More School=Dumber?

I just finished listening to a 20/20 episode titled “Stupid in America” on the current state of schooling in America. Although I was not surprised by much of what I heard, one statement floored me… that the longer kids stay in school, the ‘dumber’ they become when compared to other countries and their students’ school performance. Wow!

I must admit, I take John Stossel’s terminology “most” with a grain of salt, as he describes some of the schools that exemplify poor quality. Are there bad teachers? Sure. Are their bad schools? Yes. Are there bored.jpgbad administrators? Of course. Bad policies? Many. But, I have had the blessing of being part of so many wonderful schools with caring teachers, administrators, parents, para-professionals… I think what IS true is that there is a definite divide in American schools – one directly linked to socio-economic status. Top performing schools are often so because of the entire social umbrella (village) surrounding those schools, not only because of great teachers alone. Actually, sometimes it can be in spite of lesser teacher quality.

One Belgian school administrator is quoted as saying, “You have to be innovative all the time and look for new means of thinking…” because if they don’t succeed, they are run out of business (school choice is big there)- and that American schools continue to leave children behind on a daily basis in spite of NCLB. She was pretty much mocking that policy. What strikes me as most important here is the initiative to constantly innovate. So many schools and teachers are stuck in 19th century models of schooling that are just not working. Does that mean just give everyone laptops and high-speed wireless? Not at all. There is nothing worse than an ineffective teacher with the addition of technology in his or her hands. But, the potential of bringing about new life and excellence into into our current practices by discussing and examining the benefits of integrating new tools and opportunities is great! It is when we stop trying that things go sour.

Certainly, these issues are complex. I don’t want to trivialize or oversimplify some of the issues facing teachers, administrators, and partents on a daily basis. Teaching in some districts can like going into a war zone. But, teachers need to be well-trained (a continual process) to meet the needs of the audience that they will be trying to teach/reach, not the audience that they remember as part of their own K-12 experience. Administrators need to embrace innovation and out-of-box thinking. Nothing less than excellence should be tolerated. The positive should be put on a pedestal. The negative squelched. Do teachers’ unions hold too much power as the video clearly suggests? Perhaps. Should the business of school run more competitively to ensure high quality schools succeed while poor quality schools shut down? Maybe. Should all education stakeholders embrace every moment and pledge to touch as many children as possible and skillfully engage them in powerful, meaningful learning?

No doubt.

You can comment on the video if you have a Viddler account by viewing the episode here.

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2 Comments on “More School=Dumber?”

  1. ReneeK Says:

    Dr. Ransom,

    I didn’t catch the episode, but have seen/heard similar information. I’m not very well informed about the teaching philosophies in other countries, so I can’t intelligently make comparisons about the educational systems between the US and others. Why do you think there is such a divide? I’ve heard that Asian countries really place a lot of emphasis (and pressure) on students to perform in school, but sometimes it’s over the top and students suffer serious emotional distress. I’m under the impression that Asian schools practice the direct instruction method with students. So much of the educational research in the US has centered on student-centered instruction and inclusion and their benefits, but sometimes, when you hear things like what was said on 20/20, it makes you wonder.

    I think that the social fiber of the US has something to do with our school performance. I really believe that the break down of family values and the break up of families is significantly impacting our children. Parents don’t always have the time to nurture children as they should, or to encourage educational values. Too much has fallen to teachers, and it’s showing. I have to believe that we certainly have many high achieving students still, and that if it were possible to compare apples to apples, our students would fair as well, or better than others.

    I also agree with you that socio-economic factors come into play in school performance. The US is chronicled with divides of this nature. Are other countries? Probably, but to the same degree? Even within geographic areas of the US (Rochester), there are huge discrepancies in achievement levels which can be correlated with SES. This is even true within large districts, as I can attest to this personally in regards to my children’s district (Greece).

    It’s sad the trends that are emerging. It is a big job that pre-service teachers in the US are undertaking. I hope we can figure things out.

  2. Stephen Ransom Says:

    All great questions… no easy answers, I think. Culture impacts education, no doubt. It is curious how much the poor in many other nations value education so much while much of the economically disadvantaged (and other income brackets, for that matter) in this country often do not to the same degree. While looking from this at one angle may seem ‘off’, looking from another angle shows many strengths of our current system. We value the arts, sports, and many other extra-curricular activities that bring a certain richness to life. Sure, it is sometimes out of balance with academics, and too many children spend too many unhealthy, unengaged hours in the day… something we have to constantly evaluate. But, I am not so sure that I would like it the other way… school 6 days a week, 8-10 hour school days, 4-6 hours of homework every night, rote memorization to the nth degree… Again, it is all about attaining a healthy balance, I think. For many in this country, apathy, hopelessness, broken families and SES play a inextricable role.


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