Monthly Archives: December 2013

Diane Ravitch and Market Forces

One of the more discussed recent books on education is Diane Ravitch’s “Reign of Error”.  Ravitch argues that poverty and socioeconomic inequality produces kids who enter our educational system handicapped in their ability to learn.This poor start translates in poor performance as the individual moves through primary and secondary education.

I do not agree with Ravitch – the immigrants to the US, say in the 1880s, were poor and they were discriminated against on religious and/or cultural grounds. Yet those immigrants made sure their children, although raised in poverty, got the best education they could afford. These children became engineers, doctors, or lawyers. I am proud to count myself as a graduate of an excellent school – The City College of New York – that was developed for the very purpose of offering a free (and excellent)  education to the children of poor immigrants. Therefore, I do not see poverty by itself as being the source of a sub-par educational system.

I think that cultures and nations that develop good educational systems do so because education is one of the few, or the only path to an individual’s financial well being.

When there are other avenues for achieving financial success, education takes a back seat. In the US, you can be a mattress salesman, with very little education and still be financially successful. We do have a society in which we can become wealthy in many ways – entrepreneurship, salesmanship – and, in addition, we are a wealthy country (from the point of view of natural resources that one can exploit).

In other countries, there may be many barriers to individual financial success – lack of capital, a hierarchical social order, or generalized poverty. In these societies, education becomes important to the individual primarily as an avenue for achieving financial security . I am thinking especially of the Asian countries where education has been the “classic” path to success – those who became mandarins started with the civil service examinations.

An alternative path to developing a good educational system may happen when a top-down,  autocratic society (e.g. Russia) starts compensating educated people because these people can strengthen the country’s military and industrial infrastructure which is weaker than that of its neighbors’.

In summary, my thesis is that a good educational system develops due to market forces – education is a sure path to an individual’s financial well-being and there are few other paths available to achieve this well-being.  In this thesis, poverty by itself, does not lead to a poor educational system.  A sub-par educational system comes about when education is not the most important  path to financial security.

Perhaps there can be another driver to a good educational system. After all, there were quite a few rich merchants in medieval times in Asian countries and these merchants did not get wealthy because of their classical education.  It could be that a good educational system, or more precisely a selective one, also develops when education is seen as a “noble” profession, in the sense that it leads to relative wealth without physical effort. However, this is not an American concept – we actually value physical effort and one can see a proof of it every Sunday until the Super Bowl.

If I am right, what does this mean for how education will develop in the US? I don’t see much improvement soon – say on a 10-year horizon. As long as we  have a high degree of elasticity in our economy – meaning that we have many paths for achieving individual financial success – education will be not be a priority for us as a society.

It may be that increasing international competition will drive us to educational reforms. After all, the genesis of Common Core was when industry and the Chamber of Commerce started going to the state governors and saying we are losing jobs and contracts because we do not have a sufficiently well educated workers. Common Core developed from an industry initiative. That’s market forces at work!


Justin, Tom and c2396

  • Justin                DC

I am a science and engineering professional who seriously considered teaching as a career change. I am the son of a teacher. I understand and value the profession, and have a passion for imparting knowledge to others. I have taught as a graduate assistant in a university setting, and enjoyed it.

But I didn’t choose to become a teacher, despite this. Why? Largely because of the abuse of the profession of education that I see. No, it’s not the typical line about new standards and grading teachers and throwing out the bad ones that I object to. I would far rather that we demand the highest caliber of individuals as teachers and weed out anyone who can’t cut it.

The abuse I speak of is what is asked of teachers relative to what is given. People have this idea that teachers spend only a few hours a day teaching, and have the summers off. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s teachers work 10-12 hours days regularly, including the summer, and for what? Less than half of what I am currently making as an engineer.

On top of brutal hours for little pay, teachers are under-appreciated by parents and administrators alike. They are harassed for every demerit, subject to immense pressure for grade inflation. They are tied down by administrative rules that interfere with the core mission. They are expected to be substitute parents, substitute cops, and substitute priests.

In short, being a teacher in America today is asking for abuse. Thank those who do it.


  • c2396                           SF Bay Area

People who are really good at mathematics and the sciences are no different from anybody else. They want good pay and good working conditions. And they often have the talent and in-demand skills to secure them.

Teaching is a stressful, demanding and important job, with lots of second-guessing – by parents, by administrators, by school boards, and by the general public. The idea of dealing with today’s hellish mixture of hysterical helicopter parents, as well as uninvolved parents who set a poor example for their kids, is probably a big turnoff to people who value the structure, self-discipline, intellectual rigor, and logic the fields of mathematics and science require.

Want more people like this to go into teaching? Raise the pay and treat teachers with more respect, for starters. I managed IT projects for years before I retired, and it was a high-stress job, but I enjoyed it. Would I become a teacher in the average classroom today, at current pay rates? No way.


  • Tom                             Midwest

When those in math and sciences can earn as much as a teacher, they will become teachers. When state departments of education require a math or science teacher to be a math or science major, we would get better math and science teachers. However, as a now retired scientist/mathematician who took the require education classes to obtain certification and was still denied to teach in some states because I was not an education major, sorry. All too many scientists and mathematicians who might be teachers will never enter your ranks. The system, both for teaching requirements, as well as the pay, are institutionally incapable of hiring and retaining math and science majors as school teachers.


On December 9th, The New York Times published an op-ed piece titled “Teachers Tell Us How to Fix Science and Math”.  As a former engineer with a Ph.D. in Fluid Mechanics and a minor in math, who after retirement switched careers to high school teaching, I found the previous readers responses sadly true

Can These Kids Be “Saved” by Common Core?

There are moments in the life of a teacher when a student says or does something that takes you aback and makes you think about education as a whole.

Last week, while reviewing exponents and the rules associated with them in an Algebra I class, I overheard a student ask another: “How much is 9 x 3?”  This is a student who failed Algebra I with me last year and who had something like “General Math” in middle school. She is not an exception in lacking the very basic basics – many students in my Algebra I classes use their fingers to do simple computations.

By coincidence, a couple of days ago, I received a response to a review of an Algebra 2 Glencoe textbook – supposedly “Common Core” – that I posted a year ago on Amazon.  In agreeing with my critique, Bruce G. Frykman wrote, “What I face is simply appalling. First, students come to these classes without the proper grounding. I have tutored kids in algebra II who cannot multiply or divide at even the simplest level. How did they get into these classes?”

Can these kids be “saved” by Common Core?

I happen to believe that Common Core is a step forward, in that the tests by which student performance is to be judged include a lot more critical thinking and communication than the previous state tests – at least this is how it appears to me from the released. According to these released questions, we will have to ask students to master the material with deeper understanding and the ability to communicate their knowledge.

But if Common Core will demand more critical thinking what will we do with the kids Mr. Frykman and I referred to? Granted that Common Core is supposed to start early – in elementary school – and therefore give us better prepared kids by the time they reach high school. However, the performance of the kids, as many other performance measures, will form a normal distribution. What will happen to the left side of the curve?

Kids in middle school will continue to be promoted, regardless of their performance – Common Core does not touch on promotional policy. Common Core will not transform demographics, poverty, a culture of not valuing education (except as a ticket to a better job), and any other sources of poor educational performance. Common Core is a set of teaching and assessment standards, but it is not educational policy.

Common Core is supposed to give high school students that are “college ready”. The dream is that students who have passed through Common Core K – 12, will not need to take remedial courses as do 30% – 40% of the current college freshmen. But we will always have the left side of the normal distribution and if those kids continue to be promoted despite their poor academic skills, we will face the same situation as before Common Core: a significant percentage of kids who enter high school without the basic academic skills and knowledge that they need.

In the absence of an 8th grade assessment that tests for basic academic knowledge and a vocational track that provides a success avenue for those who do not show sufficient knowledge, we will face the same situation as we have now – Common Core or not.