Is the American school system a waste of time?

Novelist Nicholson Baker has written a book, ‘Substitute‘, about his experiences as a substitute teacher in schools in Maine.

The New York Post reports:

What follows is a minute-by-minute account — funny, sad and often tedious — of what life is really like in these classrooms. And if these schools are at all representative, American education really is as bad as everyone says … After reading “Substitute”, it’s easier to understand how 10 percent of college graduates could think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.

Students go to homeroom first, which is good for little more than taking attendance. Each time students switch classes, it takes them several minutes to settle down again. Baker can’t help but note how much time teachers spend simply telling students to be quiet over and over. And what is being accomplished in all this? Baker talks to students who are 10 or 20 assignments behind. Teachers regularly threaten to contact their parents but rarely seem to follow through.

. . .

Some of the classes seem to be covering the things you might expect. The kids are still reading Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”; they are still working on Punnett squares and trying to figure out the order of operations in math. They are studying World War II and the periodic table. But each subject seems to get only the briefest attention before it’s time to move on to the next thing. Any time a teacher is actually getting to the meat of a subject, there is some trivial announcement from the PA system interrupting them. And then there is the constant inane banter from students: In response to a teacher’s reasonable explanation of North Korean oppression, a student yells “Gangnam Style!”

Perhaps the most significant difference between the classrooms that Baker describes and the ones that most adults remember is the presence of technology. And it’s clear that this has only made things worse.

. . .

The entire system seems designed to drive teachers insane and prevent students from learning. Kids are on their iPads doing things unrelated to their schoolwork — playing games, listening to music, using iPad cases to beat each other over the heads. Some are even looking at “inappropriate material” in the back of the classroom. And unless a teacher is standing over them, they won’t be able to tell who is actually doing the work and who is playing games. Teachers ask for the definition of words and students just look them up online and repeat them verbatim.

. . .

Substitute” is more than an argument for shortening the school day or chucking out iPads. It’s an argument for a traditional core curriculum — the kind of education in which students are taught how each subject relates to the others and why all are important to them as citizens and human beings. Without this, American education is doomed to mediocrity.

There’s more at the link.  Highly recommended (albeit depressing) reading for anyone with kids or grandkids doomed to suffer through the American school system.

It’s no wonder kids grow up into, first teenagers, then young adults, who think they’re ‘special snowflakes’ and deserve to have everything handed to them on a plate.  They’re not being educated at all, either in terms of a meaningful school curriculum, or in terms of life skills that they’re going to need very badly before too long.  Homeschooling begins to sound like the only rational, sane way to prepare children for the real world.



  1. It's definitely NOT the education we grew up with… I'm not sure you can even call it 'education' today. It's more like 'indoctrination'…

  2. my kids are going to virtual public school. they are done with their schooling in 2 hours daily in most days and they are skipping 2 years of grade. My oldest will be done in less than 2 years as 16 year old. If you send your kids to regular school, you are doing them disservice.

  3. I'm normally not one to say "oh check out what [other nation] does!" because I think circumstances can be different enough that what works in one place won't work in another.

    BUT the one idea I've learned that Japan does which seems like a REALLY good idea is that the students stay seated all day and it's the teachers which go from classroom to classroom. Seems like that would help given some of the reported issues.

    Interesting I also heard from watching a talk with Glenn Reynolds today that apparently "typical teen age behavior" is a very recent invention brought about when we started housing teens with each other in a group instead of with adults, doing adult things. There could be something to keeping those kids apart…

  4. I would hesitate to make a sweeping, national, generalization from one person's experiences in one state – there is a huge amount of variety in students, teaching methods, and oversight from state to state, and in many cases from district to district, and in some cases school to school within a district.
    Are there things that need improved? DEFINITELY – but what they are and how best to do it is very difficult to quantify and will likely also vary widely across the country.

  5. Speaking as one who is a currently unemployed teacher, who has subbed both day assignments and long-term leave replacement gigs, let me assure you that the public schools are, in general, not doing a good job at teaching critical thinking, actual tolerance, essential facts, logic, history, or connecting any dots. Indeed, connecting dots and asking hard questions is Very Aggressively Opposed. See comment about unemployed above. If a student is offended by a factually true statement relevant to the current topic, even if responsive to a legitimate student question, then it is, by definition, offensive. Because they were offended. Truth, context, relevance, intent, or misunderstanding are no defense if it is not an Officially Approved Fact that is Aligned With Dogma… er, I mean curriculum. Soundbites are admissible and as evidence, even if the whole sentence was saying the opposite or quoting someone else to illustrate the a point and rebut it. Because Offended Snowflake.

    Basically, you are allowed to read the liberal/democrat dogma script, and deviation from approved positions is verboten. In the name of tolerance and diversity, strict adherence to the monculture of Dem talking points will be vigorously enforced, and in the name of equality excellence will disregarded and failure will receive unlimited extra $$. In the name of safety, safe spaces will be allowed for anyone not a straight white male, and they are not allowed to be offended because they are definitionally privileged oppressors.

    In every school I've taught at for a semester or longer, I've been pulled aside and quietly informed by someone claiming to be one of the few closet conservatives in the school that anything that isn't a strong liberal pro-union talking point will be met with extreme hostility. And it was, nearly universally (exceptions from a small fraction, <10%, of the people I have worked with). I spent a lot of time biting my tongue.

    Many kids have an attitude of "I don't need to know it, I can google it," but then they don't know enough to find it or understand the answer they find. The admin doesn't want kids thinking about things with complicated answers or good arguments on both sides (which is WHY they are controversial). Nearly every topic I can bring up to engage the students that are bored to tears with the curriculum, the answer is "you can't go there. Someone might be offended." I was told point blank that in math class using "there are 320 million people in the US, and the debt is 19 trillion, what's your share?" as a warm-up problem in a 6th grade math class on April 15th was bringing politics into the classroom and I should not do it. (It's a great question – too many zeros for little pocket calculators, they have likely heard their parents bitching about taxes recently, etc). I was very clear that it wasn't a left/right or R/D thing, it was an innumerate voter thing, and that was part of the reason we teach math, so that people can make more informed decisions. CAN'T. GO. THERE.

  6. The public schools are broken beyond repair even in my rural area. Many private schools aren't far behind. We'll be homeschooling our children. Paying to homeschool my children while being forced pay 2000+ dollars a year to our public school mafia. Nothing like being poor and being forced to pay for rich people to educate their children. It's infuriating.

  7. To Anonymous griping about having to pay $2k/yr while homeschooling: Consider yourself lucky. In Europe, you and your spouse would be thrown into jail — yes, jail! — and left to rot unless and until you gave up and returned your child to a classroom in a school. No homeschooling allowed, ever.

  8. We home schooled our three for a while. When they decided to attend public school there were things they were taught in home school that were not taught in public school curriculum until high school. How sad is that?

    I will also note anyone considering homeschooling their children to read the laws very carefully in your state. And seriously consider joining one the national homeschooling associations if nothing more that for the legal support if your local school district and Child Protection Unit come after you. Link:

  9. Hoo boy! Like Old NFO says, this was not the education environment I had in the late 60s – early 70s. Mine was a private school though, and I was taught primarily by WW2 veterans, many of whom were USMA and USNA graduates. These guys put up with exactly ZERO kid stuff. We had 1 woman teacher, and she taught art. I'd say the high school education from that school at that time is almost equal to a college education today. So maybe it's time for some Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans to start laying down the law in US classrooms.

    Classroom discipline doesn't have to be harsh to yield results. One kid put alka-seltzer in the fish tank as a prank. His punishment was to refill the tank (maybe 20 gallons) back up with water, one tiny Dixie cup at a time. Okay, doesn't sound so bad, does it? The thing was, he had to walk a half-mile down the road to the railroad depot, fill the cup there, walk back, and fill the tank with whatever was left in the cup. Took him many many weeks to complete.

    That kid went on to be accepted at The Citadel.

    – Charlie

  10. Pffft. Nothing new. Find a copy of the 1984 movie "Teachers" with NIck Nolte in it. S.S.D.D.
    It is still a pity that the system sucks so bad, and still does…

  11. Perhaps more of the kids are unruly, but sadly that description of the day doesn't sound to much different than when I was in high school in the '70s. Broken down, most of school is wasting time. I remember Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) remarking on his daughter doing a "desk audit" of her day when she started high school. She tracked the time spent on each activity. Actual instruction summed up to only 2 hours. His daughter did high school online and worked an internship.

    Of course, there does seem to have been a serious degradation of the quality of that 2 hours of instruction along with very bad substitution of content.

    The worst of all is that more and more schools induce "school helplessness".

    "n spite of the fact that schools exist for the sake of education, there is many a school whose pupils show a peculiar "school helplessness"; that is, they are capable of less initiative in connection with their school tasks than they commonly exhibit in the accomplishment of other tasks."

    –How to Study and Teaching How to Study (1909) by F. M. McMurry, Professor of Elementary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

    Yeah, that's right, the quote is from over a century ago, before the Dewey "reforms". Modern problems are more about the low-content curriculum that is passed off as teaching. Historically, those who have become educated, have done so in spite of not because of most schooling.

  12. Each time students switch classes, it takes them several minutes to settle down again.

    Even when I was in school in the 1980s and 1990s we had teachers wondering why the pupils had to move from one class to the other rather than the teachers being the ones that moved. Sure, science class had to be taught in a specific room, but the rest? I'm sure unions were involved somewhere.

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