Study confirms US education stinks

In the film classic, “Casablanca,” the chief of police, played by Claude Rains, expresses profound “shock” that gambling has been taking place at Rick’s American Cafe.  Similar expressions of shock were heard in our nation’s Capital earlier this month, with the release of an international survey of student achievement.  This year’s Programme for International Study (PISA) test, which is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), placed the United States far down in the pack in science, reading, and especially mathematics.  The dismal results had the United States 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading.  China was first.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the the results a “wake up call.”  His reaction shows just how out of touch Washington is when it comes to education.  If the United States hasn’t awakened by now to the fact that our schools are failing miserably to graduate students competent to compete in such key subject areas as math, science and basic reading, then we are in a permanent somnambulant state.  The United States has been stuck among the lower percentiles in rankings such as the PISA, literally for decades.  A “wake up call?”  That came and went years ago.

This trend has continued despite repeated efforts by every modern president since Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s, to make “education” one of their signature issues.  George W. Bush heralded his “No Child Left Behind Act,” introduced at the very start of his first term in office in January 2001, as a major step forward to begin improving education in this country.  The Act’s focus on federalizing tests and ranking schools obviously has failed to move the US forward.  His successor’s program, the “Race to the Top” – which like its predecessor programs, focuses on throwing money at the problem – will enjoy no greater success when all is said and done.

The clear fact is — this is not about money.  The United States spends tens of billions of dollars each year on public education, with a large chunk of that coming from taxpayers via the federal Department of Education.  Individual cities and counties spend billions more, but studies show consistently there is no correlation between the amount of money spent per-pupil, and objective results achieved.  In fact, some of the school districts with the highest per-pupil expenditures have the poorest test scores; my home city of Atlanta, Georgia is a prime example.  The problems go far deeper than any amount of money thrown at the problem can ever hope to solve.

Until families and parents take responsibility for the education of their children; until the federal government gets out of the education business; and until state legislators and local school boards get serious about focusing on basic education rather than such matters as sex education, home economics, and political correctness, American students will continue to fall farther and farther behind students in other countries.  And we as a country will sink further and further behind our competitors in the ability to compete in the world economic arena.

78 comments Add your comment


December 17th, 2010
6:39 am

Cheers to you Bob Barr! To your “get out” list in the summary paragraph, I would add the courts because over my 40 years in education I’ve seen the changes that legal decisions have made, how teachers and principals are frequently limited in making the best decisions for children because of “laws”.


December 17th, 2010
6:44 am

Actually — home economics is a course that John Dewey believes should be taught — we need to get back to educating students in line with experience in life — don’t teach math/science in a sterile environment — teach it as a kid learns to make cookies or a stink bomb. Show them relevance to understand the true joys and utility of learning. Teaching to the test — my gosh — we have now created a system that creates workers who can be trained to punch buttons in prescribed sequence or fill in the prescribed ovals. Such a workforce may be what the Chamber of Commerce wants — but it certainly does not create the individual who understands themselves and what they can do to improve their lives and the quality of society — In short, our system of education and those that continue to support the status quo are the worst enemies this country has faced.

A dad

December 17th, 2010
6:58 am

Not about money? Then I guess Deal’s cutting 2 billion from the budget won’t have any effect. He also lowers corporate taxs in an attempt to attract more business, but when they get her the workforce will be too undereducated to be of use. Yes, education is a two-way street. Parents, cut out your child being glued to the boob tube (a rather apt moniker) and/or playing video games once they get home from school every day. Find 10, 15 minutes to sit down each daywith your child and go over what they learned, see their homework, etc. Help impart a true love of learning.
But it takes more. Public education standards have been reduced to the lowest common denominator, and more than one teacher fried has told me that in today’s school, classes are geared more towards passing the CRCT that actually learning. Want proof of this? Parents, how much is 8+7? See, we knew automatically it’s 15, but if you ask your child chances are they will have to stop and actually add it. Why the diffrence? Lack of foundation. When I was in school, we didn’t get geometry until the 8th grade, algebra in 9th. Here, by the time my oldest daughter was in middle school she’s had about 4 or 5 years of algebra (in bursts of two, three weeks per year) and undefstood nothing about it. When I voiced my concerns to an administrator, I was told they will reinforce it when they come back to it in the next year. My response was you can only reinforce what was actually learned.
The U.S.’s education system will only begin its crawl out of the international basement if we start raising expectations, giving kids a good hour of homework each day, teach what’s inside the entire text, not just what’s geared towads the CRCT, and of course, stop making excuses for why a child can’t or won’t learn. Our children are our greatest asset, and our future. We shouldn’t be shortchanging them, and us, like we are doing now.


December 17th, 2010
6:58 am

While it is true that we have serious education problems and part of the problem is lack of parent support and involvement, what we need is limitation on what problems the schools must solve so that they can educate. Why should schools solve drug, smoking, sex, health (aids) problems, etc.etc.? In addition do other countries mandate mainstreaming of special ed students, do they operate massive bussing fleets, and do they require Title IX sports programs??


December 17th, 2010
7:07 am

The comparisons are rigged. Only China’s top 10% of students even go to “high school” and then only the top 6% of that 10% can go to “college.” The study compares China’s top 10% to ALL our students, including NCLB students, SpEd students, and our “won’ts.” I agree with Mitch – the schools are held WAY too accountable for raising children and should only be held accountable for teaching them.

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December 17th, 2010
7:24 am

How does telling parents that they need to be more involved solve the problem. We have created a country where in many families, both parents must work, sometimes at multiple jobs, just to make ends meet.

Education is not just a private good, it is a public good. We must, as a society, find ways to improve. We will not solve anything by simply pointing a finger.

Money doesn’t matter. Yet, private schools that may are so enamored of spend 2-3 times as much per student as public schools. (and they get to cherry pick their students.)

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December 17th, 2010
7:42 am

I think reading is as important as science or math. In fact, I might even go so far as to say it’s more important–that reading is the foundation of all education. But then again, most of the people who are really good at math and science seem to be good at reading too. But it’s amazing to me how much the average citizen DOES NOT read. And those that do read, only read fiction. So reading for a good many people is just another avenue of escape, along with the television, movies, and videogames they already partake in. It might do us some good to actually view reading as a way to further our knowledge and critical thinking skills.

history teacher

December 17th, 2010
7:48 am

Until discipline is back in the schools, we are not going to see improvement. Unfortunately, school leadership has no backbone when it comes to removing disruptive students who not only undermine their edcuation, but also the education of the other students in classes with them. As teacher we hear about AYP and keeping all of our students in school. However, these students who are constant disruptions are cancers in the school and they have affected the entire school. I have been teaching for a long time and have few discipline problems in my AP dream classes. However, I see what is going on around me. Students know that there are no serious consequences to causing disruptions. I sat in a faculty meeting where administrators(whose actual classroom experience is elementary school) told us that better use of differentiated instruction and flexible grouping really works with disruptive students. What a joke. The current philosophy of public educatrion is that the needs of the few outweight the needs of the many..

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What if

December 17th, 2010
7:58 am

Part right, m’friend, but you needed a bit more homework. Fact is, where parents ARE involved and school governance does run (pretty) well, AND there’s plenty of tax base, the schools run really, REALLY well. When the data are ‘dug into’ a bit, turns out that when we compare apples to apples (equivalent socioeconomics and so forth), U.S. kids whip the pants off – or at least are the equal of – the best in the rest of the world. There’s also the little detail that may of these ‘top scoring’ countries cherry-pick the kids who take the tests, while the U.S. works hard to put a representative sample in front of the tests. AND, ya know what, NOBODY CARES about yet another stupid test, so there’s no incentive whatsoever for kids to try hard on yet another test (ONE of the myriad downsides to our testing psychosis), and you better bet that the poor students REALLY don’t care. Perhaps the worst outcome of our 30-year psychotic (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results) fixation on minimum competency testing is that kids’ creativity has been declining all that time (see Kyung Hee Kim’s work – an article is in WSJ a few days ago) – the ONE thing that foreigners prize and praise above all else about what WAS the American education system.


December 17th, 2010
8:01 am

Why would you say that Bob just look at Clayton County Schools and the City of Atlanta Schools outstanding schools here in Georgia… If the county and state would jist put more cash into the schools it would be better right…

anti-History Teacher

December 17th, 2010
8:11 am

History Teacher; Your story is the reason I opted against a career as a History teacher. Of course, Bob’s reference to the scene in Casablanca is misplayed. What Bob neglects to note is the fact that Captain Renault announces his “shock” as the pit boss hands him his roulette winnings. Discipline a problem in the classroom? Why would classrooms be any different than any other social venue? Discipline is a problem in DC. It is a problem on Wall Street, in American homes, shopping malls, athletic arenas and training facilities, etc., etc. America is, for the most part, a nation of undiciplined, shameless lemmings, led by an equally (or greater) undisciplined group of pied pipers. Surely your study of History reveals this.


December 17th, 2010
8:32 am

Simple root cause – government as always. Government is a failure at everything it does. The failures in education are no surprise.

The system is the most socialistic institution in the nation. It is funded through a pure theft mechanism that is based on class and wealth envy and embodies the marxist principle of from each according to his ability to each according to his need.

The constant calls are for parental accountability, yet parents are not even a part of the process. Parents have no choice of schools except as their income levels provide neighborhood home choice. Even that is subject to arbitrary redistricting. Parents pay a token portion of the cost of what the state spends on education. What they pay is based on home value and not the number of children while childless couples and individualized both for the cost of their homes and because they chose to own property (while receiving no benefits). Even the choice to remove one’s child from the horrible system generates no rebate of the school taxes and in many cases only generates harrassment from government goons in the education protection racket.

A truly free market competitive system that requires parents to pay directly for each child’s education combined with scholarships funded through private business or individual contributions is the only solution to our education woes. Of course homeschooling would remain as a option for those who would prefer that route.

Along with this must also come the elimination of the repressive regulations that make opening a school, educating others, etc. so challenging. Education is a service and the particulars of any contract should be between the business and the customer, without government involvement except to enforce the provisions of the contract.

Many will cry about the costs, but study after study have shown that there is no relationship between education quality and money spent. One need only look to Wash. D.C. which spends nearly 15,000 per student and has the worst schools in the nation.

The problem has and always will be government. The sooner state and education are separated, the sooner the children of this country will be able to get a good education.


December 17th, 2010
8:37 am

All of you just do not understand. It is not so much about education but getting that diploma. Then, in college, it is about getting that degree not learning a skill or discipline. What is important in the earlier years is to indoctrinate the children into a socialist ideololgy using sex, political correctness, and anti-Christain rhetoric. By taking the stand that we can not have the same morals and beliefs as our forefathers because someone will get offended has dumbed down all of our children. The progressive liberals have given this country a blow to the head. We need to shake out the cob webs and tap them out–all the way out of the democratic party.


December 17th, 2010
8:38 am

We have been hearing, for many long years now, how badly our students are doing compared to other countries. Everything you can think of has been done to correct this. Nothing has worked. Maybe the overall quality of our students is the real problem. If so, then nothing else can be done.


December 17th, 2010
8:44 am

Imagine the president came on TV tonight and announced a massive over hall to the way we shop for groceries. The government would seize all grocery stores and manage them. The government would use our tax dollars to provide “free” food for all. You would only be allowed to shop at your government designated grocery store in your government drawn “grocery district” to get your “free food.” If you want to get food elsewhere that is fine but you will not get a refund of the tax dollars you have paid to run the government grocery stores.

Doesn’t this sound ridiculous? If this scenario played out there would be outrage in this country. The system would be a disaster. Yet this is exactly the system we have in place for public schools. The government will never run anything efficiently because it doesn’t have to. A lack of competition and the ability to fail leads to stagnation.


December 17th, 2010
8:52 am

Other newspapers present some earnest analysis of the PISA data and what we can learn. I hope I am just not seeing this right now. What Bob offers is a misguided indictment of an educational system. One key fact is that many students thrive…defying the problems that Bob identifies. Other systems beat us by having a broader segment of students do well–rich and poor. We also got new census data this weak that shows a pronounced racial divide, and then we find a huge disparity in our test scores at the same time. I am certain the educational system can be improved, but these are societal problems we are talking about, and sex education does not play much of a role. If anything, Bob is feeding the problem by throwing a bit of meat out to those waiting to tear into “liberal”educators and other pet peeves. Bottom lines are that we do need to spend some money, and we need to support positive efforts and even some failed experiments. We also need some broader understandings of exactly where we fail. I do not see much of this presented here and the readers are poorer for it.


December 17th, 2010
9:38 am

“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the the results a “wake up call.” His reaction shows just how out of touch Washington is when it comes to education.”

Bob you misinterpret Duncan’s remarks. Duncan has been saying that US education stinks since day one. His remarks about “wake up call” is saying that this should be a wake up call to everyone else.

I agree with your last paragraph. The management of the education process from the local school board to the national department has been lousy.

Look at what we do. We teach kids 6 hours a day for 5 days a week. And then give them 2 months off during the summer.

Why not keep them in schools 8 hours a day and 12 months a year?

Why not pay teachers based on their ability and the importance of the subject being taught?


December 17th, 2010
9:52 am

Obviously there is a clear problem with our education system and an insane amount of hypocracy at work. We can’t complaing about a lack of engineers and produce students that can’t do trigonometry.

Sadly though, this problem isn’t going away that easily. The root cause might be a bit hard to stomach, but here it is:

40 years ago, if you were an educated woman looking for a career, there were only two options available: nursing and teaching. As a result, despite being drastically underpaid, teaching attracted the brightest people of half the population. Now, women have a lot more options available, but the salaries for teachers have not kept up with the times. Teaching now attracts the dumbest of the population (and yes, I’m aware there are a lot of exceptions).

Until teaching becomes a competitive field, the quality of teachers is going to be terrible, and the students will suffer.

Bob, I disagree that we can’t solve this problem by throwing money at it. The powers that be just have terrible aim.

I would suggest we stop spending money like idiots. Instead, make a deal with the teacher unions: all teacher salaries double, but tenure no longer exists.

[...] US education stinksAtlanta Journal Constitution (blog)Why should schools solve drug, smoking, sex, health (aids) problems, etc.etc.? In addition do other countries mandate mainstreaming of special ed students, …and more » [...]

Trapped in a Red state

December 17th, 2010
10:10 am

The one year my son attended public school…the 11th grade in Chatham County, he was not allowed to bring his books home to study and the students were allowed to use their books during test.
Now, Chatham county says there is no $$ for books in this year’s budget. Unbelievable…

Trapped in a Red state

December 17th, 2010
10:27 am

The real problem in PUBLIC schools is discipline. Think about private school teachers who make about 1/2 of their public school counterparts. The students in private schools must behave or risk being kicked out. Many public school principals fear parent’s lawsuits, so they do not effectively deal with their school’s problem students.I suggest putting video cameras in the classrooms, then when they expel a problem student, they will have evidence to show the parents of these children. Let them sue the school at their own peril. I’ve heard many stories of students cursing their teachers even using terms like m…F….ing. We would have been spanked by both the principal and our parents…then expelled from school if we behaved like that in our day. It’s all about discipline…both in conduct and in expectations.

Trapped in a Red state

December 17th, 2010
10:40 am


I respectfully disagree with the extended school day…although I think the longer day could be beneficial only if these kids get some breaks…recess or PE twice a day. Otherwise, they will not be able to concentrate over that amount of time. Also, these “play/activity times” gives the teachers a “carrot” to motivate the students. Hey, it worked great in my day.

Rafe Hollister

December 17th, 2010
10:46 am

Don’t know what the study cost, but what a waste. I don’t think there is any debate about the state of the schools. As long as Gov controls the schools, the results will not significantly change.


December 17th, 2010
10:59 am

We have first-class schools in Georgia with high teacher standards. I don’t see what all the fuss is about! We’ve become so absorbed by test scores and competition in the global economy, as if that was the only goal of education. What about turning out creative, independent, thinking, responsible citizens as an equally valid goal? Why are so afraid of “the rankings” versus other countries? This is a straw man argument, Bob.

Ragnar Danneskjöld

December 17th, 2010
11:05 am

Hard to figure: I would have thought the Federal government imposing one-size-fits-all standards would have given us Nirvana.


December 17th, 2010
11:19 am

We needed a study to reach this conclusion? Heck, with our entitlement first society, those who accept them are leading the pack in terms of “under-performing” assets…if we can call them that (assets)…and the teachers unions have a heck of a lot to do with the poor state of our public schools.

Dr. Pangloss

December 17th, 2010
11:26 am

In some European countries, students take a very hard test when they’re thirteen. The test decides whether they go to the Gymnasium to prep for college or to trade school. Sometimes kids in Germany commit suicide when they don’t do well enough. When they’re weeded out that ruthlessly, they may score higher since the weak students are eliminated. I don’t think Americans would stand for their kids being weeded out that way.


December 17th, 2010
12:22 pm

We already adopted the horrible Prussian (German) model of education in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. That’s the primary reason why schools are so screwed up. Leave the Germans to their own devices. They have shown at least 2 times in the past century that they are not the country to emulate.


December 17th, 2010
12:24 pm

“His reaction shows just how out of touch Washington is when it comes to education. If the United States hasn’t awakened by now to the fact that our schools are failing miserably to graduate students competent to compete in such key subject areas as math, science and basic reading, then we are in a permanent somnambulant state.”

They know Bob, they may be disingenuous but they’re not stupid. The underachievers and their parents are the Democrats’ base. You won’t pick up a lot of votes if you single your constituents out as dimwits.


December 17th, 2010
1:43 pm

Germans put the Americans on the moon.
Dumb parents raise dumb children.


December 17th, 2010
1:54 pm

But Bob, elementary, middle, and most high school students don’t vote, don’t have political PACs, nor do they have highly paid and well funded lobbyists to wine and dine the political elite (should I say ruling class). As long as that is true students will be left in the lurch and education will be voiced as a priority whereas in reality it doesn’t matter to the politicians because the largest givers and funders get what they want.


December 17th, 2010
1:59 pm

Well, why don’t we put an incentive to learning and teaching. Give financial rewards to the best teachers and students at each school. Betcha, you’ll start seeing a difference.

Julie R. Camp

December 17th, 2010
2:02 pm

We needed a study for that? And yet, we still throw money at the problem.


December 17th, 2010
2:26 pm

Bob — You should know that the feds do not contribute a “big chunk” of the cost of a K – 12 education; it’s only about 8%, and most of the federal money goes to provide services to special ed and poor students. Also the feds do not control any aspect of local school curricula.

The test results you cite are skewed: the other countries educate and test only the elite; in the U.S. we (try to) educate, and we test everyone. Finally, studies show that student tests scores are directly related to: household income, education level of parents, wherther there are two parents in the household, race, and neighborhood. That said, one school system has a high concerntration of both minority students and lower income families and yet posts some of the highest scores nationally: the Depart. of Defense Schools, which educate the children of our service men and women. Wonder why DODS schools do so well? Oh, I don’t know … maybe discipline.


December 17th, 2010
2:29 pm

P.S. The teachers who teach in DODS schools have the right to engage in collective bargaining and are highly unionized. Go figure.


December 17th, 2010
3:10 pm

Republican’s want WAR not Peace, and are against abortions…..but Killing for Money is Good.

Republican’s hate smart voters, so Education is a LOW Priority for them.

Look at the ZERO Sonny did in 8 years while doubling his self worth, building a fish farm, creating special laws to keep his money……..all while cutting education, and Praying for Rain.

Republican Voters should be ashamed in general !


December 17th, 2010
3:31 pm

Study: On average, charter schools do no better than public schools
But the study also found more nuanced evidence that the most effective charter schools are those serving lower-income students, especially in urban areas.

Dan Deman

December 17th, 2010
3:40 pm

You are just now deciding that U.S. education sucks? I grew up in a rural Canadian school system. I moved to the States in 1978 to go to University. We were making jokes about how ignorant Americans were in 1978 and it has only gotten worse. Schools don’t have a curriculum. They teach to test. They worry about teaching technology and just breeze over the basics. Schools are only open until 3:00pm!! The classes have TV’s in them!? Parents are too busy trying to earn enough to qualify for a loan to buy the latest LexusPOS to give a crap about their children’s education, until little Johnny brings home an “F”. Then of course it’s the teacher’s fault. Wake up America. You are about to become a third world country, now that you have sent all the real jobs, along with the education to the third world countries.

Mr. Spock

December 17th, 2010
3:45 pm

As long as the Fed Govt. continues to be looked at as the sugar daddy for the lower and middle class, there is no incentive for schooling and education to be thought of as anything more than free day care for all the baby mamas. And so the cycle continues.

Common Man

December 17th, 2010
3:48 pm

We need teacher’s unions. That would solve the problem.

Big Jim

December 17th, 2010
3:50 pm

Let’s suppose I agree with Bobby Barr and say “America’s educational system stinks”. So that explains the unusually high number of conservatives still in existence. I knew that there was a root cause for ignorant minority bashing individuals who can’t seem to get mad at a subject that’s NOT minority friendly.

Thanks for the lesson, Bob.

Big Jim

December 17th, 2010
3:52 pm

Mr. Spock

With your “baby mamas” comment, I now understand why Vulcan was destroyed by Nero. DON’T live long and prosper.

Big Jim

December 17th, 2010
3:56 pm

Dan Deman

I appreciate your perspective. You could be a conservative, which is your right, but not at the expense of insulting minority groups.

Pats and Taps

December 17th, 2010
4:20 pm

In the film classic, “Casablanca,” the chief of police, played by Claude Rains, expresses profound “shock” that gambling has been taking place at Rick’s American Cafe. Similar expressions of shock……

and I said I would never read you again. You’ll have to do the thinking for both of us, Bob. But I remember when you first blogged here…..remember….the day that utube had German-porned Paris Hilton, your politics were blue, the german was great……I really think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship……


December 17th, 2010
4:38 pm

Get money where there is money, public educations needs funds from corporations, high income earners. When the 1917 revolution hits here, they will wish they paid their share as they will lose it all…


December 17th, 2010
6:12 pm

Failure to mention who invent,s more but is sold to other countries is a major failure in it,s self,”money is everything is the American way of life” even if it put,s this nation in jeopardy,just ask our government,wikileaks say,s it all.Go Tea Party.

Mr. Spock

December 17th, 2010
6:19 pm

Big Jim…you must have a few baby mama’s yourself. The facts speak for themselves