Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education

Primary Classroom

Primary Classroom

This fascinating report from Third Way’s Social Policy and Politics Program on new teachers sets out the problem (teaching is seen as a career for not very bright people, and so enrollees in teacher training schools come from the bottom third of their undergraduate classes) and suggest some systemic solutions that would upgrade the quality of teaching graduates and thus of public school teaching.

If the country is doing poorly, a big part of it is mediocrity or worse in public elementary schools. And it’s not a matter of insufficient spending, but the reduced status and intellect of teachers due to a widespread (and correct) perception that they have little autonomy and are paid regardless of competence. (I of course have teacher friends who are uniformly brilliant, but we’re talking averages!) This report has some obvious suggestions for change, but entrenched interests wouldn’t allow anything so sensible. Right now the best teachers gravitate to the most favored schools, while the worst end up teaching in poor inner-city schools.

Students entering schools of education in the US are generally from the bottom third of undergraduates. There are many reasons why primary school teaching especially now has a reputation of being a place for lesser achievers, but one primary one is image — public schools have a reputation for being bureaucratic and not rewarding excellence, which tends to repel those who want to excel.

As we saw in the recent California case which decided teacher tenure as practiced there is inherently damaging to poor children, most locales have a recruiting and transfer system that allows the higher-quality teachers to migrate to high-quality schools in wealthier areas. The sorting by wealth and class in neighborhoods extends to sorting by school quality — wealthier areas have good schools where well-brought-up students don’t require all of a teacher’s time just to maintain order, and so public schools are reasonably good in better neighborhoods. Who wouldn’t transfer out of dysfunctional inner-city schools, given a chance? The poor quality of schools in poor inner-city neighborhoods only accelerates segregation by class, with motivated parents doing everything they can to qualify their children for residence in towns with better schools.

Young students need the stimulation of a professional, highly-intelligent adult to make the most of their young brains. Children who are already short-changed by poor family situations and less stimulating parents have even less chance to make up for it in public schools in their neighborhoods.

And remember that a graduating class of primary school teachers that averages 500 on the SAT means half of that class is below that (not so hot) level, some at 400 and below. Those teachers end up teaching the underprivileged kids who need exposure to excellence the most.

Average people do not control what their government does; in areas like education, it is a permanent bureaucracy (teacher’s colleges, unions, state and federal education funding) that does. Excellence is seen as threatening and equality elevated, and the value system taught is not at all what most parents would want if they were given much say in the matter.

Inquisitive children do not have to be “beaten down” to be neglected. Rewards for approved social behavior and conformity over individual achievement tend to discourage the less socially-adept boys. The smart ones learn to control their behavior to conform, but they don’t get exposed to role models doing cool intellectual work. Being separated out from larger society and penned in female-dominated schools which in many cases act as if their role as free day care is more important, many boys naturally want nothing further to do with schools. As always, wealthy areas have a robust commitment to achievement and bourgeois values that sustains healthy civilization despite the extended state support for barbarism, so boys there do better — accomplished dads make up for a lot. But as dysfunction creeps into middle and upper class lives, expect more political support for reform.

One reform that would greatly improve choice and reward excellence, and be especially helpful to poor parents in poor neighborhoods: give each child a voucher for the amount currently spent on their schooling, and let the parents and child choose from competing schools. Any school which met the qualifications would be able to compete for students, and the bureaucracies (administrators, education schools, and state and federal education departments) would have to value what parents want far more than they do now. Pilot programs are a step in the right direction and have been shown to increase student achievement, though as a complex system it would take many more years to have the expected benefits.

Recommended further reading: a long but excellent piece in the Atlantic written by Florina Rodov, an idealistic young teacher experiencing New York’s urban school environment. In the end, the bureaucracy won.

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


More on education and child development :

Student Loan Debt: Problems in Divorce
Early Child Development: The High Cost of Abuse and Neglect
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
Free Range Kids vs Paranoid Child Welfare Authorities
“Crying It Out” – Parental Malpractice!
Brazilian For-Profit Universities Bring Quality With Quantity
The Affordable, Effective University: Indiana and Mitch Daniels
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
“Attachment Parenting” – Good Idea Taken Too Far?
Real Self-Esteem: Trophies for Everyone?
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Steven Pinker on Harvard and Meritocracy
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities

More on Social Decay:

“Marriage Rate Lowest in a Century”
Making Divorce Hard to Strengthen Marriages?
The High Cost of Divorce
Divorced Men 8 Times as Likely to Commit Suicide as Divorced Women
Cuba: Where All but the Connected are Poor
“Postcards from Venezuela”
Ross Douthat on Unstable Families and Culture
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
“Marriage Markets” – Marriage Beyond Our Means?
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Why Did Black Crime Syndicates Fail to Go Legit?
“Why Are Great Husbands Being Abandoned?”
Culture Wars: Peace Through Limited Government
Steven Pinker on Harvard and Meritocracy

“Breaking Bad”–The Lessons of Walter White


  1. Teachers don’t come from the bottom third of their undergraduate class, and high school teachers often don’t even go to ed school as undergraduates.

    You do correctly note that elementary school teachers have an average SAT score of 500 (math), and 520 verbal, but forget that this is adequately bright. High school content teachers are generally pretty bright, at about 1SD, give or take.

    There’s no evidence that bright people make better teachers, and while it’s true that minority teachers are more likely to be the low-scoring teachers, and also the ones more likely to teach in low income schools, the evidence linking teachers of matching race to student outcomes is considerably stronger than that linking teacher SAT scores to student outcomes.

    1. There may be no evidence that teachers need to be bright, but there is plenty of evidence that children exposed to larger vocabularies and more sophisticated sentences make more rapid progress in language. Teaching viewed as babysitting and emotional preparation for more concentrated learning, as in the kindergarten to second grade, can certainly be done well by people with good emotional intelligence and average verbal intelligence, but as parent I would prefer to have teachers who were exposing my kids to more advanced words and thoughts, even at that age.

      1. “there is plenty of evidence that children exposed to larger vocabularies and more sophisticated sentences make more rapid progress in language”

        No, actually, there isn’t. If there was, preschool interventions for poor kids would have better results.

        Teaching is not reviewed as babysitting, nor is it viewed as “emotional preparation” for more concentrated learning. And you’re not going to get too many really smart people who want to work with k-2 kids, because frankly, really smart people don’t find it rewarding or interesting. That’s why smarter people tend to orient to middle school and higher, and smart but also nurturing people (usually women) who enjoy working with kids on both intellectual and social development orient to elementary school. If you want a super bright person working with your kids, go pay a tutor $60/80 an hour for enrichment work. That’s what I did, back before I become a teacher. But you’ll only get really bright tutors for quite a bit of money, and only if your kids have the ability to benefit from it.

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