Is the U.S. educational system failing?

My friend James in Texas e-mailed a link to a New York Times article on the latest results of the Program for International Assessment tests, which compare proficiency of students in 79 school systems around the world.

Overall the U.S. results didn’t seem to be that bad.  American children are in the middle of the pack of advanced nations in reading, somewhat below in math, but better overall than in the previous round of tests.  However, as the Times writer pointed out, there are disparities within the averages.

About a fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old, according to Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the exam.

Those students, he said, face “pretty grim prospects” on the job market.

James is an architect.  He worked as a substitute school teacher in the 1980s, taught design and algebra in community colleges in the 2000s and is now working on a certificate to teach in high school.  These are his observations from two decades.

1. Detracking – all kids dumped into same classroom, no honors or remedial grouping, no separate special ed class, teacher now must do 5 or 6 different lessons simultaneously instead of one. Advanced kids are bored and essentially teaching themselves, while slower kids are perpetually lost and have stopped even pretending to care.

2. No enforceable conduct standards – no consequences for anything, 2/3 of kids are basically feral, kids know teachers are powerless, with no administrative support, teachers given all responsibility for “classroom management” with zero actual authority, too busy being social workers and ringleaders instead of teaching.

3. Time theft – minimal lunchtime, no recess, obsessively timing every activity to the minute, weeks stolen for state testing, teachers’ weekends stolen for useless seminars and endless meetings. Kids can’t sustain attention enough to think deeply about anything, and teachers don’t have time to breathe, let alone teach.

James thought the comments on the NYT article were at least as illuminating as the article itself.  Here are some of them.

When you insist on mainstreaming every student because certain parents insist that their child is “average” this happens. Twenty years ago, my son’s first grade class had a boy who was clearly autistic (threw chairs, couldn’t process basic speech or participate with the class in any way). His parents INSISTED he was “fine” and would not agree to getting him a personal aide (mandated by law) because he was so “fine.”

End result– my son and four other “advanced” kids were put in a group and ignored while the teacher tried to get the other 26 students up to grade level all the while having to control the one child and dealing with four ESL students.

My son and the other four actually went down in their year-end test but the school said it was fine because they were all still above grade level. Of those five “advanced” students, four of us left for private school.

Bring tracking back. Children need to be with others at their own level, not mixed up in a soup of failure and desperation.


I teach at a community college and it’s all about success rates now. At department meetings we are shown big infographics on success (C or higher) by course, broken down by race, ethnicity, and gender. The goal is for over 70% of students to pass.

Community colleges have open enrollment, meaning that we have some great students as well as many who only graduated high school because of the social promotion you mention. It’s difficult to believe that 70% are capable of passing their classes.

Because of this pressure, I have given up on due dates for homework. I remind them weekly to turn in missing work. Many scramble to complete it the last week when they realize their grade total is only 50%. I also find myself grading very leniently if a student has over 60%. I try my best to get them to a passing 70% for the C.

I suspect the same is happening at the universities. All I can say is that employers better have some good pre-employment testing. Degrees mean next to nothing now.


At my school you can find numerous trophies and awards/recognition given to outstanding athletes and musicians. You can also find tons of “student of the month” type awards for struggling students who do well for a month (which are then often ironic to the teachers who see the kid’s picture up on the wall for the next three months after he backslides). But you can’t find anything celebrating high academic achievers.


When I was in middle school and high school grades in the 1970’s, we had an elderly science teacher who had a unique and sensible way of dealing with students who lacked basic skills such as long division. He would intercom the teacher in the lower grade who was supposed to teach those skills and inform them that he was sending the student back to them to get that done and then give the student a hall pass to do so. Of course he was one of those WW2 generation guys who thought it self-evident that getting the job done trumped rules, protocols and procedures.


Common Core ELA essentially revolves around empty formal skills such as “finding the main idea,” “inferencing,” and “using context to determine meaning.” The focus on nonfiction (“informational text”) was intended as a counterbalance, but the reality is that students end up getting short, random, de-contextualized bits of text, and that actual subject knowledge is deemphasized and/or presented in a very unstructured way. It’s very hard for students to understand texts when they don’t really understand what they’re talking about!


At our middle-school it’s called “Pass with a Plan”, meaning they fail yet are promoted to the next grade. Thus in the 9th grade year, when they encounter (slightly) more meaningful grades and credits the majority of students need a full year to adjust to this crazy idea of deadlines. “Honors” classes are now White Flight, or Bourgeois Flight. They are not full of especially bright students, but those whose parents are sophisticated enough to get them into the better group. As many sections of “honors” will be created as is needed to remove the middle-class children from the hoi poloi.


Before business consultants told administrators and boards that they could turn 70% of professorial jobs into part-time adjunct positions, professors indeed had the power to “maintain standards.” Adjuncts, however, are routinely let go if they do not give enough passing grades. Try failing the third of the class that hasn’t done enough work to pass! You quickly learn that you are expected to accept work past deadlines, read continuous drafts of what used to be one-shot term papers, provide lots of make-up or extra credit work to fill in points, and so on.

James thinks the problems go much deeper than the school system.

In a local district with well-funded schools, many rebranded as “academies”, technologically equipped, serving free breakfast and lunch… a good 70% of the kids have quite literally skipped early childhood development. They’ve become teenagers without even a basic sense of what it means to be a functioning human with a theory of mind and sense of larger society. Academic failure is the least of their issues, and the solution won’t be academic. Neither liberal empathetic coddling nor right-wing reactionary budget cuts have any capacity to help.

He thinks drastic action is called for.

My proposal requires more guts than the left will ever have, and more thinking than the right will ever do. About 2/3 of the kids I worked with need to be removed, by the state, from their so-called homes, and put into a human retraining camp for however long it takes. They must be in small groups, led by a substantial ratio of well-trained well-paid social workers, and an equal number of security staff, standing by to end any nonsense at the behest of the social workers.

This would be roughly the equivalent of a reform school for juvenile delinquents, but better funded and staffed than any actual existing reform schools past or present.

If things are as bad as James says, I think they are beyond the power of social workers to change.

In history, the only thing that has changed human character and behavior on a large scale is a religious revival.  I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable with a revival of strict, dogmatic religion, but it is a proven way that people can find meaning and self-discipline, and I think it is likely, if liquid modernity runs its course.

But are things really that bad?  How typical Is James’ experience of the USA as a whole?  How typical of rich countries is the USA?

I don’t know.  I don’t have contact with young people.  In fact, there is hardly anybody in my circle of friends who’s under 45.  I don’t travel abroad.  I hope for comments on this, especially from educators and parents.


PISA 2018: Insights and Interpretations by Andreas Schleicher.  This includes the scores and rankings of students from 79 educational systems from around the world.  The top four are (1) China – average of four provinces, (2) Singapore, (3) Chinese Macau and (4) Chinese Hong Kong.

Seeking Truth from PISA Facts by Godfree Roberts for The Unz Review.  Why Chinese children test so much higher.

‘It Just isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts by Dana Goldstein for the New York Times.

Latest International Test Shows American Performance is … About the Same as Always by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

Standard Reports About Standardized Tests: American Kids Outperformed by Macau by Bob Somerby for The Daily Howler.  [Added Later]  A criticism of reporting on the U.S. school system.

Standard Reports About Standardized Tests: American Kids Are the Best in the World by Bob Somerby for The Daily Howler.  [Added 12/13/2019]

Standard Reports About Standardized Tests: The Times Erases the Nation’s Black Kids by Bob Somerby for The Daily Howler [Added 12/13/2019]

There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading and Mississippi Knows it by Emily Hanford for the New York Times.  Remarkable progress in a poor state.  [Added 12/19/2019]

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4 Responses to “Is the U.S. educational system failing?”

  1. Alex Small Says:

    Plenty of schools are better than that. They aren’t where the problems are. We can debate just how common these problems are, but where these problems exist there are a host of political and ideological factors that make it impossible to address them.


  2. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I spent several years as a substitute. There are too many differences in pedagogy from when I was young to specify easily and many of these are driven by ideology rather than the simple dissemination of knowledge and the development of analytical skills. Teachers are now tasked with overcoming the sociological “shortcomings” of the home environment.

    Many administrators don’t back the teachers up. Parents don’t pay the same attention to children and may be in denial of a problem or simply can’t be bothered.

    However, the smart kids still do well and the kids with problems are still mishandled. Special needs classes are expensive so problem children don’t actually go there unless they are completely dysfunctional. My experience is that getting a child into a program is like pulling teeth and the school will never suggest it to a parent unless the situation is extreme.


  3. Tom Zimoski Says:

    Phil, more from Bob Somerby:

    Average scores, Reading Literacy
    American students, 2018 Pisa
    White students: 531
    Black students: 448
    Hispanic students: 481
    Asian-American students: 556

    Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2018 Pisa:

    United States, Asian-American students: 556
    Singapore: 549
    United States, white students: 531
    Macau: 525
    Hong Kong: 524
    Estonia: 523 (highest OECD nation)
    Canada: 520
    Finland: 520
    (South) Korea: 514
    United States, all students: 505
    United Kingdom: 504
    Japan: 504
    Australia: 503

    Liked by 1 person

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