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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

U.S. schools devalue academics, celebrate failure


Photo: Frederick Eankels/Pexels

Are you excessively cheerful? Did you turn your frown upside down and now it's stuck that way? David Steiner will remove your rose-colored glasses and stomp on them, repeatedly.


The U.S. education system is "designed for failure," writes Steiner on The 74. Only what once was called "failure" has been rebranded as "success." It's so much easier that way.


Steiner is a professor of education and director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, a member of the Maryland State Board of Education and served as commissioner of the New York State Education Department. So he's been around the block a few times.


"Students enter kindergarten with large gaps in their readiness to learn," but "aren’t seriously assessed until they are 8, by which time it’s too late for sustained intervention," Steiner writes. As a result, "the gaps never close."

Meanwhile, curricula, tests and teacher education programs exist in deep silos, creating a fragmented system where teachers aren’t trained to teach the materials their schools use and tests don’t test students’ mastery of those materials (with a tiny exception in Louisiana).

With a few exceptions, U.S. high schools don't offer career and technical learning options that allow students to earn an employment-ready credential, Steiner writes. Most drift into community colleges with very low graduation rates. And they drift out, still without a credential.

Perhaps in response to two decades of disappointing results, academic achievement itself is increasingly out of fashion. Critical thinking, metacognition, grit and positive mindset, and “21st century skills” are in — competence in mathematics, not so much. It seems to have escaped us that students cannot think critically about nothing in particular; mastery of content is a prerequisite.

Steiner takes a shot at "social emotional learning," billed as a new new thing. "When you chase it to ground, what it means is that teachers should encourage, not discourage, students: a poor test result calls for more effort, not the conclusion that the child is bad at math," he writes. "Such wisdom has been available for 2,000 years." But they didn't have consultants back then.

He also think the $30 billon per year -- or more -- spent on educational technology is essentially wasted. It takes a human to teach a human, Steiner thinks.

School closures, remote classes and back-to-school disruptions have taken a heavy toll on students' academic mastery, their behavior, their mental health and their willingness to show up every day. But the system's problems predate the pandemic, Steiner writes.

"The unique sense of achievement that a student experiences when she or he masters a rigorous skill, digs into deep knowledge, creates a piece of writing or art, completes a challenging science assignment or piece of music — this is all being washed away."

Years ago, I met a young Mexican-American woman who'd gone to Berkeley, thanks to teachers who told her to aim higher than community college. She'd considered majoring in art, she told me. But her parents, who'd had only a few years of school in Mexico, had told her, "Do what's hardest." So she earned an engineering degree, took a high-tech job and made time to mentor a high school student. He'd been earning C's and was on track to be the first in his family to complete high school. She told him he had to earn A's. So he did.

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