William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Most Damning Indictment On Primary Education You’ll Ever See

Don’t think too hard, Johnny boy.

The Washington Post published an email from an anonymous “veteran seventh-grade language arts teacher in Frederick, Maryland,” that I am only just stopping myself from quoting in full.

It’s all there. The relentless, crushing demand for less-than-mediocrity, the exculpation of the kiddies from every duty and responsibility, the insane parents (who waited too long to have their one precious) demanding not that their issue learn anything but are “awarded” high grades, insipid, cowering “leadership”, the reliance on educational fads recommended by “research,” the soul-sucking banality, the quest for absolute uniformity.

I think back to the Lower Permian to a music teacher I had in high school, a man who wouldn’t last a day in a modern school. He insisted we learned. He punished when we didn’t. He would glower and throw his baton in the air in disgust. He would not ask but demand the best we could give. He wanted perfection and though I can’t say he got it, he got something close. He’d be chased into the woods by a pack of rabid, grade-obsessed, raving parents today.

Maybe the biggest relevant difference between then and now for us is the insane lust for quantification, which are the quotes I’ll highlight:

In a world where I am constantly instructed to “differentiate” my methods, I am condemned for using different resources than those provided because if I do, we are unable to share “data” with the county and the nation at large…

Sure, using different resources and strategies among schools may make data sharing more difficult, but haven’t we gone far enough with data? Each child is not a number or a data point. They can only be compared to the developmental capabilities set forth by medicine, not education, and to their own previous progress.

Seems everybody has to have like data, else how can comparisons be made? If it can’t be quantified, Science says, it isn’t real, it hasn’t happened. So artificial constructs are created, one-size-fits-all tests which become the sole criteria for success. As Agnes Larson told us, just wait until the Feds—driven into action by panting do-gooders and hey-sounds-like-a-fine-idea-to-me-ers (yes, me-ers)—do the same to college which “accept” government money. Student loans, which the government now controls (thanks to Obamacare; remember how they snuck that in?), “accepting” money will be defined as taking the money given to students as loans.

In addition, teachers cannot and should not be evaluated on the grades of their students. Who then would try to teach the boy who will never progress past third grade due to a brain injury? Who then will teach the girl that refuses to complete any work? Who then would teach any special education classes? What stops me from skewing my grades to keep the world off my back? Education cannot be objectively measured. It never could, and our problems began when we came to that realization and instead of embracing it, decided to force it into a quantifiable box that is much too small and too much the wrong shape.

The doctrine of Unexpected Consequences dictates that as soon as teachers are paid by how well their students do, then all students will become A+ students. If there was a mania for “teaching to the test” before, that’s the only form of teaching that we’ll see in the future. Retesting, allowable or now, will be a regular feature. There have already been mini-scandals where teachers themselves have “taken” tests for students. Look for these to become non-scandalous.

Though I referenced Robert Greene Ingersoll formerly, Clifford Stroll has already addressed our country’s educational misgivings in a single sentence: “Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, and understanding is not wisdom.” It is time that we fall on our sword. In our rabid pursuit of data and blame, we have sacrificed wisdom and abandoned its fruits.

Amen, sister, amen.


  1. “…just wait until the Feds…”
    Already happening. Just the next salvo in the effort to do to higher education what has been done to health care, finance and banking, etc: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/12/17/2013-30011/request-for-information-to-gather-technical-expertise-pertaining-to-data-elements-metrics-data

  2. An interesting link, but one that ultimately misses the point. It is always easier to notice that a system isn’t working but much harder to fix it or to accept what must be done to fix it. It is yet another blame the parents rant as if the parents are an undesirable influence that must be kept far from the arcane workings of the educational establishment. The teacher in question would clearly prefer to not have her competence tested or judged in any way and gives a number of woolly reasons to justify this. Both teachers and administrators get in the way of this ideal world. There is also a tendency to assume that in a past golden age teachers were free to do this. What nonsense. There are many pioneer day stories of unpopular teachers being punched out or otherwise driven out of town by upset parents. Justice was just more direct in those days.

    The only solution, which is not mentioned, is the removal of government and compulsion from the educational business. Compulsion makes schools into prisons and teachers into guards and learning very difficult. Return the children to the parents and let them judge (choose) the appropriate tutoring (tutors).

  3. music teacher I had in high school, a man who wouldn’t last a day in a modern school. He insisted we learned. He punished when we didn’t.

    You had one of them, too? When I was in high school, first-chair meant first-in-line for an ear pulling.

    “They are not allowed to fail.”

    That from the e-mail. Makes one wonder why they need to go to school at all. If they can’t fail then why bother? A diploma award without regard to performance has about the same value as a zip code award.

    I wonder how anonymous this teacher expects to be. How many veteran seventh-grade language arts teachers can there be in Frederick, MD? Ten? And also resigned? One?

    who asked not to be identified because she fears retaliation at her school

    email: It is with a heavy, frustrated heart that I announce the end of my personal career in education, disappointed and resigned because I believe in learning.

    The email says she resigned (in frustration). What kind of retaliation at school could there then be? Maybe she meant resigned to being frustrated?

    What is a non-personal career? How might it differ from a personal career? Wkikipedia: “Career describes an individuals’ [sic] journey through learning, work and other aspects of life.” Which rather implies all careers are personal. She was a language arts teacher?

  4. My goodness….

    Standard curricula & metrics are not all bad, and much good can & does come of them. Truly outlandish ideas & concepts & so on are stifled, for example. As noted by others, this unidentified teacher is reported as both wishing to avoid retaliation from her school employer AND self-reports as having “quit.” Which is it? OR, did she merely “quit” teaching her private curricula, which we know nothing about–maybe that’s a good thing. We really don’t know.

    The generalities presented are readily agreed to by all–but there’s no substance to define what they mean to that teacher. So we can’t assume she’s not some crank.

    One fundamental issue, long recognized since society has gotten complex, is that ALL public school curricula are necessarily deficient — there’s too much material & not enough time.

    Many many many good teacher are capable of teaching the script AND inspiring their students, at least those interested in make some effort, with additional material. The scripted curricula does permit considerable room for individual teaching styles & content.

    There’s a well-known analogy, by the way: McDonald’s restaurants! Therein an employee is bound to do all manner of tasks to a set protocol, a script, even right down to how much salt is sprinkled on fresh French fries via a set motion with a particular salt container (this, much analogous to bartender counting pours to get just the precise amount of booze served, and no more). In such a constrained environment most people are surprised to learn that individual franchises account for numerous innovations that have kept the brand in the forefront, unlike its competitors.

    Thus, while compelling, much (not all of course) of this unidentified working/quit/resigned teacher’s comments are exaggerated.

    Trade-offs MUST be made. Trade-offs cannot possibly not be made.
    Any trade-offs will invariably have strong & weak points. To state: “Seems everybody has to have like data, else how can comparisons be made? If it can’t be quantified, Science says, it isn’t real, it hasn’t happened.” is absurd — that is not what science says–in the absence of data, science is silent. Of course, there are the social & behavioral “soft sciences” (e.g. psychology) that Brigg’s likewise dismisses with vigor…so now we’ve got him, lately, dismissive of science AND a long-standing track record of being dismissive of the soft sciences as well…which leaves….nothing….except, apparently, one’s internal compasses, which are notoriously varied & unreliable…

    That said, a core issue made by this unidentified teacher is that many students–though a small minority–are being passed who don’t deserve it.

    On the other hand, the issue about special needs students–those with learning & other deficiencies–DO have separate metrics available. To lump these in with the standard student body is a bit of “strawman,” if not wholly contrived, argument.

    In other words, here we have another example of “splitting”–the behavioral tendency to see things as “black or white,” ‘either or,’ — a gross oversimplification of reality — indicative of an inability, apparently, to perceive the ubiquitous “grey zone” that forms the bulk of life and all one’s encounters.

  5. DAV: I have asked the same thing–why bother to even send the kids to school? If they are all getting A’s and a diploma, we could save millions by just mailing diplomas out when someone turns 18. I believe it’s probably because you need a paid babysitter for kids while their parents are at work, so you might as well disguise it as “education”. It sounds so much better that way.

  6. Note that there is a typo in my last message which I leave for the discerning reader to identify.

    Ken, “One fundamental issue, long recognized since society has gotten complex, is that ALL public school curricula are necessarily deficient — there’s too much material & not enough time.” I disagree completely. There is no more material to be taught in any practical sense and people are not more knowledgable. We just have different priorities. In fact less is taught and students waste time in busy work that teaches nothing and the brighter students are thoroughly bored. This was obvious when I compared my own education to that of my children’s.

    “inspiring their students”. I have never understood this “inspiring” claim. Inspiration may be an important quality in many walks of life, but I just do not see it as having any meaning at all in teaching. If I want to learn a skill I take a course from a competent instructor in the field, let’s say first aid. If I seek advice from others as to who is the best instructor, the last thing I want to hear is some babble about inspiration. I don’t see public school instruction as any different. Maybe if the instruction is unwanted, as is often the case in a compulsory system, inspiration is all you have to offer.

    Sheri, “I believe it’s probably because you need a paid babysitter for kids while their parents are at work, so you might as well disguise it as “education”. It sounds so much better that way.” Really? You must be aware that the school system is compulsory or maybe you forgot the smiley face. A good history of the development of compulsory education in world history was written by Rothbard. The reasons are not what you might think. It can be downloaded for free at:


  7. Scotian,

    If you really believe that there IS enough time in public education to properly cover all the material in the available time then as an exercise read “1775: A Good Year for a Revolution,” by Kevin Phillips. That puts the soon-to-be USA’s Revolutionary War’s reasons for occurring into proper perspective. It’s nothing like anything we were, or could have been, taught in school, which only has time for superficially touching on so many topics–just enough to convey the idea.

    On another theme, consider what this dumbing-down of public education is doing–dumbing down our citizens. Compare & contrast that with “The Revolt Against Civilization; the Menace of the Under Man,” (http://www.amazon.com/Revolt-Against-Civilization-Lothrop-Stoddard/dp/1471051773/ref=pd_ybh_2 ). Written in 1922 this work analyzes how civilizations thru-out history have failed for much the same fundamental reason–too civilized and too many deadbeats can freeload & bring things crashing down. Note that the author, then, attributed the human decline to genetics (making this one of the precursor works to eugenics…). Even so, one can ignore that and mentally substitute the modern equivalents and the future still looks basically the same….

  8. Ken, I’m not sure what you are trying to say now. Originally it was in reference to the increased complexity of modern society limiting topic coverage, but now you are referring to a lack of coverage of the American rebellion. What has one got to do with the other? You can not be suggesting that a proper education consists of the mastering in an individual of all of human knowledge, so it must be something else. What? Also, what does “properly cover” mean?

    Your link appears to have a similar theme to one that I posted a few days ago on eugenics and dis-eugenics (repeated here for convenience). It is short enough to read quickly. I have followed it by a classic science fiction coverage of the same topic, which I haven’t read yet, but have heard of.


    Out of curiosity, what is the modern equivalent to genetics?

  9. My mother, aunt, grandmother and great aunt all had Masters or PhD’s in Education, and were teachers. I have one sister that is a lawyer and one that is a geologist (I’m an architect). I was raised in an affluent family and went to the best public school in the state and yet… and yet… K-12 education in this country is a joke. Didn’t learn a damn thing. Most of what I learned I learned from reading on my own or in college.

    The entire K-12 educational system in this country is just about worthless — and has been for some time (I’m 45, so this is nothing new).

    I once heard someone say that America creates the stupidest 18 year old’s on the planet, but the smartest 30 year old’s.

    Scrap the whole system, I say. Nothing but government funded day care.

  10. Maybe it would be a good idea to examine the goals of those who designed this system? For example, Woodrow Wilson addressed a teacher’s colleges graduating class as follows:

    “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

    Or William Torey Harris, who was US Commissioner of Education at the turn of the last century, said:

    “Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”

    What if the goal of schooling isn’t really education? Was there some sort of Great Educational Apostasy, where the leaders of modern schooling rejected the vision of everybody who went before, from Fichte to Mann to Dewey down to the present day? Or are our schools just now getting around to effectively doing what they were always designed to do?

  11. Perhaps it’s time to put the Prussian model of education in the grave where it belongs with the rest of the trash heap of 20th century collectivism. What is “3rd grade” anyway but a construct that thinks that all 7 year olds have the same educational needs and abilities?

    Or perhaps it was never about educating individuals at all, but indoctrinating them into the collective.

    “in the high school halls, in the shopping malls, conform or be cast out…”

  12. I love this point Jim “I once heard someone say that America creates the stupidest 18 year old’s on the planet, but the smartest 30 year old’s.” The school system produces so much busy work that only when you leave can you find the time to actually learn something. All the knowledge is out there, waiting for you. And yes Nate West, see Rothbard. Meanwhile on the college front:


  13. Ye Olde Statisician

    January 14, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    The teacher said she was resigned, not that she had resigned. The adjective means “submissive, full of resignation.”

  14. “Clifford Stroll.” Guess again.

  15. In my opinion the government schools have become nothing less than a government propaganda apparatus.


  16. “in the high school halls, in the shopping malls, conform or be cast out…”

    Dude, you and I oughta have coffee. RUSH RULE

  17. “in the high school halls, in the shopping malls, conform or be cast out…”

    Dude, you and I oughta have coffee. RUSH!

  18. This is an interesting lecture about ignorance in science(not what it sounds like:)). He talks a little about robots trying to walk and the olfactory system being able to tell the difference between molecules which resonates with the other discussions about machine intelligence.

    However, at the end he discussed the educational system and has some things to say about learning vs. testing.


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