Blog Post

"Mediocrity" V. "Cozy, Lucrative Monopoly": Rsp to NYTimes Critique of US Education

This morning, in an op ed in the New York Times entitled "An Industry of Mediocrity," former NYT Editor Bill Keller makes many smart points about the "mediocrity" of our American system of training teachers for our K-12 schools.   As an educational reformer, I could not agree more that we have archaic systems in drastic need of reforming.  However, like far too many people who don't know the education sector well, Keller also makes a false connection between the "mediocrity" of the teachers we train in the U.S. and the "low standards" of our Schools of Education.  He gets it all backwards and twisted when he looks at the root causes.  

Keller writes off the business of training teachers in the U.S., at our various Education Schools, as a "cozy, lucrative monopoly."   The clear inference and implication he is making here is that non-monopolies--such as for-profits--would of course do a far better job of it.  Keller points to Finland and Singapore as examples of the kind of teacher education we should be striving for.  Both of those are not only government run, not only "monopolies," but they are far more "lucrative" and "cozy" than the U.S. system. 

Several things are key here, and I'm just going to enumerate them quickly but the point is that all need to be rethought together if we are going to have true challenges to an educational system that I, too, consider to often be "mediocre" and, equally bad, outdated.  It was designed for the Model T and the Assembly Line and we need a full-scale redesign now.  But the problem isn't the monopoly of schools of education but far larger conditions. Including:


(1)  Schools of Education are not monopolies in the U.S. any more than, say, "the newspaper business" is a monopoly.  Would Mr. Keller say the NY Times is a "cozy monopoly"?  I think not.   Nor is it true of teacher training.   Anyone can choose one school over another.  Not all are even public.  "Monopoly" is an inaccurate description, a bad language of corporatism which simply is not the root cause of educational mediocrity in the U.S. .

(2) No one would call any aspect of higher education "cozy" these days:   nearly 70% of faculty in American universities are now contingent or adjunct labor, meaning they teach but typically receive no benefits, no job security, no contract.  They are paid by the course, hired as needed (or not) by the institution, and rarely paid well.   College teaching in just about all fields is a profession in crisis; it is not cozy at all.   Social scientists tell us that a time of dire existential crisis is not the best time to be creative.  70%+ continginent workforce constitutes existential crisis.

(3) The regulation of what teachers do and how they do it has never been tighter or more intrusive or more hierarchical.   In many states now, if your students perform badly on the end-of-grade multiple choice tests, your school can be closed or privatized and/or you as a teacher can have your salary docked or you can even be fired.   We now have a bigger crisis in teachers--especially the good ones--leaving the profession than is the crisis of students leaving school.   The morale problem of not only having to "teach to the test" (an impoverished form of learning and teaching if ever there was one) plus the regulation of those demeaning standards is high on the list of the reasons the best teachers give for leaving.

(4) Teaching is not "lucrative" in the U.S.   It is much more so in both Finland and Singapore.   And teaching teachers is also not lucrative.  Education teachers are among the lowest paid.     One reason why there are not more top students going into the teaching profession is it simply doesn't pay enough to attract teachers away from other occupations--and it is very, very hard and demanding work.  Even without our regulatory systems, forcing teachers to teach in a way that, all the research shows, is inimical to good learning. 

(5) And about those tests:   Finland abolished them a generation ago.   Their teachers are professionals (you have to have advanced post-BA training to teach any grade level beyond Kindergarten), teacher education is subsidized, and their teachers spend far less time in the classroom than ours do.   One day a week is spent with other teachers setting the bar for what constitutes "excellence" for the subject matter, the week's lessons, the learning.  And the goal is for every student to make it over the bar.  No multiple choice exams, no class rankings, no bell curves.  Just defining and attaining excellence.   Singapore is far more test-based than Finland, and is looking closely, right now, at what Finland is doing because everyone in Finland (students, teachers, parents, policy maters, industry leaders) loves the education system there.   In Singapore, the rigors of the system is worrisome to all.   Why not a system that is not only working brilliantly but that inspires learning rather than enforces it?  The U.S., incidentlally, uses compulsory standardized testing more often and at an earlier age than any other country on the planet. 

(6) As long as our metric for success is the outdated standardized testing, we don't give our schools of education much leeway for change.  You have to value what you count.   If you count right answers in little boxes in limited subjects, you are testing--we have the data--economics, not learning.  In the U.S. our test scores in public schools map exactly onto income levels since our school systems are highly segregated by income and resources are based on tax revenue in most cases.   Recent studies have shown that, in fact, public schools do better at educating students than private schools if income differentials are removed.  


(7)  It's by no means clear that charter schools, once you remove income differentials, outperform public schools.  In fact, it appears that they do not. 


(8)  Etc.  There are many easy assumptions made too often and flippantly about the American education system, with the implicit idea that the problem is that it is run by "government" and business could do it better.  That is by no means proven.   Singapore and Finland both have more, not less, goverment, federal control over schools than the U.S. and, in Finland, equality of resources is considered every student's right.  



Okay, now let's talk about medicrity.  I too believe our schools need to be better, but I'm not sure my idea of "better" is the same as Mr. Keller's.  I believe education needs drastic updating, reshaping for the world we live in now. Higher test scores are not the objective.  Schools need to reward brilliance and creativity--and not mediocrity.   But until we get rid of the baggage of the causes--the untrue assumption that mediocrity is a probuct of a "cozy, lucrative monpoly"--we won't be able to address the very real challenges our teachers, our students, and all of us face as we address the problems of learning how to thrive in a rapidly changing world.


Here's the link to the NY Times article:



Hi Cathy, 
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the NY Times article and on the larger issues/problems in the U.S. Higher Ed. system.  I desperately hope we can reform our educational system. I am normally an optimistic person, but I’m afraid that comprehensive reform may be a long way away, especially with the continued movement toward for-profit education as well as an ever-increasing reliance on contingent labor.

Actually, nearer to home than Finland, British Columbia is just now launching a comprehensive and quite inspiring new curriculum and they say they want to tackle assessment next.  Of course many people are upset.  There apparently are some union issues to be negotiated.   One expects that with huge change, but, still:  critical thinking, creative thinking, reflective thinking; competencies not content; more Deweyesque doing based on thinking, it's really quite fabulous in the scheme of things and gives me hope others might be able to emulated this.  Check it out.   I'm sure it isn't perfect.  Nothing is.   But I'm sure it proposes some interesting alternative possibilities that actually are happening.   That gives me lots of hope. 

Here's the link:


Hi Cathy,

This does raise my spirits a bit!  Thank you for sharing. :)