My wife and I were comparing school experiences today.

I grew up in Massachusetts, she in a communist country.

My experience was horrible. I was in high school in the 1970s. The teachers were droning idiots (mostly), the students asleep most of the time. I learned, to a first approximation, nothing. (What little I know I learned outside of school; I’m lucky to be one of the few who is able do this.)

Her experience was totally different. She was challenged and, like most Europeans of my acquaintance, learned a lot in school.


I think it’s the quality of the teachers. In the US, teaching is a lousy job. It pays poorly and has low social status. Teachers are not respected.

In her country, teaching was (at least at that time) a highly respected and well-rewarded profession (as communist jobs go). So the best and brightest were attracted to the teaching profession. Both her parents were high-school teachers (biology and mathematics). Her father, retired more than 20 years now, is still called “professor” when he goes around town (with respect, not irony).

Naturally, there are good reasons why teachers aren’t respected in the US. They aren’t respectable. When I was graduating from high school, the best students were going into law, medicine, or engineering. The middling students went into business or the arts. The worst – the bottom of the barrel, the ones who could barely get accepted into any college at all – into teaching.

Because they could. There was essentially no competition in the teaching profession; anyone could get in.

It’s a vicious self-reinforcing cycle – teaching pays poorly, is low-status, so no capable person wants to be a teacher. So only the incompetent and dull become teachers. And so teaching becomes even less attractive as a profession – your colleagues are drones, the pay is poor, the administrators (drawn from the ranks of teachers) are idiots, and your friends think you’re a loser.

It gets worse. The incompetent are insecure (understandably so) and so push for unionization and bureaucratic rules to make the job less challenging, and oppose all efforts to measure or reward excellence, as they know they have little of it. (With exceptions, of course. There are always a few outliers, but early in their careers most of these either quit in frustration or are scooped up by private schools.)

So why was the situation different in communist Europe? One of my themes on this blog is the importance of competition as a necessity for excellence, yet communist primary schools, like American ones, didn’t compete with each other. (Actually they did, a little, but I think this was a minor factor.)

In less-developed countries, most people have to do manual labor – work in the fields, a factory, etc. Only a very few can hope for a profession (or even office work). These coveted slots are reserved for the best and brightest. Teaching is well-paid compared to most other jobs (and offers lots of vacation time). As a result, there is great competition to enter the teaching profession. Bright people become teachers, do a good job, and earn the respect and admiration of students and parents. They are, rightly, seen as the best, and have high social status.

A wise farmer doesn’t eat his best produce – he saves the best seeds to plant next year. We in the US have been using our worst, instead of our best, to educate the next generation, and we are reaping the rewards.

The situation in colleges and universities is completely different – US higher education is widely considered the best in the world. Why? Because universities compete with each other for professors and students. Judging from the amount and intensity of marketing materials my high-school senior son received, running a university is incredibly profitable (a racket, I suspect, but that’s for another essay). The tremendous competitive pressure forces universities to seek the best professors.

Well-paid and well-perked, being a university professor in the US is a good job that attracts highly competent people – who compete with each other for the few tenured professorship slots. Again, the self-reinforcing cycle works, but this time in the positive direction: Competent, articulate, erudite professors enjoy high social status and (reasonably) good pay.

Yet the lure of alternative professions detracts from the quality of teaching even in US universities – if 150 years ago professors were drawn from the top 0.1% of minds, today they are drawn from the top 20%. But this is a far cry from the situation in primary schools.

What is to be done?

The simplest solution is to make teaching an attractive profession again.  If teachers were paid on a scale similar to, say, lawyers, far more competent young people would be attracted into the profession.  To throw out rough numbers, say $150,000/year for starting salaries, rising to $350,000 – $400,000 for a senior teacher with an excellent reputation.

It would take a generation to make the change.  At first, only the mercenary would be attracted.  Over time, as the social status of the profession improved, others would be attracted as well.

In the early days of the change there would be understandable outrage at the idea of paying such sums to the existing incompetents.  But what alternative is there?  Any system that limited the new salaries to the competent would be bitterly fought by the powerful teaching lobbies.  And if the new salaries were offered only to new teachers entering the profession (in the unlikely event that such a scheme was politically possible), this would drive the few existing competent teachers out of the schools in protest at the unfairness.

Of course, given a fixed budget, there is always a necessary tradeoff between quality and quantity.  If teacher salaries are raised by 4x, class sizes must increase by the same amount.  So the change needs to start at the highest grades, in the high-schools, and gradually work its way toward the lower grades, as the public becomes used to the idea of larger class sizes.  (Numerous studies show that teacher quality matters far more to educational outcome than class size.)

At some point, perhaps below 5th or 6th grade, it may be better to keep the existing low-paid teachers and small class sizes.  Young children are not capable of learning very much (my mathematics professor father-in-law started school, illiterate, at the age of 14; but that’s another story), and probably need more supervision.  And it doesn’t take a tremendous intellect to teach young children.

One way to get from here to there is through competition between schools, however created.  If schools had to compete for the custom of students and parents, the successful competitors would have to improve outcomes through better teaching (and the unsuccessful ones would disappear, as they ought to).

But as the communist example shows, vast improvement is possible even without competition between schools – as long as the incentives are put in place for competent people to compete to become teachers.

7 Responses to “Why American education is so bad”

  1. Fred Hapgood Says:

    A perhaps more politically realistic approach would be to find ways of incorporating high quality online material, perhaps with a private school analogy to MIT’s OpenCourseWare. That would allow public school teachers to do what they do best — take attendence — while giving students access to the best teaching out there. Win-win.

  2. Bob Alexander Says:

    There’s still some pieces of the puzzle that are missing.

    First, I have a much more positive view of my days in public school than you do. Yes, I can name a few teachers who were stunningly bad, but most of them were OK or better. Now, I grew up in Newton. MA which, at the time, was being praised as one of the top ten school systems in the country, so my experience was atypical. But there’s no shortage of kids from other cities who will praise their government education.

    Second, what of your college experience? You praise U.S. colleges, but you didn’t like being in one. Had high school destroyed your ability to enjoy school? Or did you choose the wrong college? Or are you just not suited to a school environment?

    I don’t dispute anything you wrote: there are really bad teachers, who are boring and/or don’t know the material they’re supposed to teach, and the profession is frequently chosen by people who are not qualified to do anything better. But there’s also a problem with the students. We have a one-size-fits-all education system. They all file in, sit down, listen to someone talking for 40 minutes, then go somewhere else and do it again. Human evolution did not select for this activity. It’s a wonder so many people can do it at all. We shouldn’t be surprised if some people, even very intelligent people, don’t cotton to it.

  3. Dave Says:

    (To Fred:) That would certainly work for the brightest students, who can learn independently without personal guidance. But then those kids never have problems anyway.

    But how is that different from simply abolishing school altogether and saying “here’s a web browser, kid – all of human knowledge is online; have fun”? Most kids won’t learn much without being pushed quite a bit.

  4. Dave Says:

    (To Bob: ) I don’t think the perception that there’s something wrong with American primary schools is unique to me.

  5. Bob Alexander Says:

    Quite right: it’s not unique to you. I can think of lots of kids in even the vaunted Newton schools who had negative experiences to rival or even surpass yours. One in particular was a fairly smart kid, in some of the same classes I was, and yet had a very different opinion from mine of the same teachers (I thought they were OK and he didn’t).

    So I’m not trying to say that there are no problems with the schools. I’m just adding in another factor – differences between students. And, by the way, the schools are ultimately responsible for identifying and accommodating those differences, since they have accepted the job of educating everyone. So this is still the schools’ fault for mishandling students.

    In all fairness, schools are trying to do better at this than they did when we were kids. For example, in our time, dyslexic kids would be dismissed as hopelessly stupid. These days, schools recognize dyslexia as a phenomenon affecting reading but not reasoning, and they try to accommodate it. (On the flip side, my sister-in-law in California is a speech therapist, so she’s seen how disabled kids are handled in the schools. She won’t let a government school anywhere near her autistic son.)

  6. Bob Alexander Says:

    By the way, please don’t misinterpret my previous post. I’m not suggesting that every kid who has a problem with school is dyslexic, autistic, or is in any other way disabled. I think there’s a wide spectrum of non-disabled people, and some of them have the temperament/malleability/whatever to fit in our rigid school environments, while some don’t. The disabilities I mentioned are extreme cases, but they are the only ones the school establishment is trying to accommodate.

    I’m also not particularly proud of being the type of person who fit in to school. I think it’s at least partly due to my tendency to be accepting of authority figures and non-judgmental of them – and that’s not a good thing.

  7. Lee Webb Says:

    Hi Dave et al —
    American education doesn’t NEED to be so bad. Read topic #4 of
    Thanks for your time,
    Lee Webb, Naples, Florida & Denver, Colorado USA

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