Teacher explains why public schools are so bad

I was out riding my bike today.  In order to continue toward my goal of becoming morbidly obese, I stopped at Formaggio in West Cambridge for a sandwich (price has gone up from $4.50 to $6.00 in last few months; thank God the government tells us that we don’t have any inflation).  A guy came up to me and asked if I would help him “lift a sofa into a U-Haul”.  I figured that it would be a quick hoist from the sidewalk into the truck and readily agreed.  When I got to his apartment, I discovered that the sofa was on the second floor, was enormous and puffy, was fairly heavy, and had to come down a narrow winding staircase.  My host said “I don’t know how they got it in here.”

With a lot of tilting and twisting we eventually managed to get the thing onto the street and into the pickup truck bed.  I asked him why he was moving.  “I’m a schoolteacher in the suburbs and moving to Newton will cut my commuting time.”  Having been thinking about school quality recently, I asked him why graduates of the Cambridge public schools did so badly on tests.  “It’s the unions.  Nobody cares if the students learn or not.”  Were the suburban school districts better?  “Not really.  I could stay until 5 pm and work with every student who needs help and I would get paid exactly the same as someone who mails it in.”


  1. Luke

    August 29, 2008 @ 2:23 pm


    Q: “Were the suburban school districts better?:
    A: “Not really.”

    This is interesting, don’t you think? I was under the impression that parents in the Boston area spend lots of money to buy houses in places like Newton, Brookline, etc., thinking that their kids would be going to some of the best schools in the country. Could it really true that the schools in those towns are not better than those in poorer communities?

  2. Preston L. Bannister

    August 29, 2008 @ 4:00 pm


    It is easy to blame the unions, but they may be more a symptom than the cause. The primary cause is probably the parents.

    The school districts around here (south Orange County) pay less that the schools in Los Angeles. They pay less because they can. Where Los Angeles sometimes cannot find as many teachers as they need, there is no shortage here.

    Why would teachers prefer to take a job where the housing costs are higher, and the pay is less? The answer you get from teachers is that their job here is nicer. I have met public school teachers who took a substantial pay cut to come the Irvine school district from Los Angeles. In the LA schools teaching was very difficult, due to unmotivated students and disinterested parents. In Irvine – as at my local public school – parents are very interested, and the kids reflect their parent’s interest.

    Probably the strongest factor is a school’s success is the attitude of the parents. Motivated students usually come from motivated parents.

    I went to one classroom activity where the teacher ended up with more(!) parent volunteers that students. One of the parents mentioned that at her kid’s old school (in Santa Ana?) the teacher would be lucky to get more than one or two volunteers. When I see a request for parent volunteers, the teacher usually specifies the maximum number of volunteers she can use. (Come to think of it, I do not remember a teacher ever specifying a minimum…)

    One of the emails from my daughter’s teacher last year:

    Public schools can do well when the parents (and students) are motivated.

    There is way to further improve the odds – send your kids to a new school. New schools tend to be filled with teachers that made an extra effort to be there, and care a bit more about doing their job well. When all your peers expect you to work hard and do a good job, slackers do not feel comfortable (and tend to leave).

  3. anon

    August 29, 2008 @ 8:45 pm


    My wife just recently left her job as a school district. Her contract (with the teacher’s union name stamped on it) had a table that defined the rate of pay based on years of experience (Y axis), along with an adjustment for education (X axis).

    There was absolutely no pay adjustment based on performance. No bonuses. Salary was ethed in stone.

    However there was one way the administration could reward the good teachers. The teachers with better performance would get their supply orders filled first. The crappy teachers were at the bottom of the list.

    My wife was the only teacher that got ALL of her supply requests filled. 🙂

  4. Greg

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:04 am


    So how come American Universities are so good? Universities (private and public) in this country have these same characteristics of public K-12 schools — in almost all Universities, professors’ pay is not linked at all to their teaching abilities, and many have tenure.

  5. anon

    August 30, 2008 @ 9:52 am


    Univesities are not unionized. Professors negotiate their own salaries. They don’t all make the same pay. Pay increases are not spelled out years in advance.

    Additionally, a professors “performance” involves more than just their teaching.

  6. Jagadeesh Venugopal

    August 30, 2008 @ 9:55 am


    I still don’t understand why, in arguably the most capitalist country, education is thus socialized. Why should we place our education in the hands of the taxing authorities? After all we cook our own food and do our own laundry.

    I grew up in socialist India, always going to private schools. There, the schools were affordable by someone with a middle classs salary working for the central government. If you didn’t like a school, you just moved your kid to another (of course you needed the right contacts to get into the most in-demand schools, but yet you didn’t need a huge income for a private school education). If parents were still not happy with their child’s progress, there was private tuition available after school (it was assumed that little Johnny would sacrifice his play time if he wasn’t clever enough to get it done in the classroom).

    Now imagine a society in which we are gradually weaned off the property tax subsidy for schools and instead are able to select whatever private school we want depending on our ability to afford it and the quality of the education offered. I would wager you that the average kid would be better educated, union or no union.

  7. philg

    August 30, 2008 @ 2:16 pm


    Folks who ask about universities: American universities are not in fact very good at undergraduate education. Given the cost and the time involved, a typical graduate of a four-year bachelor’s program in the U.S. is a fairly sorry specimen. (Most of the reputation of American universities compared to their peers in other countries rests on accomplishments in the research lab.)

    What is the difference between colleges and public schools? A college or university does not have a monopoly. A public school that is terrible is guaranteed to attract 90 percent of the students in its region, thanks to the miracle of compulsory education. A terrible college or university will find itself with no students applying or attending because there is nothing to compel a resident of Massachusetts, for example, to attend the University of Massachusetts.

    College teachers are subject to review in student publications and they don’t get tenure until they’ve been on the job for 7 years. A teacher who got terrible teaching reviews would find dwindling enrollment in his or her classes and eventually no students at all as those few who did enroll would drop after a week or two. The administration would probably notice this and fail to grant the teacher tenure, unless he or she were bringing in millions of dollars in research grants.

    A school teacher in California, by contrast, will get tenure after 2 years. He or she is guaranteed a full classroom, regardless of whether or not students like the class. A 5th grader cannot drop 5th grade and sign up with a more inspiring teacher who is running 6th grade.

    The American university system probably only delivers about 40 percent of the value that it should, but that is still a lot better than public schools, which maybe deliver 10-20 percent of what the taxpayers paid for.

  8. Preston L. Bannister

    September 21, 2008 @ 9:02 pm


    Public schools do work very well, sometimes. We need to learn from the cases that work. For some of the local public elementary school, parents have pulled kids out of private school, as the public school was as good or better. This may only work where the level of parent interest is high (one of the local parents in on the board of directors for the school district, and is able to do much from that position).

    We may need a different solution where the level of parent interest is less.

    I do not feel the same about the local middle and high school. The local middle and high schools are relatively large, and size may be a part of the problem. A small group of parents can have a big of effect on the local elementary school. A small group of parents are less likely to effect the local middle or high schools. The local elementary schools work well, but the middle and high schools … not so much,

    I remember a bit about Carnegie(?) and steel factories … something about keeping a factory under one thousand employees, as at bigger factories … bad things happened. Perhaps something like the same rule applies to schools. The local elementary school tends to react to the views of a small group of parents. Perhaps that limit on scale is a big positive factor?

    Public schools can work very well in some cases. Whether this is possible in all cases (and what would be needed) is another question.

    To the teachers my kids have had at the local elementary school, it would be wrong to give anything but respect. They tried to get the best possible outcome, and came into their jobs by competing against other teachers for a lower salary, with better working conditions.

    For other neighborhoods, the same approach may not apply.

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