5 Big Problems in American Education

As I’m here at NCTM thinking about different career paths, I’m creating a picture of the big issues in education.  Doing this might give me ideas about possible opportunities in the future.  The five key problems I see are:

  1. The experience of new teachers
  2. Collaboration between teachers
  3. Grades and assessment
  4. Intervention for struggling students
  5. Social/emotional

New Teacher Experience

In LAUSD, roughly 50% of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years.  Combine this with the facts that baby boomers are retiring and credential programs are producing new teachers at an all-time low.  This means that in the near future there will be a huge shortage of new teachers.  This is a big problem.

Of the many stresses of being a new teacher, the biggest I had was having access to curriculum.  In the teacher prep program, I was led to believe that designing tasks and cataloguing tasks from the internet (of which there are myriad) was what it meant by “planning.”  No one told me that professionals have full-time employment carefully designing, gathering, spiraling, and  sequencing material into a coherent, comprehensive curriculum.  I felt like I was expected to work for 10-12 hours per day (not counting weekends) so I could scrape together enough material for the next day.  I couldn’t do the real work of planning, which is to anticipate student responses, form probing questions, and analyze student work to inform future lessons.  I tried implementing exciting, engaging tasks from the internet community, but without a curricular structure the lessons felt disconnected and students weren’t able to build upon previous understanding. Somewhere in the second semester, I found Math Ready and EngageNY.  EngageNY I found ramped up in difficulty too abruptly and had other flaws.  Math Ready had a nice exponential unit that worked well for me.  The problem with these is that faithfully implementing curriculum requires both collaboration and professional development.  I am hopeful in this respect because of the announcement from Illustrative Mathematics that they are creating an open resource curriculum for middle school (and later high school).  This will be a free, full curriculum developed by curriculum experts funded by grants rather than driven by profit.  It is up to teacher preparation programs to inform teachers about what expertly crafted curricula exist and to encourage them to focus on implementing curriculum rather than creating or aggregating resources.  There are a lot of good curricula out there, but they get lost in all of the for-profit garbage.  Jo Boaler gives some examples of exemplary curricula at the end of her book, “What’s Math Got to Do With It?”

Another key problem in the new teacher experience is that new teachers are often given the hardest class assignments with the most struggling students.  It is counterproductive for the students and for the teaching profession for so much responsibility to be placed on the shoulders of new teachers all at once.  I was once told that “you can’t teach Algebra 2 because you have to learn how to teach the lower classes first.”  I have published original research in Geometric Group Theory.  The math isn’t the issue.  Algebra 2 is easer to teach than Algebra 1.  It’s like saying, “Hey, before you get on that bike you need to try this unicycle first.”

Professional Collaboration

Despite being surrounded by 30-50 students each period, despite having wonderful colleagues, and despite having a stellar professional network, the day-to-day experience of teaching can feel incredibly isolating.  I felt the lone responsibility to figure out exactly what to do each day to help the students learn.  The standard practice in the US is that teachers should fight, scratch, and sacrifice to meet with one another on their personal time.  This image of the superhero teacher who single-handedly changes the lives of each and every student is harmful to the profession.  The state of meaningful collaboration in the US is a big problem.

In other countries like Japan or Finland, collaboration is a normal part of the job with time built into the day to work together. The Japanese have a structured method of collaboration called Lesson Study which steadily improves curriculum and instruction.  Whoever decided that 5:1 is the correct ratio of instruction to preparation has no idea what it takes to actually do a good job teaching.

In my dream world, teachers would have a 1:1 ratio of instruction to planning.  A teacher would come to work and be expected to spend half their time in front of students and the other half collaboratively assessing student work with meaningful feedback, using that analysis to plan future lessons, observing colleagues, and working individually to make adjustments for his or her particular classes.  This is what is necessary to maximize instructional effectiveness.  This seems a dream to me because it would take more than twice as much money as we currently spend.

Grades and Assessment

If you talk to anyone who loves math, we all agree that the end goal isn’t to get students to accurately and reliably compute things.  The goal is for students to make meaning, try creative new ideas, communicate their thinking to others, and make connections between different ideas.  I even think that it would be great if students came away with an appreciation for some of the really beautiful ideas in math like the power of symmetry.  We all agree that students should be engaging with creative problem solving rather than exclusively carrying out algorithms.  Students should be designing algorithms!

Even though everyone agrees on this, the entire structure of percent grades, test scores, aptitude tests, and getting into college is antithetical to creative problem solving.  I have written before about how grades sour the relationship of the teacher with the students, how they sour the relationship between students, how they discourage students from taking on challenges and provide poor feedback for improvement.  Grades don’t actually give an objective measure of student understanding, so they are of limited value to equitable college acceptance. Grades, especially the ones later in the alphabet, destroy motivation.  The students who get good grades learn that nothing really matters unless they are given a reward, and the ones who get bad grades would almost certainly be more motivated if they didn’t have to be labeled a failure over and over again.

The research is clear that diagnostic comments give students the best feedback for improvement. Unfortunately, the presence of a grade, regardless of the comments given, is the only feedback students will consider. Also unfortunately, most teachers have between 150 and 200 students, so diagnostic comments are just not feasible.

In a world where education makes sense, students would not be given grades. Teachers and students would work together rather than against one another. I could give diagnostic comments on student work, and students would collect evidence of their growth in a portfolio. At the end of the year, students would take a collaboratively designed assessment to determine whether or not a student is ready to succeed in the next level. This decision would be made collaboratively, with consideration of the student’s portfolio. If the student is not ready to move on, then I have detailed evidence about what exactly they need help with, which would inform an intervention strategy for that student.


I have written a lot about intervention in a report I wrote last year, which I should post here sometime. The big problem is that there aren’t effective systems in place to remediate students who fail. Often times they just repeat a class without any consideration for why they failed in the first place. Some students do well the second time, but most just fail again for exactly the reasons they failed before. Some students go to summer school where they have an entire semester or year crammed into a month and get an effort C, which sets them up to fail the next year.

The two main best-practices to consider at the administrative level are heterogeneous grouping and fluid intervention.  There shouldn’t be honors classes and non-honors classes.  Struggling students need to look to their left and right and see examples of peers with their acts together.  If struggling students look around the room and see a lot of people aren’t working, then it destroys any attempt at having a productive classroom.  Succeeding students need to learn how to communicate their thinking to others.  After a while, and if intervention is done correctly, you realize that there aren’t two different kinds of students at all.  Fluid intervention is the idea that students go in and out of intervention based on their performance in a particular area.  If a student doesn’t do well in multiplying fractions, then they go into targeted intervention where they get better at multiplying fractions, and when they show mastery, they leave intervention.  This requires a lot of teacher collaboration so that teachers know what intervention to offer and what the students need to remediate.  Fluid intervention also incentivizes students to do the work necessary to leave intervention and return to other activities and electives.

At the instructional level, there are a few best practices.  Skill practice is important, and I believe online learning systems like Khan Academy, IXL, Aleks and the like can play an important role.  One must be cautious though, because self-paced, personalized learning can mean that the student goes at a snail’s pace and puts in the bare minimum of what is required of them.  Visual representations and number sense are incredibly important in intervention.  Also, students benefit from seeing worked examples.  A worksheet with 10 worked examples and 10 problems is more effective than a worksheet with 20 problems.

The most effective way to improve schools as a whole, however, is racial integration.  Our schools are more racially segregated now than they were after integration in the 60’s.  It’s been shown over and over again that when schools integrate (usually on accident), it raises academic achievement for everyone and results in all the known benefits of diversity.  The Department of Education has chosen to ignore this, taking on instead a de facto “separate but equal” policy.

Social and Emotional Education

We focus a lot on academics, but students can really benefit from a curriculum that explicitly guides them through how to interact pro-socially with others.  Communication skills need to be taught–how to validate someone else’s experience without agreeing with them, how to express your own feelings with “I think…I feel…” statements, learn about strategies to deal with anxiety, how to deal with conflict, the power of empathy, how to have a healthy relationship with smartphones and other technology (something a lot of adults need as well).

On the teacher side, it would be nice if there were some recognition for the emotional toll that the job takes.  In other fields that have a lot of emotional stress, there are systems built in that help people process their emotions regularly.  I’ve talked to enough teachers to know that many of us struggle with anxiety, depression, stress, and even alcoholism.  It is common for new teachers to cry in the car on the way to work, and it’s not uncommon for veteran teachers.  The amount of time and dedication that teachers put in is often at odds with living a healthy, balanced life.  This is compounded when someone chooses to have children.  If education is really so important, then maybe we shouldn’t stretch teachers until they break.



5 thoughts on “5 Big Problems in American Education

  1. One of the biggest contributors to students doing poorly in school is the lack of parental supervision and support.

    1. I agree that parenting plays a large role, not only academically, but also emotionally. It would be nice to incentivize new parents to take some kind of parenting classes.

  2. Yes Chuck, and your student/teacher ratio was simply too high. I got a job with a lower ratio last week. I remember saying many of the same things when I was new. I’m going forward with a new beginning.

  3. I’ll respond to each of the five key problems with my own thoughts:

    The Experience of New Teachers: I understand you to be saying there are two main problems there. The first is that credential programs give the impression that lesson planning is creating the lessons more or less from scratch or compiling available resources, but instead they should be introducing us to existing curricula and teach us how to implement curricula. The second was that new teachers are given the toughest classes to teach, which is clearly backwards. If I understood these correctly, then I agree with both and agree that they are the two most significant failings of the current system with regards to new teachers experiences. Also, I personally experienced both of those and they both sucked.

    I would add that in ideal conditions, any time a new teacher was hired by a school (just new to that school, not necessarily new to the profession), for the first year they would co-teach with a teacher that was a veteran of that school so that the new teacher could learn the routines and structures used by that school. I think the co-teaching is important because it is the most efficient means of idea transfer in the profession. I think you also mentioned somewhere in the post the importance of shared responsibility and I think that co-teaching facilitates that.

    I’m going to respond to these five problems one at a time, because this is taking longer than I expected

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