PLEASE!! Let’s Talk About the REAL Problem With the American Educational System


The report cards are in, and they grades aren’t good.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared to other countries, teenagers in the U.S. rank 31st in math, 24th in science; and  21st in reading.

Even though high school drop-out rates are declining, an estimated 1 million students will fail to graduate high school this year, and those that graduate are performing academically below their counterparts in other developed countries..

 This is frightening.  Not only is it more important than ever that the US is equipped to compete in a pool of  global capabilities, but we cannot afford to have so many under-educated, low-potential-earners in our already-failing economy.  (And yes, I do know that some people without their high school degrees are able to run successful businesses, innovate, and contribute to the economy, but this is generally the exception rather than the rule)  Poor educational performance is something we all eventually end up paying for in higher taxes and lower standard of living.


The above picture funny, but I only added it because I couldn’t find an image that said, “Why do I care so freaking much about the educational system even though my kids go to great schools?  Because I don’t want to give all my money away to entitlements and unemployment and have the US economy plummet further into the toilet.  That’s why.”

 So let’s play a game.  Let’s list some of the  explanations you have heard about the reasons for America’s failing educational system:   

A favorite that I have heard a lot about seems to be  the teachers.  Maybe cousin Mary loves to talk about those lazy teachers that don’t give a damn and just sit there daydreaming about their summer vacations until 2:30 when they end their workday at go to the spa.  Or Better yet, cousin, Mary might add, the unions that allow those stupid, lazy teachers to never really be held accountable.

Or maybe your friend who is a teacher thinks the problem is the stupid parents who like to make excuses for their kids’ lack of effort and the fact that they as teachers don’t get paid enough.  Or she may go on and on about how “Common Core Curriculum” is getting in the way of her teaching some of the important stuff she really should be teaching.

Or maybe you’ve heard people obsessing about the problems with “No Child Left behind” and “Race to the Top” being the downfall of education.  Maybe after he gets a couple beers in him, Uncle Bert likes to start spouting off about how “No Child Left Behind just teaches to the test.  It leaves these kids ill-equipped, I tell you.  Back in my day, we got to learn any damn way we wanted to learn, and we learned how to think, how to analyze.”

Or maybe your mommy friends like to talk about how parents these days just don’t value education enough and make their kids buckle down and do the four hours of homework a day necessary to be globally competitive.

Or maybe you’ve heard people talking about the “holy grail of education that is Finland.”  Maybe your neighbor, after seeing a couple documentaries, decided she just knows that the problems with the US are that we don’t wait until they are seven years old to put them in school “like they do in Finland.”

Or maybe your therapist, who has read all kinds of research on sleep, decides to go on and on about how the problem is the fact that our high schools start so early, so no kids can possibly learn or retain information given the sleep-deprived states of their brains.

And on and on and on….  While some of these reasons may be partially to blame in some isolated circumstances, I am not going to bore you by systematically explaining why each of these is a mere fraction of the reason that our educational system is falling so miserably behind.

Instead, unfortunately for Cousin Mary, your teacher friend, Uncle Bert, and your neighbor, and your sleep-obsessed therapist, there is actual research that identifies what the real problem with American Education is:


 (No, not racial disparity.  Poverty.  Plain and simple.   Research shows that while the performance gap between different races is diminishing, the socioeconomic performance gap is ever-widening.)  

A 2013 study from the Southern Education Foundation concluded that a majority of all public school students in one third of America’s states now come from low-income families.  Turns out that this statistic has a lot to do with educational outcomes.  Researchers believe that 2/3 of student achievement is due to factors that have nothing to do with school, teachers, or curriculum itself:  Primarily economic status.  Consider the following:

Children living in poverty have a higher number of absenteeism or leave school all together because they are more likely to have to work or care for family members.

Dropout rates of 16 to 24-year-old students who come from low income families are seven times higher than those from families with higher incomes.

40 percent of children living in poverty aren’t prepared for primary schooling.

Children that live below the poverty line are 1.3 times more likely to have developmental delays or learning disabilities than those who don’t live in poverty.

kid struggling

Poverty kills our global educational outcomes and kills our economy.  

So all of this obviously begs the question: If America was serious about fixing the troubled parts of its education system, then why are we obsessing about the teachers, the unions, or the structure of the curriculum?  We should be talking how poverty affects the individual student, and therefore the educational system as a whole.

It’s not just that we need to throw more money at the low-income districts to even out the playing field and buy more technology and shinier textbooks and buildings.  We actually need to look at the deeper reasons why low-income children perform so much worse and bring down our global report card so dramatically:


1)  Poor health and nutrition, which affect cognitive measures and academic performance:  People with lower economical means are less likely to obtain proper nutrition, less likely to exercise, get proper diagnoses, and be prescribed correct medications or interventions.  There have been studies linking different health measures to intellectual outcomes such as attention, reasoning, learning, and memory.  For example, when students experience poor nutrition and diminished health practices, it’s harder for them to listen, concentrate, and learn. Also, exposure to lead is correlated with poor working memory and weaker ability to link cause and effect. Kids with ear infections may have trouble with sound discrimination, making it tough to follow directions, do highly demanding auditory processing, and understand the teacher. This can hurt reading ability and other skills. Poor diets also affect behavior. Students can often appear listless (with low energy) or hyperactive (on a sugar “high”).

2)  The Word-Gap:  Lower income kids develop dramatically smaller vocabularies:  Children from low-income families hear, on average, 13 million words by age 4. In middle-class families, children hear about 26 million words during that same time period. In upper-income families, they hear a  46 million words by age 4, three times as many as their lower-income counterparts. Shockingly, toddlers from middle- and upper-income families actually used more words in talking to their parents than low-SES mothers used in talking to their own children.

A child’s vocabulary affects learning, memory, and cognition.  Kids from low-income families are less likely to know the words a teacher uses in class or the words that appear in reading material. When children aren’t familiar with words, they don’t want to read, often tune out, or feel like school is not for them. Also, many students don’t want to risk looking stupid, so they won’t participate in class.

Why are “fewer words” correlated with poverty? Probably because less time and increased stress leads to less ineraction. (And the impoverished generations before didn’t shore-up verbal fluency for the existing parents? The causation likely goes both ways.) Needless to say, we need to understand the word gap as real and relevant.

3)  Hopelessness and Helplessness Affecting Effort:  The uninformed public may assume that poor children slouch, slump, and show little effort because they are—or their parents are—lazy. Yet research suggests that parents from poor families work as much as parents of middle- or upper-class families do. There’s no “inherited laziness” passed down from parents.

One reason many students seem unmotivated is because of lack of hope and optimism. Low socioeconomic status and the accompanying financial hardships are correlated with depressive symptoms. Moreover, the passive “I give up” posture may actually be learned helplessness, shown for decades in the research as a symptom of a stress disorder and depression.

But don’t despair. Research from 60 high-poverty schools tells us that the primary factor in motivating students who are at high risk for learned helplessness isn’t the student’s home environment; it’s the school and the teacher. Confidence can be cultivated, and strong teachers do this every day. (No teacher isn’t the root don the problem. See above. Just pointing out a potential source of symptom-management.)

The student’s belief about whether he is simply born smart or can grow in intelligence along the way is also an important factor.  If students feels helpless to change the course of expected failure, he’ll probably not bother to try. Similarly, if they think they aren’t smart enough and can’t succeed, they’ll probably not put out any effort.

4)   Relationship stress affecting performance and effort:  Three-quarters of all children from poverty have a single-parent caregiver.When children’s early experiences are chaotic and one or both of the parents are absent, the developing brain often becomes insecure and stressed. The more children are exposed to relationship stress, the higher the probability that they will experience academic failure and drop out. If caregivers are stressed about health care, housing, and food, they’re more likely to be grumpy and less likely to offer positive comments to their kids.  In homes of those from poverty, children commonly get twice as many reprimands as positive comments, compared with a 3:1 ratio of positives to negatives in middle-class homes.

 Also, low-income parents are often less able than middle-class parents to adjust their parenting to the demands of their higher-needs children.  For example, in areas where financial survival is the top focus, parents lack time, psychological resources (the kind that are cultivated by during times of stability), and supportive peers in the event that they have a high needs child.  children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who are oppositional, or who are dyslexic are often undiagnosed or, worse, exposed to trickle-down stress which exacerbates symptoms.

Rocky home relationships (due to stress, increased absence, lack of resources) often create mistrust in students. Adults have often failed them at home, and children may assume that the adults in school will fail them, too. Classroom misbehaviors are likely because many children simply do not have the at-home stability or repertoire of necessary social-emotional responses for school. Students are more likely to be impulsive, use inappropriate language, and act disrespectful—until you teach them more appropriate social and emotional responses.

5)  General stress affecting cognitive measures:  Children living in poverty experience greater chronic stress than do their more affluent counterparts. Distress affects brain development, academic success, and social competence, impairs behaviors, reduces attentional control, increases impulsivity,  and impairs working memory.  Distressed children typically exhibit one of two behaviors: angry “in your face” assertiveness or disconnected “leave me alone” passivity. To the uninformed, the student may appear to be either out of control, showing an attitude, or lazy. But those behaviors are actually symptoms of stress disorders—and distress influences many behaviors that influence engagement.

                         *           *         *         *          *          *


Looking at the actual problems affecting the outcomes of the American Educational system in-depth, it is clear that we as individuals, as families, as businesses, as churches, and as a community,  are tasked to make the difference.  We shouldn’t just end our efforts with making sure our own kids get their homework done, joining our kids’ school PTA, and donating to our local school’s fundraisers.   And we can’t just keep expecting our policy-makers to deliver us the solution (“No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” or “Common Core,” anyone?)

 Instead of simply throwing money or odd-curriculum policies at the problem, we should truly be thinking in terms of contributing time, resources, mentoring, education, patience, and support to the [mainly single-parent] families in poor areas at-risk for educational deterioration.  Instead of curriculum reform, increased standardized testing, and “better teachers,”  what these low-income students need is relational support, stress-relief, early childhood programs, classes/programs which cultivate vocabulary and confidence, healthcare, nutrition, and a sense that it is possible for them to succeed.  

As business owners, why aren’t we providing classes, lessons, support, and resources for these communities free-of-charge?  As churches, why aren’t we rallying around these people in communities right around the corner to provide them  healthcare, hope in their own abilities, and nutritious meals?  As individuals and families, why aren’t we extending an offer to babysit or make a meal for a stressed-out single mom, or to pick up a child from cub scouts (since even though it is free, he won’t be able to join unless he gets a ride since his single parent doesn’t get off work until 7 pm), or to drive a child to the doctor because his mom can’t afford to miss a day of work?  Because it’s easier to blame it on stupid policies, stupid parents, and stupid teachers.  

That’s all for now!

Please excuse the typos and misspellings again 🙂


This overthinking mommy

AND WTF is up with giving schools that perform lower on standardized evaluations LESS money?!  It seems as though they may be the ones who need more resources.  I’d gladly sacrifice my son’s brand new basketball hoops in his school gymnasium (the old ones didn’t fold up via remote-control) in order to fund hot breakfasts and group relationship support/counseling for kids in a school that needs it…. Call me a bleeding heart or a socialist all you want, but if everyone had that mentality (not because it was required by the government, but just because they genuinely “got it”), our education system would be blowing other countries out of the water and our economy would start strengthening…. And THAT is just about the most good-ol’-fashioned, capitalist-American mentality that you could have.


SO if you think I am appealing to religious requirements to consider these realities, you  did not read the article, but I love me some blatant irony:



2 thoughts on “PLEASE!! Let’s Talk About the REAL Problem With the American Educational System

  1. Pingback: Four Reasons the Infant Stage is Overrated. | On the Yellow Couch.

  2. Pingback: Four Reasons the Infant Stage is Overrated. | On the Yellow Couch.

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