Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The U.S. Education System Is Not Failing

By Steve Berlin, Senior Communications Manager of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE)

The American education system — inasmuch as it's actually a system — is not failing. For readers stunned by a phrase not often seen in print these days, I repeat: The U.S. education system is not failing. I know that's not a popular position these days, but it is the right one. There are indeed problems that need addressing, but there is significant cognitive dissonance in how the public views K-12 education.

So, why do I say our schools as a whole are succeeding? Well, why not start with what is meant by "failing?" The term is a relic that defines education policy and growth as all-or-nothing propositions. It can be easily traced to 1983's A Nation at Risk, which made "failing schools" a part of the American vernacular. But it was truly burned into headlines and our collective consciousness with the 2001 iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind — a law that uses all stick and no carrot as inducements for improvement, usually with the "failing" schools and districts that were struggling in the first place.

Worse, NCLB pointed to 2014 as the deadline for 100 percent proficiency. If schools, districts and states can't meet that deadline, well, they have failed. Doesn't matter that people are working hard to draft new policies and legislation, and devising new and improved means of integrating technology into curricula, or that greater instructional rigor than ever before is being demanded of our teachers. It's all-or-nothing.

We constantly hear that our schools, nationally, are failing, but in this year's PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, only 7 percent of respondents agree. More telling, however, is that only 4 percent of that same group think their own local schools are failing and a combined 48 percent think their local schools rate grades of 'A' or 'B.' So the system is failing, but their schools are OK. Hmm.

There are, however, metrics that are often used to illustrate how awful American schools are. PISA scores are quite popular in that regard. For instance, students in Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and in one city in China do better on these exams than their U.S. counterparts. After all, what better way to show how bad our schools are, and how inept our students, than comparing them to actual top-down education systems in ethnically homogenous countries (and city) with populations a fraction of the United States'? Which is, again, not to say we should neither see nor expect improvements in student performance. We should, and I think we do. So who's to blame for our perceived failure?

Teachers and teachers' unions are popular punching bags for our assumed mediocrity. Why not? It's easy to blame public servants — who spend almost as much time with students during the school year as their parents and whose salaries are paid for with tax monies — for the lack of students' progress.

Again, it's true that not every teacher is great, or even good. But most are good at what they do and work hard to improve all the time. I never really understood how hard that job was until I bombed while trying to convince high school juniors that American history is important and that they should be ready to write original papers if they planned to go to college.

Those who are quick to blame teachers and their supposedly inflated salaries use the familiar refrain that more money does not make for better results. Perhaps, but if they think there are so few high-quality instructors, what makes them think cutting their pay and making them public scapegoats will make the profession that much more attractive to the next generation?

More interesting, for the third straight year the PDK poll reports that 71 percent of Americans believe that public school teachers are worthy of their trust and confidence. Hmm. Must be all the other kids' teachers who stink.

It is rarely mentioned that teachers and unions are just one piece of the educational puzzle. We seldom hear at large that safe and healthy school environments are critical to student success; that safe and healthy students are important to this formula; that sound parenting is a must; that technology alone will not solve any problems.

The discussion here is larger than that. If you read [this blog], it follows that you care about education. To you I ask, "Who's controlling the tone of the debate about public education?"

I will never say that we in the broader education community — from state board members to educators to custodians — should not aspire to greater academic success for our students. Indeed, we must. But I will not say that we are failing. And we should not let anyone who says so get away unchallenged, either.

This post originally appeared on Education Week's Transforming Learning blog. Reposted with permission from Editorial Projects in Education.

Image in the public domain

Thank you. It is certainly

Thank you. It is certainly time for us to stop this mindless assault on caring, qualified, and committed professionals and the systems that put them into classrooms and into contact with our children.

I have some questions:

Who benefits from the discourse that declares failure of American education? Certainly it isn't the children, but who might it be?

Who can really make a difference in teaching and learning? Teachers. Why don't we provide the support they need to do this challenging (and satisfying) work?

I know it isn't easy to break through a dominant and unfounded discourse, so I appreciate your elegant effort to do just that.

I'm all for defending and

I'm all for defending and championing good teachers, but the fact that there are some good teachers does not mean that the education system is winning.

It doesn't mean their losing.

It doesn't mean their losing. Sure there are things that need to be worked on, teachers that need assistance, schools that need to change. But this is spot on...seemingly a great majority of Americans agree.

If you think there is a problem, please get involved in your local school district, public or private. We need all the people looking to improve the system as we can get.

If you are a product of the

If you are a product of the American educational system, the fact that you wrote 'their' rather than 'they're' is evidence that the system is producing a sub-standard product.



I'm surprised that the author

I'm surprised that the author did not mention the degrading attacks on education in the name of "reform' by the rich foundations (Broad, Gates, Walton, etc.). Their mode of bombarding schools with disruptive tactics all to gain the $$$$ involved in public education is flat ludicrous. What are rich folks with no knowledge of education doing is forcing the hand of schools in the U.S. Clue: follow the $$$$! And how can anyone explain the idiotic relationship between Arne Duncan and Jeb Bush?

For an inside look behind the

For an inside look behind the walls of one American School District check out "The GO PUBLIC Project". Spend a day with 50 different subjects, from students K through 12, to administrators and teachers, to volunteers and support staff. Does this look like a broken system? You decide.

Even though the education

Even though the education system does however has it's flaws, I would agree that indeed in itself the system has not failed. There so many factors to consider what makes a successful educational experience and PISA scores doesn't take them into account. In China some schools are getting great scores even though the system itself is still very basic, leaving those who want to succeed in life to go study abroad.. notably and non-surprisingly America.

America certainly does have

America certainly does have some of the best and most prestigious colleges and universities available in the world. I agree that there are so many different factors to consider when comparing our educational experience to those in other countries and that makes it difficult to fairly compare. We as a county certainly are not failing, though there is a huge imbalance that is causing our country to score lower in K-12 education overall. It is shown that the countries with the least gap between low and high scoring students on national test are the countries with the highest scores, we currently have the largest gap. We could do better by ensuring equal educational opportunities for all children in our country, but I wonder if that is even practical or possible in our economy, and would it really make that much of a difference for us.

Whew!!! I am so glad to hear

Whew!!! I am so glad to hear that our system isn't failing. I guess the facts that other countries are educating their kids better are just false, made-up stories contrived by a conspiracy of some sort to make our system appear wrong. And the fact that we spend far more money per student is also a part of a nationwide conspiracy by a secret agency somewhere hidden in a Volcano.
SIGH . . .
You can try to change the definition of failure all you want, but that doesn't really help solve the problem. You gave us nothing to solve the issues, all you want to do is protect the system. As if the system was more important than the students. You are a part of the problem because you are still living in that Egyptian River. The solution is so very simple and you just want to ignore it. There was a time when American kids were far better educated than today. Our scores were far higher than the rest of the world. So go back to doing what we were doing when the scores were higher!!!!!! At one time we had the best education system in the world and somebody came along and changed it. Stop all the silly programs and policies that were put in place to strangle the teachers from doing their job. The teachers are fine, let them loose to do what they do best. Sheesh, the answer is so simple, but people like you have to have all your fancy programs and politically correct policies. Educating kids is not a difficult thing to do if you let the teachers teach and take politics out of the system.

Read the report

Read the report at
According to this report asians in the U.S. rank #2 in the world
for educational achievement. How can a broken educational systen
in the U.S. produce students that rank #2 in the world?

There is a problem with education in the U.S. that nobody
talks about.

This is completely wrong; the

This is completely wrong; the system may not be "failing" on the charts but I'm a student in high school and know that we are learning subjects at a slower pace and the schools seem to not care about educating vs. getting us out of high school.

I'm not seeing a lot of facts

I'm not seeing a lot of facts or statistics to prove this point. I'm just seeing a lot of "i think"

According to a study where 400,000 students were given a standardized test across the globe with many other countries, the U.S. placed 20th in reading and 22nd in math.

America may not be in need of a full turnaround, but some tweaks are quite necessary.

And how many of those

And how many of those students who took this test were from the United States? 1,000? 10,000? Maybe a little more? (this statistic seems rather vague in my opinion, as it does not offer any proportionality on the number of students from each participating country) Also, I doubt that the number of American students who participated in this standardized test constituted a representative sample of the U.S. educational system, seeing as there are millions of students in the U.S. educational system.

This article has no hard data

This article has no hard data to support that we are not failing. what about drop out rates at an all time high? Reading, writing, science, math, behind other countries when in the past we've lead. Us not graduating enough engineers to meet our technical demands, etc. Did I miss something?

I would be curious to see

I would be curious to see your sources, Anonymous. I believe you are wrong in at least two respects:

-The dropout rate actually appears to be at an all-time LOW. In 2010, the dropout rate was 7.4%, down from 12.1% in 1990. Source: National Center for Education Statistics: http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=16

-The US has NEVER led other countries in international assessments. On the First International Math Study (FIMS) in 1964, which predates the current international assessments, the US ranked 11 out of 12 participating nations, well below average. Today, the US scores close to average on international assessments.

1. I wonder why the dropout

1. I wonder why the dropout rate is so low. It's because policymakers are so worried about getting people out of high school and graduating than actually getting them an education. They don't seems to realize that graduating does NOT mean the same thing as getting a good education.
2. Are you saying that we shouldn't try? Why the heck is America called "the land of opportunity" when there aren't any opportunities around here? Immigrants used to come here because they wanted a better future. Funny, I don't think they think that way anymore. The countries these immigrants came from are doing better than we are.

Then explain why the U.S. is,

Then explain why the U.S. is, technically, the only superpower in the world (has been for quite some time, still is, and will be for a while longer)? Oh, that's right... it must have done that with citizens who sit on their asses all day (if you'll pardon the language). Oh, by the way, that was sarcasm...
I don't see any evidence to back up your first claim.
On to your second one. "Why the heck is America called 'the land of opportunity' when there aren't any opportunities around her?" Uuuummm, have you been living with your head in the sand recently, or have you just buried yourself underground completely? Because of the sheer size of the U.S. economy there are hardly no opportunities. There is no way that the economy of the U.S. is as big as it is today without a large number of opportunities that must accompany it. And don't even get me started on how "our economy isn't doing well these days." While that statement is true, people don't seem to notice that we are gradually rising from the recession we have been in recently. And our economy is not struggling because of a poor education system; it is merely having trouble because of the rising world economic standards, and where the world goes, the U.S. will eventually follow. Okay, I'll stop before this turns completely into my argument for the subject of our current economic status.

I think that the system isn't

I think that the system isn't failing but this system is failing our children. "No Child Left Behind" act is forcing schools to lower their already low standards. And should be renamed to "No child let ahead". I went to school in Europe and attended a year of high school in the US. If education isn't failing how come senior class curriculum is equivalent to 7th and 8th grade curriculums in other countries? And the school I attended here was actually considered to be a good school with over 90% college ready graduates. I’m not saying that teachers are bad, teachers are excellent for the most part. I think that they are forced into a framework in which struggling 10-15% of students are holding everyone else back. It may seem cruel but there always will be struggling students regardless of how low the standards are, and they should seek tutoring or repeat a grade or two, and not become a handicap for other students.

I go to a school (in America)

I go to a school (in America) that is one of the best in the country but is still far far far far behind being on the list of top schools in the country, and it has a rather large amount of students who are taking sophomore even junior level college courses through programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and advanced district academies. So, I don't know if you can really compare different educational systems from different countries, and if 7th and 8th grade students in Europe or other countries are taking college level courses, then one might have to look at the credibility of the educational curriculums those students are in.

American education is so bad

American education is so bad that this article is actually self-demonstrating. Please note: the author was raised and educated in America. Therefore, the quality of the arguments presented in the article are commensurate. In other words, America doesn't even teach its students to argue properly. The arguments in this article aren't just flawed, or wrong, or even bad, they're AMERICAN, which is much, much worse. First, we can see quite a bit of bias here. Why? Because, of course, the author is American. However, past this bias, we see nothing but anecdotal evidence of a story of a tale of a rumor passed through gossip by a friend of a friend of a friend. I ask you: is this what passes for investigative journalism nowadays in America? If so, I'd like to say I'm disappointed, but really, I'm not. It's just what I've come to expect from AMERICA.

Okay, so now everything in

Okay, so now everything in America is bad? So we are a super power in the world, and are bad? Recently this year, I learned what a "valid argument" is. It seems to me that you have been raised in a different country than America. Bring from another country we have a different view. It is all about perspective. You aren't finding the perspective of an American. I see they haven't taught you that. So that ISN'T valid. Most people are raised in one country, not 2.

I know someone will one up and correct me, but I accept you to put your opinion out there, but encouraged me to fight back.

If you truly want to see how

If you truly want to see how our schools today compare with our schools of the past 40 years, you simply have to sign up for a substitute teaching license and enter the classroom for a firsthand experience that will make you sick to your stomach. You need not look for studies that compare us to other countries with percentage differences that are in stark contrast to the past when we outscored them all. You will easily see within the first hour the differences in the classroom that our students of these United States are being forced to endure under the name of education. Our teachers and administrators have their hands tied by politicians who aren't interested in the welfare and education of our students, but are interested in their own political agendas and are using our schools as their "arena" to be heard and seen in...pretty sad.

I'm a 60 year old sub with an education degree. My husband's job transfers forced me to do more subbing than full-time classroom work in five states. I have seen a gradual and obvious decline in student performance, student pride and student discipline. I have seen a gradual and obvious decline in teacher performance, teacher pride, and classroom discipline. I have seen a gradual and obvious decline in administrative performance, pride and discipline. And all of this culminates in the same obvioius and gradual decline in community pride and growth.

Why do I still sub at my age? I LOVE KIDS! I LOVE THE CLASSROOM! I, however, hate with all my heart what we've allowed to happen in our schools.

Our teachers spend more time on "teaching" students HOW to take all of these ridiculous standardized tests and giving them than they do on actually teaching them the subject matter! It's no wonder our kids are falling behind! Our teachers are constantly pulled out of the classroom to train for every new teaching method that comes along...and what is it now?....oh, that's right! COMMON CORE, COMMON SMORE! A method that teaches a child a roundabout and usually confusing way to do a problem in 10 minutes when it should only take one minute using simple cognitive skills easily and simply explained. And let's not forget the tremendous amount of taxpayer dollars that are wasted on incorporating these new teaching methods into an already floundering system that once was the best in the world! Let's get BACK TO THE BASICS, AMERICA!

Put the teachers back in the classroom where they belong! LET THEM TEACH! Enough with all the piddly meetings that accomplish nothing, but waste precious time.
Punish students who need punished!
Get help for students who struggle and encourage them to excel.
Encourage students who excel and allow them to broaden their horizons!
Encourage parents to take part in their child's education!
Get the government out of our classrooms! They've got their own job to do! And by the looks of it, they need to spend more time taking care of this country than they do!

Our kids deserve better than this! Our country deserves better than this!
If a teacher can't teach, then get them out of the classroom. No tenure crap.
If a politician breaks campaign promises, fire them! No full term if they don't perform in the best interest of this nation.
I'm tired, but more than that, I'M MAD!

We're better than this America! Parents need to sit in on a day of school with their kids occasionally. Politicians should be required to substitute one week a year. Things would change fast, I guarantee!

You know that poll you talked

You know that poll you talked about? Were the people polled actual students or teachers? or were they just random people on the street that were asked, "What do you think about our school system?" What is their documentation? Are they qualified to make decisions on the quality of our school system? do they even know anything about other nations' systems in order to compare them to ours? I believe, my good sir, that you have made a logical fallacy (Faulty appeal to authority).

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