Friday, May 20, 2011

Numbers Don't Lie: Our Teachers (and Doctors) Are Failing

I RETIRED FROM TEACHING three years ago. So I finally have time to do a little writing. If you follow education news these days you have to know public school teachers are being fed a steady diet of abuse by critics. When U. S. students are compared and ranked, internationally, based on test scores the results are depressing.

It has to be teachers, right? Not long ago, Glenn Beck lumped teachers’ unions in with Islamic terrorists. Seriously. The movie Waiting for Superman made it look like teachers were a bunch of slugs. Here in Ohio Governor Kasich acts like we’re Vikings intent on ransacking the State Treasury.

I talk to teachers these days and find them more discouraged than at any time since I first became interested in a career in education. So my blog will always be a defense of good teachers—but never bad ones. 

There’s a difference, which most of our leaders and almost all of the critics seem to forget. Take Arne Duncan. He says education reform is “all about the talent.”

He means it’s all about teachers.

Trust me:  I’m a liberal. I voted for President Obama and always knew he had a valid birth certificate. But I’d like to sock Mr. Duncan, his Secretary of Education in the jaw. (Same goes for Davis Guggenheim, producer of Waiting for Superman, by the way.)

If you listen to critics this is what you hear:  We have a “school crisis” on our hands. How do we know? We know because our students finished 25th in math in 2006, when students from thirty nations were tested. Worse, we spend more on education than almost all the countries that beat us. See:  America’s teachers are lazy and overpaid.

Here were the bleak math results in 2006:
  1. Finland
  2. South Korea
  3. Netherlands
  4. Switzerland
  5. Canada
  6. Japan
  7. New Zealand
  8. Belgium
  9. Australia
  10. Denmark
  11. Czech Republic
  12. Iceland
  13. Austria
  14. Germany
  15. Sweden
  16. Ireland
  17. France
  18. United Kingdom
  19. Poland
  20. Slovak Republic
  21. Hungary
  22. Luxembourg
  23. Norway
  24. Spain 
  26. Portugal
  27. Italy
  28. Greece
  29. Turkey
  30. Mexico
Study that list a bit and it can seem depressing. Our poor students were just baffled when it came to multiplying decimals and transforming common fractions into percentages. Who else could you blame? It had to be teachers.

In my case, I looked at that list for a long time and wondered. Was America going to math hell in a hand basket?

WHAT OTHER PROBLEMS WERE CRITICS MISSING? Was it just America’s teachers who were failing? Or was there a broader cultural failure to concern us?

What about doctors?

Time magazine provided the first hint of danger in a brief comparison (December 12, 2008) of health care systems round the world. After that, I was on the story like Woodward and Bernstein, or maybe just Woodward, since it’s just me.

Health care costs in the United States ate up 16% of GDP, the highest figure in the world, a per capita cost of $7,026. Life expectancy was 77.8 years.

Japan spent 7.9% of GDP, or $2,690 per capita. Yet the Japanese lived an average of 83 years.

Numbers don’t lie and the more numbers you study the more lying you don’t see. School reformers like Secretary Duncan assure us that if we collect enough data and tie test results to teacher pay we can save American education. Maybe we can collect enough data to save hospitals, too. In southern Minnesota people live into their 80’s. People in eastern Kentucky live a mere 72.6 years.

What’s needed, clearly, is a system to rate doctors and nurses in Minnesota “excellent” and medical people in Kentucky “failing” or under “academic watch” or some category of that nature. Or we could fire all the Kentucky medical people and get some real professionals in there to clean up the mess.

In fact, to get a picture of how our oncologists and proctologists are doing, let’s gather some data. Compare life expectancy in the same countries that beat out our brains in math.

Here were the dismal “health care” rankings for 2009:

1.    Japan                          
2.    Australia                     
3.    Canada                                   
4.    France                        
5.    Sweden                      
6.    Switzerland                
7.    Iceland                                   
8.    Israel                          
9.    New Zealand             
10.  Italy                            
11.  Norway                      
12.  Spain                          
13.  Austria                                   
14.  Greece                        
15.  Netherlands                
16.  Luxembourg               
17.  Germany                    
18.  Belgium                      
19.  Finland           
20.  United Kingdom        
21.  Denmark                    
22.  Ireland                        
23.  Portugal                      
25.  Czech Republic          
26.  Mexico                       
27.  South Korea               
28.  Poland                        
29.  Slovakia                     
30.  Turkey                     

So, what do simple lists prove? If America’s teachers are failing, a truth the media universally accept, then this chart proves that U. S. doctors are lazy and overpaid idiots—and they aren’t even unionized.

(Thank god they don't have tenure!!!)

So, Mr. Duncan, if you ever do get punched in the nose by an angry, retired teacher, head for Canada if you want good affordable health care.

And don’t mention our terrible doctors to Glenn Beck.

He’ll only start crying.

(For even MORE chilling statistical evidence go to:  “America's Teachers Stink Up the Place Again.


  1. My personal opinion on our education system is that there absolutely needs to be reform. The classes need to be harder, and the standards for passing need to be stricter. In my opinion, there have been a few factors that have been eating at the quality of our educational system: the waning attention spans of our youth, growing class sizes, and destructive parents.

    Obviously with the tough economy and the war on Iraq, the public school system is at the mercy of all the state tax cuts. When you teach a class of 40 kids, I'd say it's a success if 35 of them actually grasp the concept you're teaching. In order to bring those last 5 up to speed, you would have to either have another paid employee do it, or sit down one-on-one at the expense of the other 35. So in the sake of getting the maximum efficiency for that situation, you have to just accept getting 35 out of 40.

    Then you have destructive parents. They act in two ways: complete apathy on one hand, and complete irrationality on the other. After being involved in both sides of the education system (student and teacher) it's pretty evident that an involved parent that holds a child accountable is a HUGE predictor of academic success for a student. The kids that are on IEP (Individual Education Plans) are usually the ones with bad home lives.So in order for kids' scores to improve, the parents needs to step up. On the other hand, we have the irrational parents. These parents are the ones that when their kid fails a test, gets caught cheating, or does poorly in class will threaten the teacher or school with a lawsuit claiming malpractice. Schools are notorious for folding to parents threatening lawsuits. This in turn hurts the masses as the curriculum has been dumbed down so everyone can easily pass.

    Finally, we have our children's attention spans. With the growing prevalence of social media and the ensuing technology, kids have the tools to be in 100% contact with their peers. Their attention spans have adapted to this convenience which then in turn kills their ability to pay attention in class. This has turned into an uphill battle for teachers as the amount of kids that actually want to learn is pretty low on a day to day basis. However, I believe an enthusiastic, creative teacher (much like the writer of this blog) can get kids to stay engaged and beat the small attention spans of the American youth.

  2. Maybe I should attach a conclusion :) . I don't think cutting the benefits of the teachers is the proper course of action for our system. I think it's the easy way out for politicians who don't want to get involved in such a complicated/broken system. All they care about is appeasing the masses so they can get votes for their next election and if teachers have to suffer then who cares. Ultimately the students will suffer for this policy change. UPenn did a study that found that patients report happier and more satisfying hospital visits when nurses have better work environments or with lower patient-to-nurse ratios. This directly applies to schools (and fits in well with the original doctors point made above). It's been well documented that positive reinforcement works better than negative, but yet the politicians are making all the incorrect moves!

  3. Teachers are failing so much as this article suggests. This has led to the demand for home tutoring, and of course this is unregulated. Do we see a problem here?

  4. I think you missed the point; it could be my ineffective writing. I don't believe simple lists like these ever give a true picture. Some teachers are failing, of course. Not all.