The Failure of 'Failing Schools'

Friday, April 13, 2012


Schools are failing.  At least that’s the consensus if you’ve read any school reporting or heard any politicians promising much needed school reform since, well, approximately the beginning of American public education. But … is it true?  Washington Post reporter and columnist for the American Journalism Review Paul Farhi explains to Bob why the story doesn’t add up.   


The Spinanes - Kid in Candy


Paul Farhi

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield

Comments [13]

Melissa G. from pueblo

Schools are failing; schools are not failing. The media likes to put schools in the spotlight because the education system bases its facts on how our community schools are preparing the students to be well educated for the future. The schools are not failing; the parents, students, and teachers are failing. Look at the big picture, students learn from parents first before learning from any other sources. If the parents aren’t set on teaching their children basic skills then how do you expect the teachers to help. When a child grows up in poverty then they are more likely to have a hard time in school due to parents and teachers not recognizing that certain students need more help than others. I think that the schools are more worried on passing more kids then actually helping them develop a learning style to help with future success.

Apr. 23 2012 07:39 PM
dcc from East Harlem

These critics complain about the quality of the workforce in America, but to hear them tell it, you have to be Stephen Hawking today to get a factory job. If employers had put the word out 2 years ago that they'd be switching over to high-tech equipment, workers could have prepared themselves. Instead, factory owners gripe as if the worker shortage is the workers' fault. That's what owners also charged 100 years ago, according to your report, and there were a couple of panics and depressions back then, too, weren't there? All these workers' qualifications were just fine...until upper management decided, without fair warning, they wanted something different. Then, suddenly, the workforce was unqualified. All this Blame the Victim sounds so low and unfair. The higher the unemployment figures, the more the unemployed are derided as unemployable even though hoards of unemployed complain that everywhere they apply they are told they are over-educated and over-qualified. And that makes me suspicious of these unfillable high-tech jobs. One expert on one program says there are too many over-educated, over-qualified applicants. Now, others are saying American workers are poorly educated. Can both assessments be true? Why don't you visit some of these new factories and let us know EXACTLY what workers need to learn to satisfy hiring managers? And tell us soon so we can get to work on our astrophysics Ph.D.'s.

Apr. 18 2012 01:59 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Why can't we face it? It isn't the schools or the teachers. It is the students and, of course, the parents who are failing. How could kids fail if parents provide: love, shelter, food, a library, thoughtful challenge and encouragement? Don't shift the blame.

My family was lucky, we had many of these but failing that, kids need to know that resources are available to them to self-educate and of the brutal realities they face on their own if they fail to take advantage of them. It isn't the same as having a supportive family environment but it seems to have worked well enough for Ben Franklin to become the first, most famous, worldwide American celebrity, wealthy, political and philanthropic. So much so that he founded both the Franklin (Philadelphia) and the Young Men's (New Haven) Institutes to foster independent advanced study for working men who would never be able to afford the credentials colleges offer.

Of course, accreditation is for those seeking jobs. Knowledge is for those who want to create.

It would also be good if someone updated and published another edition of High School Self-taught. The '32 edition worked for my father and I and the '72 edition got my ex her GED and into college.

Love learning.

Apr. 17 2012 11:41 PM
Greg Slater from East Palo Alto

I didn't hear a single actual performance number quoted by the Fahri, and Garfield did not demand numbers. Fahri only claimed that according to TIMSS study US students have been improving since 1995. By how much? What are the longer term trends? I had to look up the report myself to see the actual numbers. Without the numbers the claims made by Fahri are just useless. Nor did he explain exactly what the study measures. Nor did Fahri bother to compare the TIMSS results to even one other study to see if there was disagreement. Without numbers and comparisons this is utterly useless. ANd worst of all, Garfield failed to demand actual numbers. that's what an actual journalist would do. He'd also contact Zakaria and get a response. The reason is that OTM is all about juicy stories of 'the media' (of which they are a part) 'getting things wrong' (big surprise!) and not at all about determine the truth.

I mean, why do I have to tell journalists how to do their jobs?

Apr. 15 2012 06:12 PM
anna from new york

And Duncan is the person to deal with American education? I think that his position demands restrictions for applicants: "Social-Darwinists need not apply." Sure, it will happen in this Social-Darwinist nation. I listened to the bastard only once and it was enough for me to shiver every time someone mentions his name.

Apr. 15 2012 02:02 PM
Maldo from Keokuk, IA

It's ridiculous to claim that the media says ALL schools are failing. Obviously, some schools are not failing. But look at literally any study of where U.S. students rank among their international peers — the results are dismaying at best, a fact your piece completely ignored. After one such study, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Associated Press,"This is an absolute wake-up call for America… The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education." Mr. Garfield, I'm sure it was fun to have your good buddy on the show, but the segment was biased and misguided at best.

Apr. 15 2012 10:30 AM
anna from new york

Look, how absurd this society is. For months, I saw a billboard of Kenneth Cole (very rich and gay) who was promoting gay marriage. Now when marriage is a law (signed by his former brother-in-law), Mr. Cole is now promoting in the same spot ... his clothes line (of course) and .... an attack on teachers and unions. If I understand it correctly, he is a "liberal." Such a society can't survive, it can only collapse.

Apr. 15 2012 09:07 AM
anna from new york

Many things.
Rick, I couldn't care less what this or that administrator of remedial schools (American colleges) says. Among other things, there is no room for any math on university level, except for students of math related fields.
I would recommend replacing all zombie training programs (smile, don't argue, be positive, admire corporate monsters) with a solid academic program with a significant dose of math, history, geography (yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is such a subject) and then you won't need this ridiculous pseudo-academic college salad of courses which shouldn't be in academia. Americans are not familiar with such concept as "society." I feel I must introduce this term. OK, fellow Americans, believe it or not you are part of a society. Sadly, this society is illiterate.
You can't expect good education in a corrupt, barbarically unbalanced society. Recently, an art teacher complained about the lack of respect from students. Strange, how can he expect respect from students who have been raised to admire crooks, thieves, prostitutes and similar charmers. In a culture which worships wealth (and/or success), how one can expect children to have a respect for decent, educated, dedicated professionals, whether teachers, librarians, engineers, physicians or professors (yes, it's that bad) when they sense admiration for the Madoffs, Welshes (Jack), Madonnas etc. etc. When there is no familiarity even with the concept "ethics" and knowledge has been totally denigrated (deliberately - it's so much easier to manipulate the illiterate)... what to expect?
The argument that the children of the Trumps and children of ghettos have the same conditions to succeed is so absurd that I won't address it. Analysts and demagogues don't mix.

Apr. 15 2012 08:47 AM
Rick Evans from 02368

Parents' happiness with their schools and teachers is no more evidence that schools are succeeding or failing than is voters' happiness with their individual congressman evidence that congress is doing a good job.

If you want evidence American public schools are doing a mediocre job ask college administrators if they are happy having to offer remedial courses to under prepared college freshman. I can recall hearing a Massachusetts math professor, several years ago, complaining that her freshman math majors were not fluent in algebra. One has to wonder what made students unable to do 9th grade math think they were future mathematicians.

Apr. 15 2012 07:52 AM
Ramesh from NY

I agree with your analysis that this is a non story. I think media is trying to connect professional competence with educational system. There is no one-to-one relation between professional life(at industry) and educational system. I think very few professions(like Teachers, lawyers, doctors) use the things learnt at universities.

I studied in Bangalore and work in US with US educated peers. My peers are intelligent above average. I think competence at workplace is mostly related to one's interest to learn and work hard, and not so connected to their education system. Example: Computer science students study about Operating system in general. As a software professional one should know how Microsoft Windows works not just generic OS. Theories learnt in college helps if one is going to work as professor but not in real world.

Apr. 14 2012 11:35 PM
John Krehbiel from Southern Maryland

If everyone inside the Beltway were a member of the Washington Redskins, and they were all paid the same whether they won or not, and nobody were ever cut from the team, how good would the team be?

If every student gets a diploma, the diploma means nothing. The failure of schools can be traced to the fact that the kids know, with perfect certainty, that they will get a diploma for doing not much more than just showing up.

Even good students will not do well unless they have to, unless they are extraordinarily self-motivated.

Apr. 14 2012 09:55 PM

Great report. Pretty much what I've said all along... that the poor kids are doing as good as the rich kids, which is not their fault, or the fault of the school they attend, but rather a societal failure to take care of everyone.

Apr. 14 2012 07:12 PM

I was troubled by this story. I am a math teacher. I have taught at the public high school (both in the inner city and suburbs) and college levels, and I can confirm that (at least in my experience) schools are in fact - as a general rule - failing.

As a high school teacher, whenever I would say anything to this effect, other high school teachers and administrators would consistently oppose or ignore this point of view, but it seemed fairly obvious to me. Even the top students did not leave school with a decent education - still baffled by the subjects they had supposedly mastered.

Now that I teach in college, I see the effects daily. Great numbers of freshmen have just completed high school having made A's in their high school Algebra 2 classes, but these same students cannot manage to pass the simple placement tests given upon entrance to the university. At our university there are three remedial classes in mathematics that are lower than college algebra. One is a basic arithmetic class. I teach recent high school graduates how to multiply two-digit numbers. Many end up thanking me for clearing up what they claim to have never learned in school.

What was not swept under the rug in conversations between high school teachers and administrators was the disdain for elementary and middle school education. Not wanting poor scores to reflect upon them, elementary and middle schools would promote students who had not reached the minimum requirements for moving on. Our constant headache was trying to teach algebra to those who could barely read. At the college level, it's the same: disdain for high schools which (wanting to pad their graduation rate stats) do not come close to educating their graduates.

I don't have statistics. I'm simply an educator - not a reporter, not running for any office, not advocating any candidate or party. Perhaps Mr. Farhi has a wider perspective than me. But he doesn't quote those statistics he hints at. I'd expect a program concerned with the conduct of media outlets to press such a guest a little harder. The point is still well taken: there is manipulation of facts in the media on all sides of the education issue. Sadly, this story appears to be more of the same.

I love the program - so I hate to sound harsh - but I would have suspected the guest was a close friend even if it had not been disclosed. I'm reminded of the recent TAL debacle, and I'm getting to be disappointed with Public Radio.

Apr. 14 2012 09:59 AM

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