May 1st, 2014
10:25 PM ET

America’s educational failings

By Fareed Zakaria

The United States has high levels of education and a large percentage of its workers in adult learning and training programs, and it spends lots of money on all these activities. And yet, it does worse than many countries with few advantages and resources. (And no, it isn’t just because of immigrants. About half of the OECD countries now have a larger percentage of foreign-born adults than does the United States)

What we learn from this study is really just an extension of what we have discovered in the PISA results. The biggest force behind falling American rankings is not that the United States is doing things much worse but that other countries have caught up and are doing better. The U.S. system of education and training is inadequate in the new global environment.

And things show no signs of improving. The bipartisan backlash against the Common Core — a set of national standards agreed to by governors — is a tragic example. Parents raised on a culture of low standards and high self-esteem are outraged that the tests show that many American schools are not teaching their children enough. (The tests must be at fault because they know that their kids are brilliant!) Some liberals and teacher groups are upset with the emphasis on testing (though Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, has endorsed the Common Core). And Republicans now oppose it — despite having championed it only a few years ago — largely because the Obama administration also backs the project.

Read the Washington Post column

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Topics: Education • United States

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. ✠RZ✠

    Putting your mind to teaching a mind not put to learning is pretty much a complete waste of mind.

    May 1, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Reply
    • THORN

      That was good, but are you sure that's what's happening? I mean over all, big picture, surely it is in, perhaps, 10 to 15% of the population but is it really THE problem?

      May 2, 2014 at 9:41 am | Reply
      • ✠RZ✠

        Thanks THORN, but given the nature of the problem, I would suggest starting with fundamentals rather than looking for absolutes. Having true desire or finding real motivation to learn is as good a place to start as any, although I'm sure many of us would love to learn and do a great many things if it were not for a few minor restrictions like time and money. And if Calvin Coolidge had anything to say about it, "nothing can take the place of persistence".

        May 2, 2014 at 9:39 pm |
  2. Ferhat Balkan

    I believe the problem lies with poverty. American public school students from wealthy areas tend to generate higher scores in tests and can compete with some of the best students from other countries. The recent economical trend in America has been creating a bigger and bigger gap between the rich and the poor. More and more school districts are getting less and less funding which results in poor education in those areas. Public school student's of 1/3 of America's states now come from low income families. This is why we see a failing education system and it will only get worse if we don't fix the problem with poverty.

    May 1, 2014 at 11:30 pm | Reply
    • Helena Spring

      Let's try to understand the effects of poverty on learning. First poor children come to school hungry. This is not just distracting but low blood sugar impedes short term memory. Second being poor means living in dangerous neighborhoods The result is that many poor children suffer from PTSD. Third the highest correlation to academic achievement is the level of education of the parent. To counteract these effects, requires a COMPREHENSIVE policy and political will.

      May 4, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  3. Karen Arthur

    We should take a look at the tests associated with Common Core. Have you seen the questions? In California, we'll spend $3 billion implementing the Common Core this year and next. Meanwhile there area segments of public education that are still experiencing cuts. Do we really spend a lot of money on adult learning and training programs? In California adult education has been cut to the bone. After the NCLB fiasco, we need to make sure reform measures are solid and will create a better public education system, rather than make the current situation worse. Public discourse on Common Core and the tests associated with it should be welcome. You discount those who are critical of the emphasis on testing. How long have you been a teacher? Are you in a classroom every day?

    May 2, 2014 at 12:43 am | Reply
  4. rupert

    You three fellas have good points. But I think these kids are a bunch of dumbells because they don't care to learn. Then when they are 21 years old they play catch up.

    May 2, 2014 at 12:59 am | Reply
  5. rupert

    Sorry karren and az.
    I meant you fella, you chick, and the bi, az.

    May 2, 2014 at 1:00 am | Reply
  6. jeff

    What is this obsession with the term "workers" I don't consider myself a worker. I am an employee of the people who have decided to see value in what I can do for them. No one is obligated to just give out jobs to anyone who wants them.

    May 2, 2014 at 1:59 am | Reply
  7. rupert

    Tomatoes, tomatoes.
    a rose by any other name is still a rose.
    That worker is a good employee.
    that employee is a good worker.

    May 2, 2014 at 2:02 am | Reply
  8. Peter

    Education is d bedrock of any nation,s future , when we neglect our education system then we should be ready to invest more in our prisons system

    May 2, 2014 at 4:46 am | Reply
  9. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    The first thing that a student should be taught is that it is his responsibility to learn. I learned even when I had bad teachers. When materials such as books were insufficient, I borrowed materials from libraries and from adults other than my parents.
    A student should also be taught that his failure to learn will have a devastating effect on his income throughout his life, and that a master's degree or doctorate from many of today's universities may not represent learning sufficient for his earning money, the primary problem with these schools being that they must graduate many pupils who have not learned much.
    Money spent by schools is not the problem. All of our public high-school teachers were underpaid. Few of them had master's degrees.
    Put the responsibility back on the student.

    May 2, 2014 at 5:54 am | Reply
  10. The ENTIRE GOP PLATFORM in a single paragraph

    The GOP Prayer/Mantra/Solution: Dear God...With your loving kindness, help us to turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then, with your guidance and compassion, we will whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. God...Grant us the knowledge to then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. God...Give us the strength during our speeches to repeatedly yell........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!
    In your name we prey (purposely misspelled, or is it?)........Amen

    May 2, 2014 at 11:18 am | Reply
    • George Patton-2

      Well said. Thank you.

      May 2, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  11. George Patton-2

    One reason for our failings in education is due to a lack of funds. The money that the Federal government needs to allot for education is instead being squandered on on our already vastly over bloated military. This is why many of our children are receiving a low quality education as more of our schools are closing, our teachers are underpaid and our classrooms are becoming more and more overcrowded.

    May 2, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  12. bobcat2u

    Education actually begins at home. Granted, in many cases, it's like the old proverb, "You can lead a horse to water." But those parents who put the welfare of their children before their own will do all in their power to ensure they are educated. But the bottom line falls on the individual. The government forces the individual into schools regardless if they want to learn or not. Those that choose to be a disruptive force to those who are there to learn should be separated into classes of like minded individuals with a baby sitter.

    May 2, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  13. bobcat2u

    Physics Teacher: “Isaac Newton was sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head and he discovered gravity. Isn’t that wonderful?”

    Student: “Yes sir, if he had been sitting in class looking at books like us, he wouldn’t have discovered anything.”

    Now that brings up a second fact.

    Every child needs to at least learn the basics of education, ie. the Three R's. (but now it's more like the Three W's because of the encouragement of taking the easy way and not actually have to use your mind to solve problems.)

    But the education of life comes on the outside of the classroom. You can be one of the smartest people on this planet, and still be stupid.

    May 2, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      I know many, many people that last sentence would apply to.

      May 2, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      I do as well, banasy. And I continue to be amazed by many of the things they say and do.

      May 2, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  14. bobcat2u

    Teacher: “Why are you late, Joseph?”
    Joseph: “Because of a sign down the road.”
    Teacher: “What does a sign have to do with you being late?”
    Joseph: “The sign said, ‘School Ahead, Go Slow!’”

    May 2, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  15. bobcat2u

    The teacher of the earth science class was lecturing on map reading.

    After explaining about lat itude, longitude, degrees and minutes the teacher asked, “Suppose I asked you to meet me for lunch at 23 degrees, 4 minutes north lat itude and 45 degrees, 15 minutes east longitude…?”

    After a confused silence, a voice volunteered, “I guess you’d be eating alone.”

    May 2, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  16. bobcat2u

    Teacher: “If you had one dollar and you asked your father for another, how many dollars would you have?”
    Vincent: “One dollar.”
    Teacher: “You don’t know your arithmetic.”
    Vincent: “You don’t know my father.”

    May 2, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  17. bobcat2u

    Mother: “Why did you get such a low mark on that test?”
    Junior: “Because of absence.”
    Mother: “You mean you were absent on the day of the test?”
    Junior: “No, but the kid who sits next to me was.”

    May 2, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Reply
    • Thomas

      . HOWEVER, Woman B claimed she had never said anihytng to A about my wife spreading the rumors and that she was simply concerned about her. She was sorry, apologized, but understood if my wife didn't trust her as a friend. My wife was hurt, but choose to forgive woman B and move on and attempt to repair things with woman A.The next morning, woman B went to A and told her what my wife had done to her. Woman A was concerned about the accuracy of the information she was getting from B. Woman A asked her again if she was sure that what she had said at the party was true, including the party about my wife telling many different people and maliciously attempting to start the rumors. B said this was all true again, and that my wife was really upset with A and wanted to bring her down with what she said.A week later, my wife tried to talk to woman A to apologize for what was said. Woman A would not even look at my wife. She said she was done with her as a friend. She explained that woman B had come back to her to tell her she had been talking about her AGAIN, and she reiterated about the fact she had been spreading the rumors maliciously and my wife wanted to hurt woman A. None of this was true. Woman A called my wife a slew of fowl language in front of me, in front of dozens of her close friends and in front of many of my wife's friends. She stated that she was lying because woman B had said these things to her twice, and that she wouldn't lie.My wife is woman A's boss. Woman A is letting this effect her work. Woman A has cut off all communication with my wife outside of work. Woman B is now completely avoiding my wife entirely as well as woman B's husband, who is a close friend of mine.My wife forgave them both for what happened. Several weeks has passed. I have a hard time forgiving these people and wanted them to ever be back at our home. They were both very good friends of my wife's and now she feels alone and isolated because her two best friends destroyed their friendship. I even lost a close friend. The collateral damage goes very deep, since these were mutual friends of almost everyone we know.My wife wants me to move on, but I have such a hard time with that. My wife was trying to do the biblically accurate thing to hold a fellow sister in christ accountable and her other sister in christ; who was not a new christian, but a strong one, threw it in her face. She broke her trust not once, but twice.I just think she doesn't need to be friends with these people if this is how they treat their relationships. I don't feel comfortable having them around my home if this is what they choose to do.What do you think?

      July 6, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Reply
    • Danik

      Ha yeah for sure! This particular site is pahittec right now, which I probably should have thought about before releasing the new email address (knowing people like yourself would go huh let me look at that domain, haha) but yeah is in pretty good shape also, is now all on WP too, and that one i'm particularly proud of.

      July 21, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Reply
    • Khagendra

      What a pleasure to find someone who ideieifnts the issues so clearly

      July 25, 2014 at 8:01 pm | Reply
  18. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    May 2, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Good post, John.

      May 2, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Reply
    • Alex

      What are you addressing with your comment?

      May 4, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  19. Fey

    American children are not motivated to improve themselves because they do not have the interests and enthusiams to move forward in the future. One of the many problems–is that, the parents themselves are lost these days....I have succeeded so many parents in jail due to drug addiction and alcohol, and children are in foster care. Where I live, they are very proud to be a disabled. They are negative about themselves. They would say "No I do not want to work because I lost my disability money." That is a very sad statement. Receiving incentives such as cash due to disability lessen their abiltiy to move forward...and lessen their interest to look for ways to survive. Americans are spoiled. Unlike people from other countries...they have the enthusiasm to improve because they were poor, and no one to rely on...just themselves...

    May 4, 2014 at 10:22 am | Reply
  20. Louise

    I agree with Ferhat Balkan (above) about poverty's pernicious impact on the overall results of the U.S. education system. We have a two-tier system, one for the poor that doesn't work well, and one for the upper middle class, that works pretty well. I disagree with Karen Arthur (above), who suggests we shift money from testing to school districts. Education spending varies by state, but at least in California (the state she cites), education spending has gone up over the past decades and the results have not measurably changed. Rich zip code schools still outperform poorer zip code schools. Further, that increased spending has primarily gone to covering administrator and teacher labor costs and pensions etc. while per-student spending has been relatively flat. When the teachers' unions talk, they consistently blame the poor for not giving them students who are teachable. This teachers' union argument is the complete opposite of the Deweyian spirit of progressive education. It is possible to teach the poor well. Many of us in the middle class today owe a lot to the teachers who taught our poor immigrant grandparents effectively in the early 1900s. Teachers: Stop blaming your students. I also disagree with Fareed's characterization in his program today (Sunday May 4) of the nature of the opposition to NCLB testing. He attributed the opposition to parents raised in the "self esteem" era who cannot handle the news that their children aren't "above average" in the global context (which is what the tests show). Parents like myself, whose children scored just fine on those tests, question the testing regime mainly because we don't see the educators managing it well. The typical school devotes up to 2 weeks of school time to prepping for these tests to goose their scores. It's ridiculous. In my view, if the educators do their work right, they won't have to prep students for tests. Further, when the test results do come out, many educators don't use the data consistently to improve the ways they teach. Once again, they blame demographics and class. Not good! The testing movement is righteous because it shows plainly where the problems of poverty impact education in this country, but unfortunately, we have an education culture that prefers to make excuses and waste a lot of time and money blaming everyone but themselves instead of focusing on the problems and addressing them systematically.

    May 4, 2014 at 11:43 am | Reply
    • Ann

      Ann education spending is 85% -95% salaries and benefits for district employees. The question is what is our return on that expenditure?

      May 4, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  21. Louise

    I also disagree with the argument that students just aren't "motivated" to learn any more. Motivation needs to be cultivated by skillful adults. I have employees who aren't "motivated" to solve problems in creative ways. It's up to me, the manager and project leader, to provide the context to bring out their best. I strive every day to do that. Instead of blaming parents and children for giving them "unmotivated" students, teachers and their sympathizers should examine what they can change in their approaches to make school more engaging. I found K12 mostly boring and dull, but I was motivated to be interested and so found ways to make it interesting when the teachers couldn't seem to do that for whatever reason. But you cannot count on most folks to figure this stuff out on their own. Managers and teachers–adults in authority–have a responsibility to engage those in their charge. Is it hard, thankless work? Yes. But does it pay off if you work at it every day? Yes. Focus on the problem and work to solve it. Stop making excuses.

    May 4, 2014 at 11:53 am | Reply
  22. chrissy

    Agreed @ Louise! Seems being poor is used for the scapegoat in every scenario in this country! Probably one of the main reasons powers to be try so hard to maintain a high level of poverty in this country!

    May 4, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  23. Alex

    Fareed says “…it isn’t just because of immigrants. About half of the OECD countries now have a larger percentage of foreign-born adults than does the United States” but in the U.S.
    • 7 out of every 10 immigrants
    are family-based (mostly poor) immigrants without counting illegal immigrants. I believe our numbers might improve taking that into account. I agree with many other points mention in comments about poverty and poor educational system.

    May 4, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  24. Ann

    (And no, it isn’t just because of immigrants. About half of the OECD countries now have a larger percentage of foreign-born adults than does the United States) Immigration to the OECD countries does not include 30 years of massive illegal immigration of poor and uneducated. Sorry Farred we know your ideology on amnesty.

    May 4, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  25. Barry

    When students are absent three days out of five, do not show evidence of having "encountered" the homework assignment, have difficulty keeping their eyes open in the classroom, change school systems frequently, have no reading material or inspiration to read coming from the home, the result isn't encouraging in terms of retaining knowledge or skills.
    Our main problems with education are socioeconomic,. Throwing money at school systems does not deal with the problem confronting the education in America today.

    May 4, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Reply
    • Bandy

      You have pretty much captured the essence of the problem! I teach part-time at a local University, and it’s quite disheartening to see the lack of interest and motivation from the students. Sometimes, it feels like I am talking to myself in the class! Throwing more money at education is not the solution, as I feel we have the best educational resources when compared to the rest of the world! It’s a matter of having the desire to avail of them.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:57 am | Reply
    • Nawaz

      The voice of rayionalitt! Good to hear from you.

      July 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Reply
    • LarryandKathy

      16a11c3515fWe admire what you have done right here. I like your elmeent in which you state you are carrying out this kind of to give back on the other hand would certainly presume through each of the responses which is working for you as well. Have you got anymore info on this kind of? 18b

      July 21, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • Suellen

      Since there is so many fields of sptclaieies that I have a choice of, I still really can't choose one. So I am going base on my personal experiences. My original goal back in high school and maybe even before that, was to work in a Neonatal ICU! I had a brother that passed before he had his first birthday from heart complications, and that year I spent a lot of time at hospitals with my parents. My goal the first couple of years was to work with babies just like him. That was until I had my own children, I would of still loved to have worked in that career field but the heart ache I would most likely endure when one of those babies did not make it home. I could not have handled!On to more positive experiences, I have worked with the elderly and Geriatrics interests me very much. Being surrounded with people that have lived a fulfilled life is so much more rewarding. Even though at times it is the ending stages of their lives, and it is sad when someone does pass. It's less of a heartache to know that most of the time they are ready to move on. They are still very dependent on you and when you are able to help them with their needs that's the most rewarding of all, plus you form a special relationship with the patients and their families.

      July 25, 2014 at 10:16 pm | Reply
  26. JC

    "The biggest force behind falling American rankings is not that the United States is doing things much worse but that other countries have caught up and are doing better. The U.S. system of education and training is inadequate in the new global environment"

    I would argue that the biggest force is that because we off a "free education" our student population represents our entire populous whereas many of the countries who are ranked ahead of us do not offer a free education so their entire student population is more representative of our top 20 percent?

    May 5, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  27. Eddie Fonseca

    When we see our young son's and daughters sitting at the dinner table doing their homework and as parents across America, it brings a joy in our hearts to see our children reaching for a higher education which will get them to the greatest colleges in our great land. My parents who are European Americans who came to this great land and struggled to raises us, and taught us and their message was burned into our minds that education is the key to your success and happiness in life and no one is going to support your dreams and hard work in life. Being a second generation European American who works in the trades field, and sometimes I have made mistakes in that past like we all do from handling money from over spending which everyone in America does but that's why the teach us how to budget in classrooms across America. Speaking about education it does not matter if you are young mixed race such as a Jewish/Palestine teenager girl sitting in a classroom in New York City learning about history of America. Education in America should be right just like buying a gun or cold six pack of beer at the local grocery store, we owe to our children for them to have better education then parents received twenty years ago. So America it's time one again for parents across America to ask the tough question, how do we give the best education to our children without breaking the bank and spending a hell or lot of dollars at the same time? Well the answer is so simple write to your congress leaders and tell them that we need more funding towards the education, that our children can earn that degree and live the American Dream for years to come.

    September 7, 2015 at 5:15 pm | Reply

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