Review of New Book: ‘Teachers Versus the Public’

Our friend Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty, has graciously granted permission for us to publish his review of Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them, a new publication from Brookings Institute Press. The publication, authored by Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson and Martin R. West, purportedly offers “a comprehensive exploration of 21st Century school politics.” Doerr’s review also will appear in  the summer issue of Voice of Reason, which is the newsletter for Americans for Religious Liberty. Doerr’s review follows below:

From start to finish this book is a brazen, virulent, deceptive, unreality-based, shameless, slashing attack on American public schools, teachers, and teacher unions. The authors, henceforth PH&W, offer no ideas whatever for improving public schools, demonstrate no comprehension of what education is all about, and make it clear that they strongly favor privatizing public education and diverting public funds to private schools through vouchers, tax credits (neo-vouchers), charters, and cyber schooling. But let’s be specific.

Through their own polls they claim that most Americans favor vouchers or tax credits for public funding of private schools. They carefully avoid discussing the 27 statewide referenda between 1966 and 2012 in which many millions of voters from Florida to Alaska and Massachusetts to California rejected vouchers, tax credits and all other devices for channeling public funds to private schools. For details of the referenda see “The Great School Voucher Fraud.”

While PH&W cite the respected annual Gallup/PDK polls showing that only about 20% of respondents give an A or B grade to public schools nationally and about 50% give an A or B to their community’s public schools, they pointedly omit noting that the very same polls show that about 70% of respondents give an A or B to the public schools that are most familiar with, the ones their oldest children attend. And why the discrepancy? Probably because the Gallup respondents buy into the anti public school propaganda in the media but not when it applies to the schools they know best.

Nowhere in this book is any discussion of the fact that between birth and age 18 kids spends only 10% of their time in school and that home while other non-school factors have more influence than even the best of teachers; or that a quarter of Americans kids live in poverty, a far higher percentage than in any other advanced democracy, and that SES strongly influences school performance. Nowhere do they mention the Stanford University CREDO studies of 2009 and 2013 showing that three fourths of charter schools are either worse or no better than regular public schools, despite their clear selectivity advantages and other flaws. Nowhere do they acknowledge that the vast majority of private schools are pervasively sectarian faith-based schools. Nowhere do they even hint that expanding voucher or tax credit programs would inevitably fragment the student population along religious, ideological, class, ethnic, ability level and other lines while increasing school and transportation costs. Nowhere do they discuss the legal barriers to diversion of public funds to private schools.

Nowhere do PH&W discuss any of the common sense, educator-recommended ways of improving public education, such as more equitable distribution of school funding, universal pre-K education for all kids, wraparound social and medical services for the neediest kids, smaller classes, curricular enrichment, reducing excessive testing and teaching to tests, dealing with poverty and economic stagnation.

PH&W refer often to schools or teachers being “below average”. Well, half of all schools and teachers are “below average”. Indeed, half of everything is “below average” and always will be.

Antidotes to be prescribed for this toxic brew would include David Berliner and Gene Glass’s 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools (2014), John Kuhn’s Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers and the Attack on Public Education (2014), Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013), Chris and Sarah Lubienski’s The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools (2014), and Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine’s Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education (2012).

The book’s cover features incestuous praises by Michelle Rhee and Jeb Bush, who are amply lauded inside the book, though it neglects to mention that Bush’s school voucher plan was rejected by his state’s voters in 2012 by a substantial margin.

Finally, it is puzzling that a respected think tank like Brookings would lend its good name to such an execrable screed as this.

12 thoughts on “Review of New Book: ‘Teachers Versus the Public’

  1. I will accept and agree that many of the review comments are on tack. I really enjoyed that comment about 1/2 of teachers are below average and 1/2 are above,,, thus giving us an average. I will be in the smaller percentage in that I do not think my children’s school should get an A or B. Nor can I think of more than one specific school that can even come close. No matter whether you like or dislike your local school, the facts and numbers show that the American School system is and has been failing. Trying to implement educational techniques that were successful in the 50’s when we were successful is like trying to teach our kids to drive a horse and buggy because that was successful when our country achieved independence. There is nothing wrong with working with horses but you really need to know how to operate modern vehicles under modern rules. The same applies with everything we have learned in the last 50 to 70 years.
    Just defending a general position of opposing someone’s opinions doesn’t help. There are ways to improve. They are used in almost every other need to educate except in education. The military, OSHA, Governmental agencies, private and public employers all use electronic forms of teaching with an incredible amount of success. They teach standards that are not left to individuals religious and personal biases to dilute or corrupt.
    I am not proposing that teachers be done away with, quite the opposite. I would propose teachers monitor and provide assistance with programs and provide other hands on learning projects.
    I am not proposing parents do not have a responsibility but I have done my own math (I know how) and it leaves me baffled how the NEA can come up with theirs. For 180 days a year, the state requires that my children attend school from 7:50 to 3:00. They also have a 1 hour school bus ride each way. They also are encourage (soft requirement for college) extra curricular school functions. My children also have between 1:30 to 2:00 hrs of homework. So for at least 12 hours a day for the 180 days, the school is controlling my child. For another 8 hrs, they are sleeping. For my four hours, I still work at least 1 of them. Cook supper, shop for groceries, clean house, make sure they are bathed and have cleaned their rooms. I guess I am a failure because for my (10 to 30 minutes) time, I try to know my children. The way our local schools function, they wont get any more time to try and tell my kids that science is wrong, or teach fairy tales as history.
    I do not blame ALL teachers but I blame the system they teach and influence.

  2. I have frequently written about the Radical Religious Republican Right’s (now usually termed Tea Party Republicans) War on Public Education. Make no mistake, TP members hate public education because (1) they don’t want to pay a high percentage of their property taxes to support public education for what today are primarily minority students, ignoring the fact that public education builds a literate and civilized society, (2) they hate government in general and anything connected with that, and (3) they want a sectarian–not secular as required by law–education for their own children at (hopefully) public expense–one that includes sectarian Bible instruction, does not mention the existence of other religions, and that omits information about evolution in Biology and omits a great deal of accurate and reliable history in Social Studies. That’s why most charter schools are associated with churches (so topics can be censored, distorted, and misrepresented), and explains the popularity of home schooling and private schools (90% of which are sectarian) so they can teach their children whatever religious dogma they want. This large minority of U.S. citizens would preferably send their children to parochial school and not pay public school taxes or, failing that, pervert the public school system by constructing an alternative public school system of charter schools, home schools, and virtual schools at public expense–one that does not follow normal secular, liberal, public education standards.

    The three authors of the new book, mysteriously published by the Brookings Institution, apparently without proper peer-review, are engaged in this Tea Party effort to damage and ultimately destroy the public school system in our country. All the controversial efforts to do this such as increased testing (a GW Bush legacy of No Child Left Behind), a massive increase in charter and virtual schools, the corporate takeover of school instructional materials, the denigration of public school teachers and instructional materials, and the financial crippling and undermining of public school systems are part of this insidious effort. The new book engages in dishonest scholarship as explained by Edd Doerr. This is the same type of pseudoscholarship and pseudoscience used to denigrate and deny evolution, global warming, the dangers of tobacco use (for which all the methods were originally developed and adopted later by other right-wing efforts), and the secular–not Christian–origins of the United States. The pseudoscholarly methods use a variety of well-known techniques to confuse and mislead readers, teachers, students, and policy makers, such as biased polling and surveys, omission of solid and accurate contradictory data, illogical and other types of specious arguments, and an enormous variety of dishonest rhetoric, i.e. sophism.

    Readers should not forget that sophism is a collection of very old techniques created to persuade public audiences to accept claims about some topic regardless of the claims’ truth, advisability, applicability, or prospect of success. Also, sophism really works–its methods were deliberately invented to persuade individuals no matter how ugly, dishonest, false, shameful, or sectarian the desired belief or goal. Modern psychological insights, scientific marketing research techniques, sophisticated polling methods designed to appear honest but really elicit desired outcomes, and new types of subtle but fallacious arguments have greatly improved sophism. As an example, yesterday Eric Cantor lost his job as U.S. House Majority Leader due to the use of these sophistic techniques by his TP opponent, who concentrated his entire campaign on dishonestly painting Cantor as a proponent of “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants; I know without any doubt–despite this topic being ignored by the media–that the campaign that opposed him used sophisticated marketing research methods (which I happen to know because I was a marketing research consultant for several years and really understand the power of these methods) to determine the single best topic (in this case, illegal immigration and the purported fraudulent use of public services and access to voting) and focus on it completely to falsely paint Cantor as an advocate of amnesty. (BTW, not even Democratic and Hispanic political organizations, much less Cantor, support “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants; they propose a rigorous pathway to citizenship as a fair, honest, and humane way to achieve this goal, but the TP Republicans oppose even this.)

    Only the use of critical thinking such as using the scientific method and proper scholarly analysis can expose and resist these really dishonest, dangerous, and unethical sophistic methods. Our media and public discourse today is filled with conflicting claims and insights, and half of them (at least) are known to be blatantly dishonest and corrupt to those who practice critical thinking. The new book published by Brookings is obviously sophistic since it is deliberately and disingenuously written to appear to be fair, balanced, and scholarly while it reaches absurd conclusions that are known to be false based on an abundance of other data that has been professionally collected and analyzed by true scholars. Only critical thinkers can tell the difference and that doesn’t include the majority of policy makers, not to mention the public.

  3. Scott, I suggest you read the 5 books I listed, plus Mercedes Schneider’s new book, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education. It is increasingly clear that factors outside the classroom are probably more important than what happens in the classroom. Further, when the Gallup/PDK poll asks (as it has done for the past 40 years) for respondents to give letter grades to the school attended by their oldest child, the respondent has to put down something. And that is how we learn what the public thinks of schools locally and nationally, and how we can see that the anti public school propaganda from the right has distorted mucn of what the public thinks of schools outside their communities. — Edd Doerr

    1. Edd, I do apologize that I came across as in total opposition to the review. I will look into the books you mentioned. I definitely agree that a large percent of the anti school rhetoric is conservative or religious in origin and offer no scholarly or scientific insights. Being a general skeptic, I also recognize that there is a substantial amount of rhetoric thrown the other direction.
      I would also like to point out that Polls and public opinion only represent opinions and not cause and effect relationships.
      I do agree there are many external (from school) influences but I would like to offer a thought that although there are hours outside of school, those hours predominately are spent in pursuit of other equally important instruction and activities. I would not consider keeping my children awake all night so I could tutor them. If I am needed to tutor my children, then I think that is called homeschooling and that would put me into the conservative group where I no longer need the public school (I’m not) I think the issues are neither how they are framed in either conservative or liberal rhetoric. The issues are the childrens scores and rankings internationally and have nothing to do with the feelings of either side but our kids.

      1. I don’t know how they do these international rankings now, but in an American history book written by James Michener shortly before he died, he addressed this subject. He said that foreign countries CHEAT to make their ratings look higher. For example, they report only the results from their very best students. He said that American public schools look so bad because we report the results for every child in every school. That makes some sense to me because of the bell curve issue Ed brought up. I find it hard to believe that every child in Finland schools ranks in the 95th percentile on a bell curve.

        I think one of the ways they cheat is this. Ninety to 95 percent of the K-12 age kids get labeled as dumber than dirt early on and get shunted over to a Trade and Craft School route whereas the 5 or 10 percent of really smart kids stay in the Finland Public School System. When ranking time comes, they say: “Oh, you want us to report how well our public school children are doing? Here are our numbers.” Thus, they never mention or report how the kids in their Trade and Craft Schools would be doing (because they are in a DIFFERENT CATEGORY) if they had to meet the same academic rigor as the public school kids.

        I don’t know if that is true, but that is how Michener explained it, and he said that almost no one in the United States ever mentions this consistent foreign cheating factor when discussing how poorly or how well American public schools are doing. He closes by saying that our best American students are every bit as good or better than the best in foreign public schools.

        Once again, being an old social scientist myself and going back to the bell curve, I find it hard to believe that the kids in Japan who have a 95 – 100 IQ (which should be that vast middle in the bell curve) are ready for Ph.D. work in particle physics, as some would like to make us believe. From my own personal experience with two American public school systems that are very good, we have numerous people who were by a matter of genetics alone “born to be” nothing but coal miners, brick layers, and screw Part A to Part B people.

        We also have what third world economists have for decades called “rising aspirations.” Back in the 1960s, the parents of a child with an 87 IQ did not bother the public school system about how well Little Jimmy was doing. They just accepted that Little Jimmy was dumb as a tree stump (just like them) and that a mindless factory job would one day be available for Little Jimmy just like it was for his dad.

        With the advent of the Internet and shipping mindless American jobs overseas, all of the 87 – 100 IQ parents in the United States finally had a way to “get political” with their public school systems—and they did. With mindless factory jobs hard to find, all of these parents suddenly started demanding to know why public school teachers were failing to turn 87 IQ Little Jimmy into Albert Einstein so he would have an excellent shot at a good American job, like say at the Battelle Memorial Institute or the Rand Corporation. Thus, the so-called CRISIS IN AMERICAN EDUCATION WAS BORN.

        We could end the CRISIS IN AMERICAN EDUCATION this afternoon if the government and every public school teacher in the United States would just stand up and speak one simple, bell curve truth to these parents:

        “Your Little Jimmy is not doing well in school because he was born with a set of genetics that makes him dumb as a tree stump—and he is going to be dumb as a tree stump for the rest of his life because of those genetics—and what you are asking us to do with Little Jimmy simply cannot be done—once again–because Little Jimmy is dumb as a tree stump.

        I know it sounds cruel. I know we would like to wish it away. I know we would all like to find some MAGICAL WAY to turn “Tree Stump Jimmy” into Albert Einstein. However, outside of a national program of genetic engineering for kids, it ain’t gonna happen—and people need to be resigned to that reality.

        1. Charles, James Michener was not an authority on either public or international education. For decades, European and Asian students have demonstrably performed better on standardized, international academic achievement exams than U.S. students. Great pains are made to be sure the student test-taking populations are similar, not comparing apples to oranges as you claim. I taught graduates of our public school system for 23 years from 1975-1978 and 1985-2003 and their ability to do intellectual work gradually and noticeably decreased during those decades.

          Finnish, Japanese, etc. students really are in a higher percentile on a bell curve than U.S. students in terms of academic achievement (knowledge, critical thinking skills, etc.). These curves are NOT intelligence or IQ curves; American, Asian, and European students all have the same intelligence distribution when measured by intellectual ability tests, i.e. IQ test. In fact, academic achievement tests in early grades among the various nations are similar; the scores only begin to diverge during later grades and the results are especially apparent when they enter higher education.

          Readers should know that the gradual divergence in academic achievement is not due to the quality of instruction and instructional materials or the abilities of teachers and students. It is due to vast differences (between the U.S. in general and Asian and European countries) in family expectations of academic success, social and financial support for schools and the professionalism of teachers, social norms in student (childhood) self-discipline and work ethic, an upbringing or home-life with no appreciation for intellectual stimulation, the existence of national health care systems, and in many cases, parental poverty or lack of education (although this can be overcome). In brief, students work better and harder when parents and society are united in their support for childhood (K-12) education. U.S. society doesn’t have this unity of purpose and fair and uniform distribution of financial resources, but many European and Asian countries do. The failure of U.S. public schools is a social and political failure, not an ability, intelligence, schools, or teaching failure as always emphasized by craven, cynical, and dishonest policy makers and politicians. Severe financial inequality and intense political partisanship, in addition to decline in K-12 academic success, are other symptoms which have increased over the last decades in proportion to the decrease in social and political unity. And what is the cause of the decrease in social and political unity? You all know the answer: the rise over the last decades in the power and influence of radical religious right-wing Republicans whose reactionary, bigoted, sectarian, anti-social, inhumane, and authoritarian policies are responsible for America’s decline in everything in society except military power and capital accumulation. Our society is being destroyed from within by the newly-powerful reactionary Religious Right who have taken over the Republican Party.

          1. Steven, I will concur with the generalized statements regarding need for society as a whole to create a pro educational environment. I assume you were a truly great educator. I truly wish you or an educator of your caliber were teaching my children. I say all this with the assumption that you would or did teach what was appropriate. I hope you taught with excitement in sharing knowledge. I would like to think our schools were full of teachers of that caliber but they are not. I would love to think that other public schools were not as bad as our local school but the more I have become involved, the more I find it is not just a local problem. The problem is that many, and I mean MANY of our teachers do not know nor want to know their subjects. Not only do they not teach at current levels or along current text books but they fail to even teach at the level of their education. When my children come home and tell me science is wrong because their science teacher told them the earth is 6000 years old. When my kids come home from a public school with science, history and social study test questions from the bible, something is wrong. These are not historically applicable, socially inquisitive questions. They are questions aimed at influencing children in religious beliefs instead of teaching a subject.
            If this were just a minor local issue and could be remedied with the courts assistance, all would be well. The problem is that it is rampant throughout the country. The problem is that although the courts have come down hard, the teachers don’t leave, they just get angry and go to incredible lengths to show how they are being abused and their teaching becomes even worse. Thanks to our current system that indemnifies teachers from all wrong doing, these teachers and other just plain unprofessional teachers are guaranteed to be able to continue.
            I am not saying these issues alone, if remedied, could eliminate our national failures in education. There are definitely enough problems to go around.
            What I am saying is that until accountability is accepted by the teachers as well as the rest of us, I believe we will continue our decline. As long as we all continue to agree in assigning blame to ethereal entities as needing god or needing positive emotions from the public, the real issues will go unchecked.

          2. Scott, I acknowledge what you say about the quality of teachers is true especially in the South, including Texas. There ARE Creationist Biology teachers and religious sectarian Social Studies teachers who misuse their positions to influence and mislead students to think that the teacher’s religious beliefs are true. These teachers are corrupt, mendacious, and dishonest and should not be teachers in public schools.

            However, they are a minority and only get away with their pseudoscientific and pseudoscholarly instruction because they teach in communities where most of the students come from fundamentalist families that already believe the same thing. Such activities are not common in large urban public schools and in western, eastern, and northern states where there is more diversity and school authorities clamp down on anti-secular instruction when they learn about it. It is hard to prevent such teachers confusing and misleading students unless the district superintendent and principals have integrity AND some parents learn about it and complain. In the South this isn’t always the case.

            Also, most states have good curriculum standards requirements if a few don’t, but even if a state has these standards they aren’t universally enforced. An example is Texas, in which the Biology evolution instructional requirements are routinely ignored in many Texas school districts and the state exams don’t test for it.

          3. Well, Steve. Could you list 10 measures that you think would turn the situation around for American public schools and their students so they will be properly contending with the Finns?

          4. Scott, here are some articles that examine that issue and contain recommendations. My own recommendations can be inferred from my comments: (1) since in every country students at the bottom of the social class structure perform worse than students higher in that distribution, end poverty in America or at least provide extra money, more and better teachers, and more instructional resources to poorer schools; this has actually been done with spectacular results; (2) create national standards and a national curriculum so all U.S. students study the same best topics as decided by real experts; (3) smaller class size in all K-12 grades–a maximum of 24 is a good number; (4) oblige parents (i.e. force them by law) to participate in their children’s education by a variety of methods using both positive and negative reinforcement; etc.

            Comparing U.S. K-12 education to that in Europe and Asia

            Why American Education Fails
            And How Lessons From Abroad Could Improve It

            International Test Scores
            Poor U.S. Test Results Tied To Weak Curriculum

            What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform
            Finland came from behind to become the world leader in student achievement. Their strategy is the opposite of what we’re doing in America.

            Cultural Differences in Parenting Practices: What Asian American Families Can Teach Us

            Education and Equality: Comparing the US, Asia, & Europe

            Learning from Asian Schools

            Stop Holding Us Back

          5. I first want to apologize for proofing and editing my grammar and spelling. I occasionally make responses where I should stop and think critically first.
            This issue is a very personal issue for me as I currently live in the south. I am in a unique position in that my father is a Southern Baptist preacher who holds several degrees from 3 different seminaries and very much is a fundamentalist. My mother held several degrees and taught high school Biology. My little brother is a director for a Texas ISD and is definitely not religious. My children have had some very extreme examples of bad teachers, principals and Superintendents.
            Although my current permanent residence is in the South, I have lived in numerous states and regions throughout my life. While my wife thinks the South is worse than UT, my having a much broader experience has taught me that each region just has a different form of the same problem. Granted, Louisiana ranks at the bottom in most educational areas but when the local teachers, (even the guilty ones) parrot your position as do the “professional educators” that I personally know in at least 13 other states including CA, AZ, CO, OR, PA, OH, it begins to have the appearance of rhetoric. A position of circle our wagons and point the blame elsewhere. Whether my perception that many educators use similar views to evade accountability is fair and is totally questionable as I have a bias. Personally, if done scientifically we would need an unbiased investigation with peer review. The real problem is who would be qualified to be an unbiased investigator? From my position and I am open to input but it appears to me that the most qualified people would be from a biased position.
            Thanks and I do look forward to finding real qualitative and quantifiable solutions.

          6. Scott, the quantitative information you request has been available online for several years. Just Google for it. Here are some links to get you started, all of which can be accessed without a paywall. Essentially all refer to the Berkman and Plutzer study, analysis, and data. They found, among other disturbing items, that one-sixth of U.S. biology teachers are Young Earth Creationists, 13% of biology teachers teach Creationism, and that the majority of biology teachers, 60%, devote only a few cursory hours to evolution. These statistics apply nationally, but the percentages are much higher in the South. Since the South is a large part of the country, its bad statistics overwhelm the national data, so the statistics are really better in the other parts of the U.S. Everything I stated in my previous posts to this blog column are consistent with the Berkman-Plutzer study.

            Evolution and Creationism in America’s Classrooms: A National Portrait
            Michael B Berkman, Julianna Sandell Pacheco, Eric Plutzer


            National Survey of High School Biology Teachers

            The National Survey of High School Biology Teachers is based on a nationally representative probability sample of U.S. public high school biology teachers. A total of 926 teachers completed questionnaires, either pencil and paper surveys or on the web, between March 1 and May 5 of 2007. Teachers responded to 86 questions pertaining to their educational backgrounds, teaching practices, and personal attitudes. The survey focused on respondents’ approach to teaching evolution and creationism in the classroom.
            Data reported and analyzed in:

            Berkman, Michael B., Julianna Sandell Pacheco, and Eric Plutzer. 2008. “Evolution and Creationism in America’s Classrooms: A National Portrait.” PLoS Biology 6(5): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124

            Berkman, Michael B. and Eric Plutzer. 2010. Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

            Berkman, Michael B. and Eric Plutzer. 2011. “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom.” Science 331:404-405.


            Berkman, Michael B. and Eric Plutzer. 2010.
            Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms
            Cambridge University Press, Sep 20, 2010


            Science 28 January 2011:
            Vol. 331 no. 6016 pp. 404-405
            Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom
            Michael B. Berkman, Eric Plutzer


            Evolution and Creationism in America’s Biology Classrooms
            by Randy Moore and Sehoya Cotner


            Evolution Vs. Creationism: Study Reveals Public School Science Lagging


            Evolution, Creationism, and the ‘Cautious 60 Percent’
            Steven Newton, NCSE


            Scopes Weeps: Evolution Still Struggling in Public Schools