Are Teachers to Blame for Our Failing Education System?

I homeschool, so I obviously believe that our public education system isn't working. I live in a predominantly middle class area, just two miles from a pretty mediocre school. Involved parents who read to their kids and help with homework complain that their children don't learn much at school. Others are paying for learning centers like Sylvan or Kumon because their children are struggling with reading and math. Many parents have pulled their kids out of "good" schools to homeschool because they were unchallenged. I recently talked to a teacher who left public school teaching to work with homeschoolers through a charter school. She said that all the homeschool kids are years ahead of the public school kids she taught.

The Problem With Education

A University of Virginia study found that teaching quality is inadequate in most first grade classrooms. According to the researchers:

"Teachers who worked to both create a positive social climate and strong instructional support — 23 percent of classrooms — were given the score of "high overall quality." Twenty-eight percent of classrooms had teachers scoring just below the mean and were thus deemed "mediocre." Seventeen percent of the classrooms were "low overall quality." The largest category in the sample, accounting for 31 percent of the classrooms, was labeled "positive emotional climate, low academic demand." 1

America is one of the biggest spenders in the world on education but has very poor outcomes on international tests like PISA. Other studies have been done that have compared American students to similar students in other countries. Our students fare very poorly. In the 20/20 show Stupid in America, a test was given to students in Belgium and students at a "good" school in New Jersey. The average Belgian score was 76%. The average for the American students was only 47 percent.

Japanese high school graduates leave school with 3 to 4 years more schooling than their American counterparts. Most Japanese high school graduates have studied Chemistry, Physics and Calculus in high school. Most American students avoid these courses. According to the National Academy of Sciences:

Fewer than 15% of US high-school graduates have sufficient mathematics and science credentials to even begin pursuing an engineering degree. 2

In a 2005 test of science understanding administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32% of US fourth-grade students performed below the “basic” achievement cutoff level (the lowest of three levels defined for the test). Among 8th-graders, the share increased to 41%. By the 12th grade, the fraction of underachievers had grown to 46%. In mathematics, the same test revealed that fewer than one-fourth of high-school seniors perform at or above their grade level.3

Bill Gates said "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I’m terrified for our workforce of tomorrow."

American students perform poorly when compared to students in other countries
American students perform poorly when compared to students in other countries

Is It the Teachers Fault?

I think blaming teachers is extremely unfair. They are part of a bureaucracy with no real control over what to teach and how to teach. Teachers don't control curricula, standards or testing. They have to make do with whatever materials, worksheets and curricula they are given, even if they believe that they are ineffective. They have to prepare students for tests that often don't effectively test student ability. The belief that teachers are responsible for educational failure has lead to ideas like merit pay and compensation based on student performance.

I read an article about math teaching a few years back and one teacher's comment really stood out. The teacher said that the way he's required to teach math, it's almost impossible for students to learn. A second grade teacher called into a radio show I was listening to and said that because of state standards she wasn't able to spend enough time introducing fractions. As a result, she said many students went into third grade without adequate preparation to learn more advanced material. The teacher knew her students were going into the next grade unprepared to learn but her hands were tied in dealing with it. Teachers are often ineffective because they are forced to work with ineffective curricula, textbooks and worksheets, not because they lack teaching ability or knowledge.

The Importance of Culture

Teachers have no control over the culture they teach in. America doesn't have a culture that places a lot of value on education and learning. A study that compared the Calculus performance of top American students and top Japanese students concluded that:

Perhaps the largest difference between the two groups lies in the different high school cultures. Japanese students work hard to prepare for the university entrance examinations and are generally discouraged from holding part-time jobs. In contrast, students in the United States often hold part-time jobs in high school, and many are involved in such extracurricular activities as sports or clubs.5

Not surprisingly, the Japanese students demonstrated stronger knowledge in both Calculus and Algebra. Asian students in America typically outperform other students because they are raised with a strong value for education and learning.

Exit Exams and College Entrance Exams

This brings up another big problem with education in America. We don't have any challenging high school exit or university entrance exams, which are common in other countries. These exams often determine whether a student will make it to university and can exclude them from certain majors if they don't earn enough points. These exams create a strong external motivation to learn. The SATs may prevent a student from attending a particular university but not from attending university altogether. Plus, the SATs are relatively easy and aren't based directly on the high school curricula covering numerous subject areas.

Almost anyone in the US can get into some university. Many public universities accept 75% to 90% of applicants. So, there's no strong external motivator that forces students to work hard at school or take difficult courses. In an article I read a while back, a high school teacher complained that students have no incentive to work hard in school. He said many students have no ambition beyond attending the local university and have no interest in putting in any effort or taking challenging courses (the very courses that are in high demand in a globalized economy).

The situation is often no better when you look at high income schools. Those students typically are ambitious and are aiming to enter ivy league and other highly selective schools. However, teachers in many of these schools complain that they come under a lot of pressure to inflate grades. Ambitious parents and students don't want future prospects derailed by a low grade. Again, the lack of challenging high school exit or university entrance exams takes away the incentive for students to devote themselves more to education.

Bad Teachers

This is not to say that there are no bad teachers or teachers with low expectations for their students. There are definitely bad teachers in America's schools. There are also great teachers and others that run the spectrum in between. In many other countries, teaching is a desirable profession to enter. So, most teachers were high performing students themselves. In America, it's far easier to enter teaching, which has created a huge variance in teacher quality that doesn't exist in many other countries. Teacher quality is probably the most important factor in student success. Yet most American students will encounter several mediocre to poor teachers in their time in school. It's very hard for the many good teachers to undo the damage that results.

Another big problem is out of field teaching, where teachers are asked to teach subjects outside their area of expertise. The problem here is not the teachers. It's the fact that there's a shortage of teachers in some subjects, such as math and the sciences.

According to the most recently available data, 69% of US fifth- through eighth-grade students are being taught mathematics by teachers who do not possess a degree or certificate in mathematics. Fully 93% of students in those grades are being taught physical sciences by teachers with no degree or certificate in the physical sciences. Even in high school, the corresponding likelihoods are 31% for mathematics, 61% for chemistry, and 67% for physics. (In contrast, 81% of the physical-education teachers in grades 5-8 and 9-12 have degrees in physical education.) Many entire school districts do not have a single teacher with an academic degree in mathematics or science.7

Another problem is the lack of a good evaluation system for teachers. A lot of teachers who aren't doing a good job may really care about their students. Without an effective evaluation system, teachers really have no way of knowing whether they're effective or not. About half of all teachers leave teaching within five years. As a result, there are a lot of inexperienced teachers in classrooms.

Some Causes of America's Education Problems

America's education woes are caused by inconsistent teacher quality, bad curricula, bad textbooks, and bad teaching methods and ideas. They are caused by the lack of an incentive system that rewards students who work hard and take difficult classes. They are caused by disinterested learners. They are caused by an inability to attract and keep America's best and brightest in the teaching profession. They are caused by high turnover in teaching. The list goes on. Blaming the teachers simply isn't going to reform America's education system when many of them are trying to do the best they can within a seriously broken system.

Comments 24 comments

chanroth profile image

chanroth 5 years ago from California, USA

I applaud to you! Thank you! I have someone speaking my mind!Vote up and useful!

alvinalex profile image

alvinalex 5 years ago

Great Information, Keep it up.

Miss Mellie profile image

Miss Mellie 5 years ago

Excellent, excellent and again I say: excellent. As one who homeschooled her children for years and only reluctantly sends them to a charter academy now (mama's gotta work!), I well know that your assessments here are right on track. And you support your findings beautifully, by the way.

I recently heard some statistics regarding drop out rates in colleges. The story mentioned that universities are regularly accepting students (along with their tuition) who've earned mediocre grades, and telling these students that the university will bring the applicants up to where they need to be academically. These students almost inevitably drop out after having invested funds in what was, frankly, a lost cause from the get-go. The story further reported that the drop out rate for community colleges in the US is around 75% (that's not a typo). That's not because community college is too hard; it's because high school students are not prepared even for a JC, and these JCs are happy to accept tuition funds from anyone willing to pay, regardless of their academic acumen or aspirations.

Oh dear...this was supposed to be a comment; not its own hub! Well done, Learn Things Web. Voted Up, Useful and Interesting.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks Miss Mellie. You're bringing up a big concern that I have with higher eduation as well. Colleges and universities accept almost anyone who wants to go to college, whether they are academically prepared or not. This has led to a lot of dumbing down in higher education, which is bad for the students who are prepared. If someone is at a 6th or 7th grade level, they probably won't finish college. Many of these students do go deep into debt with nothing to show for it. Unfortunately, it isn't politically correct to suggest that people who aren't capable of doing college level work shouldn't be admitted to a college.

Miss Mellie profile image

Miss Mellie 5 years ago

Following our exchange here, I happened to check in on the news headlines, and a couple of stories related to our discussion popped up (without my performing a search for them):

The Debt Crisis at American Colleges

Quick quote from that article:

"A school's financial aid adviser isn't always a freshman's best friend. While seldom openly stated, their job is to supply the college with as many paying freshmen as possible."


Only 23% of Illinois Students College Ready

Clearly, this is a topical issue!

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 5 years ago from California Author

I looked up the number of students in Illinois that go onto university. It's about 55%. So, more than half are not actually college ready. Unfortunately, it is the case that universities are businesses just as much as educational institutions and these are the students that are most harmed by it.

I don't necessarily agree with the conclusion of the Atlantic article that students should avoid more expensive ivy league colleges though. I know people who have gone to these kinds of schools and they have a corner office with a secretary a couple of years out of college. So, I think these elite schools pay for themselves, if you choose a major that is in demand in the work world. Degrees for these schools can lead to 30% to 40% higher salary right out of school and a greater likelihood of finding a job, even during a recession.

I think students who leave a public university with $30,000 in debt can be far worse off than a person who leaves an elite school with $120,000 because they are in far less demand in the business world. That is especially true for poorly performing students who barely managed to graduate. I used to interview people like this for jobs. Their shortcomings are very obvious to employers. If you can't write a coherent sentence, you won't be wanted in most professional level jobs.

cooldad profile image

cooldad 5 years ago from Florida

Excellent hub. I have four children in grade school now. Fortunately, my oldest is able to attend SCF Collegiate School, she started last year for sixth grade. It's based on a European learning style. This will be her second year in it and we couldn't be happier.

It's leaps and bounds better than the regular public schools in our area. Last year was their inaugural year and they were third in the State of Florida with FCATS.

When you have time, take a look, it's an interesting system. When she graduates high school she will have her A.A. Degree and will only have two years left to graduate college.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 5 years ago from California Author

That's amazing. I hadn't heard of colleges establishing charter schools before. It's a great idea that more colleges should get into. And, with the cost of higher education what it is, allowing students to do their first two years for free would really help. I'd love to see this idea spread. I'd be delighted to get my kids into a program like this. They're 6 and 3, so who knows.

steveamy profile image

steveamy 4 years ago from Florida

Some teachers, Some parents, Some Legislators etc

xtheboard 3 years ago

... vote down if anyone at fault its the sytem in witch education is running, not just teachers, but mostly the people incharge!

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California Author


I think blaming the people in charge is as simplistic as blaming the teachers. There are much larger problems like the philosophies behind how kids are taught, problems with textbooks, etc.

Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

I grew up hearing the propoganda "the school system isn't doing its job", and accepted it with little thought until I became a substitute teacher. On the other side of the desk, I now have an entirely different viewpoint.

It is not the teacher's job to be a surrogate parent to 30 kids they may not deal with next year. Their job is to TEACH. In the past, students who arrived unprepared, disrupted the class, refused to follow directions or didn't do homework were sent home. Anyone who didn't want to learn wasn't bothered with. If things were run like that today, we wouldn't have schools!

Once a teacher in California told me he reported a student who wasn't doing any work to his mother. What was her response? "That's your problem, not mine!" Before you get too shocked, I'll point out the mother was a single parent. She was overwhelmed with maintaining the household, and her son was equally overwhelmed with personal problems.

Overall, I blame society for becoming loose and not valuing education. Also, kids are not being taught personal responsibility. Ultimately, it's the students who pay. To quote the 1982 Don Henly song, "Johnny Can't Read":

"Well, is it teacher's fault? oh no!

Is it mommy's fault? oh no!

Is it society's fault? oh no!

Well is it Johnny's fault? OHHHHH NOOOOO!!!!"

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California Author

Say Yes To Life,

I think society has stopped valuing education. Overall we seem to value degrees and good grades but not really the effort that goes into earning them. And we don't value learning for the sake of learning. Finland is one of the top countries educationally because parents put a lot of value on reading and learning. A large percentage of kids are taught to read by their parents before they start school, which puts less pressure on the educational system.

CarolAnnHeadrick profile image

CarolAnnHeadrick 2 years ago

When you think about the agenda behind this and a little research, the picture becomes a clearer. The Secretary of Education has been Arne Duncan for six years. His focus is not on education but on equalizing intelligence. After all, it's not fair that others are smarter. There is no justification for the current curriculum like the crazy math.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 2 years ago from California Author


Dumbing down education to create a level playing field has been a huge problem in educational thinking for a while. It does seem like a lot of our education problems are the result of bad ideas based on good intentions.

Sanxuary 2 years ago

I think the education system is better then it once was. It is far from perfect and suffers from a litany of problems. It needs to be ran more like college and more computer applications are needed in the class room. Imagine the crawl, walk, run method. Pen and paper still needed but the answer is computer based. The teacher can then see who answered correctly and incorrectly in an instant and continue to crawl until they identify the fewest number still struggling. Teachers should be more specialized in what they teach instead of being forced to teach anything and everything. Imagine the same math teacher for 4 grades knowing the learning capabilities of each student. Employers also need to be more involved in what they really need at the college level and degrees trimmed towards what is needed. At the same time lower educations needs to be more shored to real world applications and life skills. Our children should know the laws, the legal system, how to balance a check book, how to follow instructions and write a resume. Knowing how to be a parent, personal skills and problem solving are just as important as engineering a new product.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 2 years ago from California Author


I actually love the idea of computer based learning even at the elementary level because it allows each child to learn at their own pace. Like it or not, animated tutorials and interactive games can hold a child's attention in a way that a teacher in front of 30 kids can't. And, yes, even at the primary level, I think teachers should specialize in a particular subject.

socrates 2 years ago

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Mary Louise 2 years ago

All of these other countries are teaching and testing homogenious groups of students. We are teaching students from other countries (ESL), some which don't value education. We expect these students to be proficient in math AND reading when some are not even literate in their first language! Educators have become the scapegoats for politicians. I would bet money that less than 10% have ever taught in a public school before their political careers.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 2 years ago from California Author

Mary Louise,

One downside of doing country by country comparisons is that some countries have challenges that others don't have.

letstalkabouteduc profile image

letstalkabouteduc 13 months ago from Bend, OR

As a former teacher, I know precious time is wasted dealing with a few disruptive students. Administrators are unwilling or unable to handle these children so the teacher devotes HUGE amounts of time and energy to classroom management techniques. During my last year teaching kindergarten, I had a boy who was always hitting and pushing the other students. In the name of political correctness, we were told to say he's "handsy," not "He's hitting." That just killed me! Outstanding hub!

MelindaJGH 12 months ago

I agree that American high schools should have exit exams and that students should have equal opportunity to apply to colleges/universities or to pursue technical training.

The Core Curriculum testing is excessive and reduces teaching time.

Good article!

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 12 months ago from California Author


The problem with Common Core testing is that it's evaluating the school, which puts huge pressure on teachers to have students do well. It wastes lots of teaching time but there's really nothing in it for the student. Whether they do well or not has no personal impact. That's not the case with exams in other countries. Students have an incentive to do well because it can impact their access to higher education and certain careers.

MelindaJGH 12 months ago

I definitely agree, Learn Things Web!

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