There's this book called The Manufactured Crisis whose thesis is that problems with the US school system are exaggerated by some right-wing conspiracy. I haven't read the book, yet, but I know some people who would disagree. I'm skeptical of the book on the face of it. I know lots of people who have gone to schools overseas and in the US and they say from first hand knowledge that those schools are much tougher. (All but a very few of them.) OTOH, being tough and being good are not synonymous.
I hired a guy last summer who went to an almost all black high school in Baltimore (his description). He went through school with As and decided he would go on to study computer science. He started his program at university with high hopes and what he thought was a reasonable expectation of success. Within a few months, he was squashed like a bug. (I found this info out later. It did not come out in the interview.) He dropped out, completely confused by his dismal showing. "How could this have happened?" He came to realize that his As in high school meant nothing. That he had been allowed to coast. He didn't waste much time. He went back to school shortly and got an easier degree. We hired him based on his ability to perform in this second area of expertise. Things are beginning to come together for him, it appears. But he still feels cheated.
Interjection. I normally put this kind of failure squarely at the foot of the parents. There are very few excuses for parents not to be actively involved. You don't need a PhD to read to your kids when they're young. You don't need any formal schooling to take your kids to the museum or the library. It doesn't cost any money to ask, "How was your day? Did you learn anything this week?" With my own kids, I know they get good test scores and good grades, but I want to check myself. I hand them each a book and say "Read to me." And it's a hard book. They don't have to read the whole thing, but I want to know in my bones that they're ready. OTOH, by fourth grade my parents couldn't help me with my math homework. I reckon my intern's mom couldn't help him very much with calculus. Sometimes you're almost forced to take the school's word for it when it comes to evaluating your kid. If you don't even know what questions to ask, you're kinda screwed - especially if you've bought into the "Just sit tight and listen to the experts" point of view.
New subject. I tutor at a well-known high school (or I did until this year). For the previous two years I had tutored geometry almost exclusively. Several of the students were complaining about their geometry teacher's incompetence. Now I didn't agree with what this teacher's methods, but on the whole I thought she knew her subject and she genuinely tried to teach. I conveyed the later clause to the students who insisted that they had gotten good grades in algebra the previous year (in one case the girl had gotten an A in algebra) but were now failing geometry. The problem with their thesis was that their failings in geometry were actually failings of understanding in algebra. They could *do* the geometric part, but they couldn't do the most elementary algebra. Their incompetence was far more, I thought, than could reasonably have been accounted for by a summer of carefree indolence. No, I was convinced (and am still convinced) that the person who failed them was not their geometry teacher who was "failing" them, but the algebra teacher who had given them good grades when they couldn't grasp the most elementary concepts of the subject.
Interesting note here. Several of these kids had calculators that put mine to shame. My employer bought me a nice casio. I seldom use it, but sometimes it's just really handy. I think it was about $60. These kids were using $100 and $150 calculators. But they couldn't punch in the numbers correctly and they refused to stop and think about what they were doing. For example, they didn't realize that to divide by 10, you just move a decimal over one place. Using a calculator for this is a waste of time. (I'm really busy and I *hate* wasting time.) They couldn't figure out how to do anything with negative numbers. They were oblivious to precedence.
Now these weren't dumb kids. Some were stupid to the extent that they didn't want to learn. (Close to my personal definition of stupidity.) But they could actually do the work if they wanted to. On more than one occasion, I would come in and I would have these guys staring off into space not paying attention to a word I was saying (acting, it seemed to me, like gang members or something). I would persist, going to each kid in turn and asking him a specific question. After maybe 10 minutes, they would be glancing over at the work I had laid out in the center of the table. Ten minutes later they would be actually leaning over the work and soon they would be actively involved. We almost always ended with everyone contributing.
But usually the same subset of kids would show up: girls who had jobs after school, boys who had baseball practice, kids of either gender who were out partying 3 nights a week and so didn't have time to study. I couldn't help thinking, "What the hell are their parents doing?" Eventually I figured out that for many of the kids, they were out partying 3 nights a week because their parents were out partying 3 nights a week.
Of course these are all anecdotal. A bunch of anecdotes don't prove anything. I have done some reading in education, but it's sparse and disconnected. Still, I have opinions formed from my own experiences (as a student and as a tutor and as a college teaching assistant -- assist nothing, we taught the classes -- from the experiences my kids have had, and from those of my acquaintances).
It's not all bad. There are some things that I like about what the schools are doing these days - giving kids schedule books, for example. Great idea. And in my kids' school they have some great reading stuff going on. (I recently wrote a letter to the superintendent commending the school for their reading programs. This should mean something as I'm not the kind of person to give unrestrained praise.) Probably the best thing is the sports. Now this could be just because my kids are girls. I'm not sure. But they're actually *learning* in PE class. This is astounding to me. I have never, in my entire life, ever *not one time* EVER met a single PE teacher or coach for whom I had any respect whatsoever. Not one. Not ever. I have always loathed them as among the lowest, most comtemptible pieces of human garbage on the planet. (I've come to terms with the lie that when you're attacked you should tell the teachers, but this business about people learning sportsmanship in PE class is just too much.) OTOH, my kids had a birthday party a while back and I took the girls to the basketball court. I was genuinely surprised. There was a lot of traveling, but they were playing quite well, passing, dribbling (sometimes), being good sportsmen, being supportive to their team-mates, humble in victory, noble in defeat. "Where did you guys learn to play like that?" "Oh, we learned this in PE." (Wow! I'm not even going to go into my experience at basketball in PE. The only people who learned anything about basketball were the people who already knew basketball.) I'm considering writing another letter to the school praising the PE teacher (whom I haven't even bothered to get to know), but I'm just not much into getting or giving a lot of compliments. Still, I've pretty much resolved that I'm going to talk to the principal about this. I mean - if they were screwing up, I wouldn't hesitate to go down there and ruffle feathers. It seems only fair I should be willing to tell them they've done something very well. Also, I've felt for some time that we should just fire every single PE teacher and ban the "subject" from schools. But I could re-evaluate that position, if it could be shown that things have changed in general.
Unfortunately, while I went to a lot of elementary schools back in the day, I only have first hand experience with this single, elementary school these days. Also, it is one of the better school districts in the country. So it's not generalizable. But I'm hesitant to just write it off.
It's not that they're not worthy of some criticism. It's that the amount and severity of criticism due them is vastly less than I would give to some of the elementary schools I attended. Also, they've done some great things that ameliorate and overcompensate for any failures.