American education seems to be a lot like American health care: we spend more per-capita (patient/pupil) than do most countries and get less for the money than do most countries. American 15 year-olds rank 15th in literacy, 21st in science, 24th in problem-solving, and 25th in math. Even in high school and college graduation rates, with schools pushing every lazy moron out the door with a diploma clutched in his/her hot little hand, America has lost ground from 1st to 18th place. (Now, it could be that everyone else got their ten pounds in a five pound bag and caught up to the US. I don’t know what the test scores show on this matter.) Still, American parents appear to believe that their own local schools are a happy island of excellence in a sea of national mediocrity.
The supposed crisis in American education actually seems to come down to what we do about the low performing schools, which are mostly in low-income areas.
Teachers make a difference in the lives of young people—and not always for the better. If you have three successive years of having a poor teacher, you’ll never catch up with the students in the same school who had a competent teacher. The buzz surrounding the movie “Waiting for Superman” has focused attention on teachers and especially on teachers’ unions. The unions seem bent on frustrating every effort at reform out of a selfish interest in protecting even their least-competent members at the expense of the children.
What makes a teacher “good”? According to Teach for America: setting high goals for your students, seeking to engage them by whatever means necessary, and involving the parents in the education of their children. Teachers have to be persevering and hard-working. In another view, it isn’t so much the individual teachers as the culture of the school: instill good habits and ambition, create an expectation that everyone will strive to be excellent, and put in immense amounts of time.
The Obama administration is trying to measure the effectiveness of teachers by means of a new scheme called “value-added modeling.” In theory, this allows schools to assess the contribution of individual teachers by tracking student test scores from grade to grade. The Department of Education’s $4.35 billion in “Race for the Top” awards gives the federal government a lot of leverage.
However, the current debate is missing an important part of the equation. Parents play a powerful role in shaping the educational achievement of their children. Teachers argue that homes where the parents read very little, have limited vocabularies, and don’t value education or see much chance for their kids to improve plays a major role in individual success or failure. Some of the most striking elements of successful schools in low-income areas seek to address this problem. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools operate from 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM, and the teachers must be available to answer questions until 9:00 PM. The provision of counseling and medical services by the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school goes in the same direction. Successful charter schools take over the responsibilities that many parents cannot meet. The problem is that no one actually wants to say out loud that the chief source of under-achievement is failed parents, not failed students or failed teachers or failed schools. The decline—relative or absolute—in the performance of American schools or of American students began about 1980. That would suggest that it began among children born between 1962 and 1974. That would suggest that a lot of Baby Boomers turned out to be lousy parents. The “Least Generation.”
 “Targeting teachers,” The Week, 15 October 2010, p. 15.