Why Are U.S. Schools Mediocre? Ask the Kids

by | Jun 2, 2015

If you want schools to do better, get the government the hell out of schooling. But that’s only a start. Next, put the task of reason and intelligence into education itself — with the central and overriding goal of education being a well-trained mind.


Sent from a reader, published at upworthy.com

This is not news: America does pretty badly when it goes up against other countries academically.

This is true even if we take it one state at a time—no single state, no matter how wealthy or small, matches the top scoring countries. And yet, the U.S. spends more per student than many other countries in the world.

Reporter Amanda Ripley wanted to figure out why U.S. education outcomes are so mediocre.

Ripley reasoned that kids spend more time in school than anyone. They’ve got strong opinions about school. They have opinions on what is working.

She talked to the only students who could have firsthand knowledge of the differences between schools in top-performing countries and those in the U.S.: American kids who were exchange students in those countries.
She surveyed hundreds of exchange students and found three major points that they all agreed on.

The students all said that in their host countries:

School is harder. There’s less homework but the material is more rigorous. People take education more seriously, from selecting the content to selecting the teachers.

Sports are just a hobby. In the U.S., sports are a huge distraction from the business of school, but that’s not the case in other countries.

Kids believe there’s something in it for them. The students in other countries deeply believe that what they are doing in school affects how interesting their lives were going to be. Even if they don’t like a class, they see their education as a stepping stone to their future.

This all strikes me as entirely plausible.

Whenever I ask school-aged children or teens about their opinions of school (almost always public school), the answers are like this: “The teachers teach to the tests;” or, “It’s all about the annual tests, and keeping those scores up for the school.” A few students have even told me, “My teacher says we have to do well on this test, to make the school look good and make sure we get more funding next year from the federal government.”

People can be incredibly naive. The unquestioned assumption is that public schools are not merely a moral and political right; they are also the only and best way to educate children.


I don’t think anyone has much of an answer. To question the efficacy and necessity of public schools is probably more shocking, and more radical, than questioning the position of the sun or moon in the sky, or the roundness of the earth.

If people could answer this question coherently, they probably would say something like: “Public schools are only concerned with education. Private or for-profit schools must worry about making a profit, pleasing customers, and the like. That’s not education.”

Of course, if this is true, then why are public schools much more mediocre than most private schools? Why must public schools teach to the tests, for the sake of funding, if public schools are not about money — and only about education?

Why is private money automatically and always bad and wrong, while government money — ultimately taken from private hands — is automatically and always good and right?

And if all these assumptions are true, then how do you explain the state of public schools? They should be 100 times better than the typical private school. Yet the elected officials and leaders who argue most strenuously for public schools are the very ones (virtually without exception) who send their children to private schools, from President Obama on down.

The issue is even deeper than public vs. private. The reason public schools go unquestioned is because of the widespread ignorance and naiveté that exists about education — which, in turn, results from widespread ignorance about the nature of the human mind itself.

In today’s world, the human mind is either denigrated or taken for granted. Yet the reasoning, thinking, functioning human mind is the only thing that makes anything possible — particularly the great innovations or discoveries in science and business that most of us take for granted.

Reason makes everything worthwhile and distinctively human and civilized possible. Reason is our tool and means of survival. It’s the most sacred thing about human beings — along with physical health, if not more so, because without the tool of reason, advances and discoveries in medical science (or clean water, or electricity, or anything else) could not be made.

We tend to assume that if we throw enough money at education, then that will make minds brighter and smarter. Yet we continue to elect leaders who condemn money as the root of all evil. Why so much trust and faith in money as the sole solution to a problem when most of us claim to hate money?

Interestingly enough, more money is not helping education one bit. More money is thrown at public schools every year. Things stay mediocre, and in some spots, it gets even worse. What gets the blame? Not spending enough money. There’s no end in sight to the spending on education.

The same mistaken mentality can be applied to private schools. Well-off parents might assume that by spending tens of thousands of dollars a year on education rather than only hundreds or thousands, or even nothing, they’re necessarily doing better. “I’ve spent all this money, so my conscience is clear.” But it’s not necessarily so. If parents have no involvement with their child’s education, they’re trusting that teachers and schools are doing the job solely because they spend a lot of money.

When I say parents need “involvement” with their kids’ education, I don’t mean things like screaming at their elected leaders to throw more money at the problem; or cajoling or threatening teachers and coaches to do things aimed at making their child look better. I mean actually being involved with their childrens’ minds and brains, not just with book learning but in all the affairs of daily life. I mean coaching and teaching and challenging their children to learn how to reason, think, read, speculate, investigate and hypothesize. “Why do you think that? What do you think will happen if you do such-and-such? What made you reach that conclusion, and why? Are there other facts that contradict this conclusion or attitude?” Or how about reading a book and then discussing it afterwards? How about requiring alternatives to the computer games, and putting time aside for discussions about other matters?

Thinking should be a part of a child’s everyday life. To ensure this, thinking ought to be a part of every family’s life. Leaving it all to schools is a big mistake, especially given the low quality of most schools.

Mediocre or even bad schools cannot excuse away the benefit or need of parents to be engaged with their children’s minds in this way. Trillions of dollars in tax funds thrown at the monolithic and bureaucratic U.S. Department of Education won’t replace this need, nor manufacture its alternative. Government-run schools are less equipped to do this than just about any other entity. Nor will tens of thousands of dollars thrown at expensive private schools — even good ones — wipe out a parent’s basic responsibility to engage with the mind (intellect, feelings, ideas) of his or her child on a regular basis.

This is the reason why so many American students are not getting the idea that education is important: Because their parents do not treat it as important. They treat it as a requirement, or a fact of life, maybe. “You’ve got to go to school. Everyone goes to school. Shut up and do it.” But why? What does education matter? Why should it be more important than the Internet, or video games, or sports events? If children got this answer from their parents, the mediocre schools would not be so damaging. From what I’ve seen, I wonder if some parents don’t think that education or thinking is actually less important than the Internet, sports or recreation themselves.

And let’s be real: public school teachers work for the government, more than for the students. In the end, even the most dedicated of teachers — the kind devoted to the enlightenment of the human mind as a career passion — must get his or her paycheck signed by the government. The federal government, more than ever, mandates that politically favorable ideas must trump science. (Environmentalist dogma, politically correct dogma, pro-Muslim dogma — we all know the drill.) Much is made of how government tramples on religion, and that’s certainly true — because trampling is what government does. It’s what you want government to do, when up against a terrorist, a rapist, a murderer or a fraud. But government also tramples on the rational enlightenment of young minds, the parts of the mind which need reason, logic, and facts for intellectual nourishment and ultimately self-esteem and confidence.

Are you surprised that most kids don’t think there’s something in education for them? I’m not. Because the overriding attitude in our culture, from what I observe, involves a failure to recognize the paramount importance of reason and thought in all the affairs of daily life, to say nothing of advancements in science and technology.

If you want schools to do better, get the government the hell out of schooling. But that’s only a start. Next, put the task of reason and intelligence into education itself — with the central and overriding goal of education being a well-trained mind.

The central purpose of education, other than imparting knowledge and facts, is to teach a young person how and why to think. Treat that goal as if it’s of the life-or-death importance that it really is — and young children will, almost without exception, respond in kind. And they’ll internalize that attitude into adulthood, too.

We’ll never get education right until we get the human mind right.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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