Stupid in America

Why your kids are probably dumber than Belgians.


For "Stupid in America," a special report ABC will air Friday, we gave identical tests to high school students in New Jersey and in Belgium. The Belgian kids cleaned the American kids' clocks. The Belgian kids called the American students "stupid."

We didn't pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey's kids have test scores that are above average for America.

The American boy who got the highest score told me: "I'm shocked, 'cause it just shows how advanced they are compared to us."

The Belgians did better because their schools are better. At age ten, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age fifteen, when students from forty countries are tested, the Americans place twenty-fifth. The longer kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from countries that spend much less money on education.

This should come as no surprise once you remember that public education in the USA is a government monopoly. Don't like your public school? Tough. The school is terrible? Tough. Your taxes fund that school regardless of whether it's good or bad. That's why government monopolies routinely fail their customers. Union-dominated monopolies are even worse.

In New York City, it's "just about impossible" to fire a bad teacher, says schools chancellor Joel Klein. The new union contract offers slight relief, but it's still about 200 pages of bureaucracy. "We tolerate mediocrity," said Klein, because "people get paid the same, whether they're outstanding, average, or way below average." One teacher sent sexually oriented emails to "Cutie 101," his sixteen year old student. Klein couldn't fire him for years, "He hasn't taught, but we have had to pay him, because that's what's required under the contract."

They've paid him more than $300,000, and only after 6 years of litigation were they able to fire him. Klein employs dozens of teachers who he's afraid to let near the kids, so he has them sit in what they call "rubber rooms." This year he will spend twenty million dollars to warehouse teachers in five rubber rooms. It's an alternative to firing them. In the last four years, only two teachers out of 80,000 were fired for incompetence.

When I confronted Union president Randi Weingarten about that, she said, "they [the NYC school board] just don't want to do the work that's entailed." But the "work that's entailed" is so onerous that most principals just give up, or get bad teachers to transfer to another school. They even have a name for it: "the dance of the lemons."

The inability to fire the bad and reward the good is the biggest reason schools fail the kids. Lack of money is often cited the reason schools fail, but America doubled per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years. Test scores and graduation rates stayed flat. New York City now spends an extraordinary $11,000 per student. That's $220,000 for a classroom of twenty kids. Couldn't you hire two or three excellent teachers and do a better job with $220,000?

Only a monopoly can spend that much money and still fail the kids.

The U.S. Postal Service couldn't get it there overnight. But once others were allowed to compete, Federal Express, United Parcel, and others suddenly could get it there overnight. Now even the post office does it (sometimes). Competition inspires people to do what we didn't think we could do.

If people got to choose their kids' school, education options would be endless. There could soon be technology schools, cheap Wal-Mart-like schools, virtual schools where you learn at home on your computer, sports schools, music schools, schools that go all year, schools with uniforms, schools that open early and keep kids later, and, who knows? If there were competition, all kinds of new ideas would bloom.

This already happens overseas. In Belgium, for example, the government funds education—at any school—but if the school can't attract students, it goes out of business. Belgian school principal Kaat Vandensavel told us she works hard to impress parents. "If we don't offer them what they want for their child, they won't come to our school." She constantly improves the teaching, "You can't afford ten teachers out of 160 that don't do their work, because the clients will know, and won't come to you again."

"That's normal in Western Europe," Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby told me. "If schools don't perform well, a parent would never be trapped in that school in the same way you could be trapped in the U.S."

Last week, Florida's Supreme Court shut down "opportunity scholarships," Florida's small attempt at competition. Public money can't be spent on private schools, said the court, because the state constitution commands the funding only of "uniform, . . . high-quality" schools. But government schools are neither uniform nor high-quality, and without competition, no new teaching plan or No Child Left Behind law will get the monopoly to serve its customers well.

A Gallup Poll survey shows 76 percent of Americans are either completely or somewhat satisfied with their kids' public school, but that's only because they don't know what their kids are missing. Without competition, unlike Belgian parents, they don't know what their kids might have had.


NEXT: Slightly St00pid

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  1. Hello
    It’s not due to the school being ran by the government. It’s due to the religious culture in the US. The Christians in the US have been pushing to undermine education in the country for years i.e. Pat Robinson Presidential platform. Facts of history and the way the universe word has always come in to conflict with the Christian and other religions views. Any person that can’t accept facts can always be mislead & miseducate. God gave everyone a brain. No matter what level of though you are born with. You are here to learn and grow. Not to bring more suffering to the world due to your personal feelings. Are your comfort zone (all other people are evil because they don’t see god the way my club see god). In the end of it all. The majority have turn there backs to God. And gave the middle finger to God. But I still believe (joke).

    To all my human family. Peace

  2. R.E Hymes,
    What you wrote, is the most idiotic piece of writing I have ever come across. Your “Genius” just inspired me. NOT! All I have to write to you is….GET A CLUE BEFORE WRITE. IDIOT!

  3. This is all fine and dandy, but what about the parents that genuinely don’t care? As teachers, we only have access to the children 9 months a year, 5 days a week, 7 hours a day. Why isn’t there any pressure on the parents to help their children perform? I understand that bad teachers exist, and this is an epidemic. However, there are many hard-working teachers that consistently try to engage and encourage their students and we’re told we are not up to par because of students’ standardized test scores, when some of them haven’t even been here long enough to learn the language.
    Having lived abroad in Europe I can attest to the fact that European parents have extremely strict views on school and homework and the children are expected to do well in these areas. If they do not, there are consequences. Also, parents in Europe spend more time with their children as a family, traveling and attending different cultural sites. We tend to leave our teens home alone during family trips so that they can throw beer parties. Also, I have had parents tell me that their failing student couldn’t stay for tutoring because he has football practice, and they felt that was a higher priority than his 3-grade-level reading deficiency.
    So I feel that there should be a higher accountability for teachers of course, but also for parents (and students) if we are to truly achieve improvement in education. Mediocrity should be something we are trying to surpass, not strive for.

  4. stupid author,
    you are the stupid , and not the american , who inveted the internt , google , cisco , microsoft , where are the top univeristies and school , who are the best in medical , who are the best in space technolgy and business , it usa and not you and not europe, so who is the stupid is you and europe , bye stupid ,

  5. John:

    Your ability to reason is severely challenged. If American kids do well at age 10, haven’t they been taught by teachers for four plus years? I’m not going to defend the ridiculous work rules that exist in some public school systems but I know from experience that had the administrators done their supervisory jobs properly, the useless teachers would have been gone before they ever got tenure.
    The main reason that our American students do more poorly as they age is that our culture does not truly value education nor are our teachers respected as in other cultures. Additionally, the work ethic of our students is abysmal. They just do not work very hard to get themselves and education. The teachers and the schools as a whole are trying to deliver a quality education but older students haven’t the willingness to become educated. It requires hard work, and they don’t want to do what is required. A good education is not GIVEN via schools, it is developed by the students who make the most of the opportunity.
    Your Post Office monopoly doesn’t carry any water either. The post office, like public schools, is required to take all the mail handed to them. UPS and FedEx on the other hand get to charge a limited number of users to deliver their packages. They don’t have to go to every mailing address, and they don’t have to deliver tons of junk mail. The monopoly analogy is worthless.
    My boys received very good educations in our public schools. Most of their teachers were good to outstanding. Sure, there were a few duds but that didn’t stand in their way. I’m a Biology professor. You just got yourself a D.

  6. no, we’re not all paid the same regardless…the kids of the rich make six figures at age of 23 kids of the poor w/degrees don’t….as far as getting rid of bad teachers, well it’s even harder to pull the liscense of an incompetent doctor, lawyer, professor etc. but you don’t seem to look at them for examples….why is that? HMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmm……

  7. My parents didn’t care about my schooling. Some of the teachers spoke in a Ben Stein monotone. The subjects were boring. I HATED school and couldn’t wait to graduate.

    The teaching style was to toss questions at us, tell us to find the answers in the text books, and then regurgitate the answers.

    Does America’s education system work? In a word, no. But everyone is too busy blaming everyone else to actually do anything to fix it.

    All of you up there, please stop defending your arse for a minute and think about what YOU can do to make things better, instead of blaming everyone else.

  8. the most people all over the world want to go to America for a higher education.including me. i totally love this free study environment.

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