they are zoned according to where they live. Barring that, their other choices are to take their chances on a lottery that will get them into a coveted open school or charter school, or barring that, pay for private school. With this lack of choice and abundance of uncertainty, the educational establishment in the United States is essentially a monopoly with no incentive to innovate or change. Teachers are paid the same no matter if they win awards or barely make the cut. The Kindergarten teacher overseeing fingerpainting and learning the alphabet makes the same in a unified school district as an high school honors chemistry teacher. I think that situation is patently ridiculous and should be changed. Once upon a time in this country, it was taken for granted that high school teachers should be paid more than elementary teachers; a classic case of being paid more for what you know than what you do. I know teaching kindergartners can be more challenging sometimes, but if we got paid according to how hard work is, then ditch diggers would be millionaires.

In looking at private and charter schools that work, Stossel does excitedly show procedures that those schools do with which I don't agree, such as teachers being issued cell phones and being required to take student phone calls about homework at all hours of the night. I wouldn't want to work at a school like that, but that is what competition is for. There are teachers out there who would take that job if it paid more. I enjoy time with my family after work, so I would not be willing to make the sacrifice regarding student phone calls that other (probably single) teachers would be willing to make.

Another cringe-inducing interview Stossel conducted was with the Superintendent of Public Education in South Carolina. Here is her picture: not as horrid looking as Weingarten, but she is equally as dim-witted.

Oh, did I mention that she is running for Fritz Hollings' senate seat in South Carolina this year? Shocker!! She's a Democrat! South Carolina has the lowest SAT scores in the country. All Inez Tenenbaum could muster in the interview was that South Carolina had the fastest rising scores in the country. "Of course they do!", Stossel said, "If you are starting at the bottom, you have nowhere to go but up." Tenenbaum then changed her argument and said that the SAT shouldn't be used as an indicator anyway. Well, I guess not; not if it makes your state look bad. This woman was particularly pathetic as she pulled out every cliche and platitude in the education administrator's handbook, talking about "staying the course" and "We are improving, blah, blah, blah..." The woman was pathetic!

And then there was Ruth Holmes Cameron. She is a teacher in Florida who was instrumental in having Florida's school voucher program nixed by a state court. She thinks competition is bad. How bad? Here is what she had to say: "To say that competition is going to improve education? It's just not gonna work. You know competition is not for children. It's not for human beings. It's not for public education. It never has been, it never will be." Competition isn't for human beings? What kind of fantasy world does this woman live in? Our whole economy is based upon competition, and we have one of the most vibrant economies in the world. Competition isn't for public education? How does she explain the success of schools in other countries who thrive in a setting of competition? How do you possibly argue with someone this dense?

The updated segment that Stossel added to this special was the scene of NYC schoolteachers - including Randi Weingarten - who showed up by the hundreds (shouldn't they be in the classroom?) to protest outside the ABC News offices. They finally demanded that Stossel teach in a classroom if he thinks he is so clever. They were chanting "Teach! John! Teach!" Stossel readily volunteered to do so. This is where this whole episode took a turn into the realm of the hilarious. The rigid bureaucracy of our educational system, and especially NYC's educational system, came shining through when these teachers and administrators who wanted so badly to see John Stossel teach in a classroom couldn't even agree upon the conditions of his temporary employment. The deal eventually fell through because they didn't want cameras to be there as Stossel taught. According to Stossel, the educators were afraid of what Stossel's cameras would pick up in the rest of the school outside of Stossel's classroom.

I love to watch John Stossel's specials, and Stupid in America is one of my all-time favorites. It is sobering for a non-educator to watch it, because as John Stossel says, so many parents think that their kids' school is just fine, but that is only because they have no idea how good the school could really be if it had to rise to the occasion by staying in business through the incentive of competition.

Good Day to You, Sir


Anonymous said...

Very well said!!

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I agree with all your substantive points, but attacking someone for being "ugly" is crass. And I don't see you offering your picture here for comments ... maybe we should get a look at you before we judge the reasonableness of what you say, huh?

Dan Edwards said...

The problem with education is people. There is no "one" solution to what is best for each student.

At least Stossel is getting people to talk.....agree with his arguements/facts or not.

IMO, education is best left up to the states and local entities This could be why that 10th amendment was put into the US Constitution, because our "founding fathers" felt education was a local issue, not a national issue.

W.R. Chandler said...

Perhaps you should re-read the post there Anonymous.

I said "What is really ugly about this woman would be her radical, paleolithic views on the role of the teachers union."

I won't put my picture up, but at least I put up my contact name and information about myself. You are even too cowardly to do that. Maybe we should know something about you before we judge the reasonableness of what you say, huh?

Anonymous said...

OK, Here it is: the definitive and unbiased determination. Chanman is extremely good- and intelligent- looking...just like his mommy!

W.R. Chandler said...

Thanks Mom ;)

Anonymous said...

As an educator, what kind of suggestions would you make to help better our educational system?

And are you planning on letting your children go to public school, like the one in which you teach?

Darren said...

I've met Mr. Chanman. I didn't recoil in horror at his appearance.

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Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

If people followed Ruth Holmes Cameron's ideology, their kids will get eaten alive when it comes time for them to apply to college. Admissions to practically all 4-year colleges/universities are competitive; the best schools are extremely competitive. Post-secondary education is even more competitive. Then there's applications for the best jobs: again, they're very competitive.
It is competition that drives this country; it's what makes it great. Many countries that have the highest scoring students (ie: Japan, S. Korea, Switzerland, Singapore, Taiwan, Netherlands) have very competitive standards. The U.S. generally ranks below 20 in reading, math, and science; the former are in the top 10.
Randi Weingarten and the entire AFT need to disappear! They just make and keep the education system backward and miserable - and they don't care. It's time for a significant overhaul.