'Stupid in America' -- Viewer Q&A

In his special report on public education, "Stupid in America," John Stossel speaks with author Jay Greene, author of "Education Myths: What Special Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools and Why It Isn't So."

In his book, Greene takes on the conventional wisdom that pouring more money into public schools leads to improved education. Citing national statistics on education expenditures, Greene argues that inadequate spending is not the problem behind poorly performing schools and students.

Below, Greene responds to questions from viewers who tuned in to Stossel's special report.

Larry McGlasson:

An often heard argument is that "charter" or private schools just take the best students, so that leaves public schools with the more difficult students -- behaviorally and academically. Is that an accurate argument? If not, what are the real facts?

Jay P. Greene:

The evidence suggests that academic achievement of students in public schools actually improves when those schools are faced with greater choice and competition from private or charter schools. Clive Belfield and Henry Levin at Columbia University's Teachers College conducted a systematic examination of the evidence and after reviewing more than 200 analyses they conclude that "a sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes, with many reporting statistically significant correlations. … The above evidence shows reasonably consistent evidence of a link between competition (choice) and education quality. Increased competition and higher educational quality are positively correlated." Rather than draining public schools of talent and resources, hindering their ability to improve, it appears that choice and competition improve the quality of public schools by providing them with stronger motivation to attend to the needs of their students in order to retain and attract those students and the revenues they generate.

Pat in Palm Harbor, Fla.:

So WHAT is the answer? What can we do? This is appalling!


Improving a large and complicated organization, like our school system, is never an easy or quick task. There is, however, strong evidence to suggest that we need to focus on providing schools with stronger incentives to use their resources effectively and improve the quality of education. In general, incentive-based reforms come in two types: choice and accountability. We can strengthen the incentive of schools and educators to offer a quality education by expanding choice and competition, which will pressure them to figure out ways to improve or risk losing students and the revenue they generate. We can also strengthen accountability systems to reward schools and educators for excellent work that improves the quality of education while sanctioning them for inferior work. We've just started pursuing these reform strategies seriously but can do much more along these lines.

Heather Lambert-Shemo in Lakewood, Ohio:

Why aren't parents being held accountable for their child's education? I'm appalled listening to this woman talk about how her 18-year-old son cannot read. I'm not a teacher, but I firmly believe that it is a parent's responsibility to ensure that his/her child is getting the most out of their education … and reinforcing all lessons at home.

Of course, parents and communities have responsibilities to contribute to education, but that does not absolve schools and educators from their responsibilities. Similarly, people ought to avoid unhealthy behaviors, but we still expect doctors and medicines to make a difference with our health whether we do all that we should or not. The question is whether schools and educators are contributing to the educational achievement of students as they should or not. We can't expect schools or educators to replace the responsibility of parents but we can expect them to make a difference.

Judy Jones in Moncks Corner, S.C.:

Seems to me that "20/20" was showing only the good side of school choice. What happens to those students whose parents don't participate in their education?

See my answer to Larry McGlasson.

Allan Scruggs in Tempe, Ariz.:

If competition between schools were increased through a school-voucher-type system, would every parent really have the same level of choice regarding their schools, or would less-advantaged families be trapped in schools that would receive less and less funding as better-off families flocked to private schools? Also, a major complaint that people have about a voucher system is that it opens the door for public funding of religiously based schools. Is there a way to avoid that, or a way that tension can be reconciled?


It is important to remember that as things currently stand we have unequal access to school choice. More advantaged families can move to areas with desired schools or purchase a private school tuition with their own resources. The question is not whether we should have school choice or not, since we already have it to some extent (even if what we have is inequitably distributed and inefficient to access). The real question is to what extent and how we might want to expand access to school choice. While not everyone may benefit equally from such expansions of school choice, with voucher or charter programs, people will have more choices than they had before.

You also raise an interesting question about public funding of religiously affiliated schools. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this question in the Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris case in which they ruled that it was permissible under the U.S. Constitution for families to use publicly-funded vouchers to attend religiously affiliated schools. The reasoning of the court was that the state was not "establishing" or endorsing religion as long as parents were free to use their vouchers at the secular or religious institution of their own choosing without state coercion. Similarly, we make Pell Grants available to college students that they could use at any college or university of their own choosing -- public or private, religious or secular. As long as the state is supporting the secular interest in education and leaves it to individuals to decide where they will get that education, the state is remaining neutral regarding religion.

Ann FabricEngle in Paradise Valley, Ariz.:

I am a public school teacher in an affluent neighborhood in Scottsdale. My eighth-grade students cannot all read at grade level. They cannot all write an essay with proper punctuation and paragraphs. I was one of the lucky ones who could send my three children to an excellent private school. What can I do to get the American public and my fellow teachers to jump on the bandwagon and support competition among public schools?


I think choice and competition among schools have some significant potential benefits for teachers. Schools would have stronger incentives to identify and recruit excellent teachers and reward them more handsomely for their excellence. Of course, weaker teachers would have less interest in expanding choice and competition because they may lose their jobs or have their pay reduced by schools working harder to compete. Choice might also increase the diversity of schools and how schools are operated. This ought to be attractive to teachers by allowing them to find schools that better fit their own style and educational philosophy.

Katherine in Haverhill writes:

I was wondering how you think the teacher student ratio affects learning in the schools. I have found that the classrooms are smaller in the charter and specialty schools than in the public schools and have always felt that makes a big difference. Do you believe this is true?


There is high quality evidence from a pilot program in Tennessee that students in smaller classes tend to do better than those in larger classes, all else being equal. The trouble is that when we have tried class-size reduction as a policy on a larger scale all else is not equal. The experience from broad-based class size reduction efforts has not been very good and the costs have been quite large. When we adopt broad policies to reduce class size we force schools to go on teacher hiring binges to staff all of the new, smaller classrooms. Schools then have to dip deeper into the labor market to find more teachers, which dilutes the quality of the teachers we have. This reduction in the average quality of teachers offsets the benefit of having smaller classes. Asking people about whether they would like smaller classes is like asking people whether they would like to have a personal chef. It sounds great until you realize that providing a chef for everyone means that instead of getting Emeril, as you might have hoped, you'll probably get the fry-guy from the burger joint.

And it costs a significant amount to do this -- a one-third reduction in average class size requires a roughly one-third increase in per pupil spending. It is also important to note that we have been pursuing class-size reduction for decades with nothing to show for the effort and expense. In 1971 we had more than 22 students for each teacher. Today we only have 15 students per teacher. While student-teacher ratios are not the same as average class size since teachers spend part of their day in planning periods and other non-classroom assignments, this shows that we have already been going on a teacher hiring binge nationwide over the last few decades, which partially explains why education spending has gone up so much. And yet student achievement has not gone up over this time.

Jim Andrus in Lubbock, Texas:

I'm an elementary school principal. What do you say about school being more than just academics. What about the data proven benefits of fine arts -- individual excelling opportunities for students gifted in specific areas?

Please point out that all public schools are not inept as you are spotlighting.

I agree that we care about more than just math and reading skills (although those basic skills are fundamental to success later in life). We may have a variety of goals for our children's education, including art, music, history, science, civics, etc. … One of the potential benefits of expanding school choice is that it would expand the diversity of schools available to families, allowing them to find the schools with the mix of skills that they think would best serve the diverse needs of their children.

And I hope nothing I have said in this e-mail chat, on the "20/20" show, in my book, or elsewhere would lead people to think that all public schools are inept. Some are excellent. In fact, I attended superb public schools in suburban Chicago, including New Trier High School. The problem is that achievement for the average public school student has been stagnant for at least three decades while per pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, has doubled. We can't be content with the fact that some are being well-served when the average are not and the most disadvantaged are being very poorly served.

Rachel Poore in Crestview, Fla.:

I am a teacher working with "at risk" kids -- high and middle school. Money is not the answer -- more enthusiastic and better trained teachers are what is called for. Because of low pay, education attracts people who are incompetent and college ed programs that are not demanding.


I agree with much of what you say, but it is important to have a proper perspective on teacher pay. On an hourly basis -- including all hours that teachers work at home or in the school -- teacher pay is better than many other professionals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average elementary school teacher in 2002 made about $31 per hour excluding benefits. That's more than the hourly wage of the average accountant, biologist, or chemist and just less than the average dentist and nuclear scientist. It's true that on an annual basis teacher salaries look less attractive, averaging about $45,000 per year in 2002. But it's important to take into account that, on average, teachers work many fewer hours than do other professionals. Fewer hours is a significant benefit, allowing teachers more time for leisure or other employment to supplement their income.

Raising teacher pay wouldn't hurt the quality of the people we draw to teaching, but we might do this more efficiently by also increasing the number of hours worked or by concentrating the increased pay on those teachers who demonstrate that they are more effective teachers. Let's pay excellent teachers more.

Tom Moore in Bridgewater, Mass.:

Do well-paid teachers perform better than poorly paid teachers, and if so, is it worth giving the money to the teachers and not to other expenditures like texts and computers, etc.?

The show "Stupid in America" says that U.S. students are on par with the international community during the elementary years. What happens after that?


Unfortunately, teacher pay in most places is not based on the extent to which teachers contribute to improvements in student achievement. Instead of having pay for performance, we have pay for persistence, where we pay teachers more simply for being employed longer. After the first year or two of teaching there does not seem to be any significant contribution to student learning from having more experienced teachers. So, under our current system better paid teachers are not necessarily any better than lower paid teachers. If we were to adopt merit pay systems that all could change.

John Unverferth in Portland, Ore.:

After changing my major a few times and reflecting on what it was I wanted to do with my life, I have decided on elementary education. I have only my student teaching left before I graduate with my teaching license. … What is the most important thing you feel my colleagues and I can do? I would love to read your book, but haven't yet had the chance. If you are a former teacher how do you stay positive in the face of negativity and sometimes lack of support?

I hope that reading my book, "Education Myths," might help give you a better understanding of the evidence on major education policy issues. At the very least, I hope it gets you to think about evidence more when making educational decisions. Education is not nearly as evidence-based as health care, but it should be.

Despite all of our challenges I remain optimistic about prospects for education reform. I have confidence that in education, as in other fields, evidence eventually matters and ineffective practices whither and effective ones prosper. We have just been slower in making educational progress in part because we have been obsessed with increasing educational spending without thinking about how we can provide schools and educators stronger incentives to use those dollars more effectively. Eventually people tire of continuing spending more without seeing better results and they will shift their attention to the more important and productive issue of incentives.