Our Failing Public Education System

The Wake County School system, and public education in the U.S. in general, is failing our students, and here is a snippet, from a mom’s perspective, of why:

The curriculum completely ignores geography – at no point in my own children’s time in elementary or middle school, have they been asked to even learn the states in the United States or their capitals.  How can we be expected to understand or compete in a global society when our students don’t even know where anything is, or have a concept of their place within the world overall?

The curriculum ignores basic tenets of social studies.  For example, kids aren’t taught the difference between a town, a city, a county, a state, or how our society works.  My kids were never even taught how to properly address an envelope.  But they learned economic theory in 3rd grade – the difference between goods and services.  Because every third grader should know that.

Correct spelling isn’t emphasized at all.  I was told by an elementary school teacher that students were encouraged to focus on writing a story and they weren’t corrected for spelling because doing so would interrupt their creativity.  They said spelling would be taught later.  It never was.  It’s still not corrected on my kids’ assignments.

Critical thinking isn’t taught.  Much ado is made about teaching multiple methods of solving a math problem in elementary school to ensure that students “get it” by one method, if another doesn’t work. And kids are assessed on their reading based on their deeper comprehension.  But that’s it, and it’s only in elementary school.   Since my kids have been in middle school, they haven’t written a single critical essay on anything they’ve read.  Maybe they discuss it as a class, but they aren’t asked to individually think about, anything, write their thoughts, and prove their theory.  They haven’t moved beyond the five paragraph structure.  My oldest child can solve a math problem based solely on memorizing an algebraic formula, but she doesn’t understand the deeper concept of why she’s solving the problem, or why the formula works to solve the problem.  There is no practical application taught for anything they’re learning.  They (might) learn or memorize the problem, but if they don’t understand why they’re learning it, what’s the point?

While our students sit in school for six hours, merely brushing the surface of the topics of language arts, social studies, science and math, educators are all the while debating the merits of limited grading and how to improve self esteem.  Every base class in high school is now labeled an “honors” class.    Students are allowed to join academic honor societies not because they’ve worked hard , shown a passion for the particular subject, and excelled beyond the expectation.  No – these aren’t requirements at all.  They must only have a B average and want to join.  High schools with 60% proficiency in the core subjects and a dismal number of students achieving a satisfactory score on the ACT test are somehow also graduating 97% of their students and patting themselves on the back for it.  Schools are eliminating the identification of a valedictorian at graduation because the competition is just too stress-inducing and fierce.

There’s a lot wrong with this picture and I wonder how we devolved into this state of things in a relatively short period of time.  I’m all for trying to find a way to help lower performing students achieve, but I don’t agree with this dumbing down of the education system, this pushing everyone to the middle, and that is what is happening here.  I’d like to say it’s happening just in Wake County, but I’m hearing from family in Maryland that the situation is the same there, too.  In fact, it’s happening at the college level as well.  Professors are being pressured to give students higher grades, so as not to tick off parents, risk damaging the school’s reputation, and see enrollments drop.

I believe there are many culprits:  A generation of parents whose children, in their opinion, can do no wrong, helicopter parenting, local school boards and state legislatures that are too interested in the next fad in education, an overly litigious society, and the elevation of importance attached to financial gain over doing the right thing.

As a parent, I worry that I’m doing my kids an injustice in sending them to public school.  I wonder what I can do to effect change for all students and I wonder what, exactly, is wrong with challenging kids?  I understand the appeal of homeschooling and am drawn to the idea of it, while also realizing the inherent dangers associated with it.

I do believe that a lack of education is truly a danger to democracy and I believe we can’t just send our kids to school anymore and assume the school is doing a good enough job of educating them, because it’s not.  And while I like to think I’ll have time to fill in the gaps in my kids’ learning through outside enrichment activities, at home discussion of a wide variety of topics, and travel, that hasn’t happened as much as I’d like because life gets in the way.  And besides, most people don’t have the time, money, or resources to supplement in this way.  And they shouldn’t have to, if public education was effective.  Unfortunately, in its current state, it’s not.






Categories: This and That, Wake County Public Schools

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8 replies

  1. I really appreciate your honesty here. My oldest in in third grade and I am looking forward to middle school with very mixed feelings. I did some quick research and learned that you are not alone in noting the absence of the states and their capitals in school: http://www.creativityinthemodernclassroom.com/2015/08/has-teaching-us-states-and-capitals-disappeared/

    Here in Texas, we have seen schools who perform at very high academic levels eliminate the valedictorian and even class ranking because they find it negatively impacts the students’ acceptance into college. (for reference, I currently live in the Lake Travis School District which neighbors the Eanes ISD and Austin ISD) The students in our district that I’ve spoken with report doing homework until midnight many nights each week.
    Another change worth noting is that colleges are starting to reject AP courses and tests. I’ve learned from our college-aged nieces and nephews that these leave students woefully unprepared for a 102 level class.

    We are considering a move to NC and I have been following the Wake County school district for some time. In particular, I am interested in the GT offering. Unlike Texas, children are allowed to work above grade level and participate in the gifted program in the schools I’ve talked with. Here, GT is only intended as enrichment. There are no accelerated programs offered.


    • Hi there. It’s interesting to hear about how other school districts compare to ours in regard to things like the valedictorian status and GT. Wake County has just recently done away with valedictorian status altogether, and now recognizes academic achievement in a similar manner to college – cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude… I’m not necessarily opposed to this change, since there’s often only 1/10th of a percentage point that designated who got valedictorian status. As for GT in Wake County – it is called AiG (academically and intellectually gifted) here, and how it’s handled is specific to each individual elementary and middle school. Essentially, students are tested in third grade and identified students begin receiving services in fourth grade. But the level of services offered varies with the school based on the principal’s priorities and budgetary constraints. Some AiG teachers are only part-year; some are full-year. Some schools offer accelerated learning as early as 1st and 2nd grade. There is also single subject acceleration in which students who take a SSA test at the end of the school year and pass with I think 80% or better, can skip a year of math or language arts (not both). It’s usually math. Accelerated learning opportunity is beneficial in elementary school in that it identifies your child for future opportunities, and does allow for advanced math, but outside of elementary school, I don’t feel there’s a big benefit. By middle school, your child is either in 6th grade math, 6+ math (6th / 7th grade), or 7+ math (7th/8th grade math/algebra) in which they take math with a 7th grade class (only if they’ve passed that single subject acceleration test, usually in 4th or 5th grade, and have already been taking accelerated math). Accelerated math students who start 6th grade taking 7+ math, often end up taking Math 1 (Algebra 1) in 7th grade with the 8th grade class, and Math 2 (Algebra 2) in 8th grade, but often Math 2 is video-based because the schools don’t have funding to have a math 2 teacher employed at the middle school level. There is an AiG teacher in the middle schools but again, the level of service varies very much by school, and is also impacted by whether it’s a year-round or traditional school. Year-round schools have essentially 4 tracks per grade (12 total) that the AiG teacher must get to throughout the quarter to provide AiG services to and often that means an AiG identified student only sees the AiG teacher one week or perhaps two out of the 9-week quarter. I would say, if you ever do decide to move to NC, to focus on Wake County, or Chapel Hill Schools. If Wake County, the Cary, Apex, and Morrisville areas seem to have the best performing schools in the county. Wake County has a lot going on and that can be good and bad. There are traditional schools, year-round schools, magnet schools, and charter schools, and lots of ongoing controversy about student assignment. The population is growing so fast, they are constantly building schools and then shuffling students around to fill them. Plus, having both year-round and traditional calendar schools, plus modified calendar schools (for the charters), presents a logistical nightmare in many ways.


  2. Thanks so much for your information and insights, they are very helpful! It is interesting to consider the AiG offering at year-round vs. traditional schools. It did not occur to me that they would be different! I have noticed the differences in performance in Cary/Apex/Morrisville schools. How much of their funding comes from the local resources vs. the state? How are the Wake Forest area schools? What else should I watch out for?
    As far as spelling goes, we have a similar situation here. I spent about 10 years working in educational publishing and did quite a bit of work building literacy products. The emphasis on phonics varied widely and I have seen that in school with my children as well. Based on my countless discussions with reading experts from the field, phonics is the crux of good spelling and gets unnecessarily glossed over. I have had several conversations with my son’s first and second grade teachers about the spelling work lists (research tells us these are essentially useless) and how structuring them around a phonics lesson could be beneficial. In our family, I have my older son teaching my younger son phonics so that both of them benefit.
    You may also be interested to know that here in Texas, teachers have an additional day of testing to become Texas certified because we have a heavy emphasis on Texas states history. In addition, children say a separate pledge of alliegance to the state of Texas nearly every morning. (I am not a native Texan by any stretch and it kind of makes me cringe) Notable is that NC has the highest percentage of teachers who are nationally certified! FWIW http://www.nbpts.org/sites/default/files/certification_2015/2015_staterankings_all_nbcts_percent_of_teaching_population.pdf


    • It’s my opinion that Cary, Apex and Morrisville schools are closer to the Research Triangle Park and have a high percentage of students whose parents work in RTP – these are highly educated families, many of them in computer and biology industries, that take an extraordinary interest in their children’s education and are very involved in the schools. They have strong PTA’s. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of parents around Wake County who don’t take a similar interest – just that there’s a higher concentration in those towns. All of these towns are encompassed within the WCPSS school system – it’s a very large district. Wake County supplements funding for the schools over what the state provides, which is good. I do believe there needs to be more commonality between all of WCPSS schools in terms of what educational opportunities are presented. As I said, it seems that many schools vary based on the principal. It depends very much on what the principal sees as priority within their particular school and how they choose to allocate their funds. I will also note that the average Wake County principal is in place at a given school only an average of 5 years. They are shuffled around a lot, which I don’t like because it never allows a school a chance to develop a solid program. New principal, new priorities. Wake does have a lot of excellent teachers, many of whom are board certified. But, again, good teachers follow good principals. I would do a lot of research on the principals – how long they’ve been at the school, how teachers feel about the school environment (they fill out an annual, anonymous survey and the results are available publicly online), what schools they oversaw before and how those schools performed under their tenure. A couple of other notes … regarding spelling – my experience has not been one in which spelling or phonics has been emphasized. Everything here is about reading comprehension, and middle school does spend an inordinate amount of time going over word stems, but I have not personally seen a great deal of emphasis on spelling. State history – North Carolina used to require students to do a project in 5th grade I think that was year long in which the students researched the state’s history but I believe that’s gone away. Finally, Wake County offers so many options for schools but there are a lot of restrictions in place that go along with it. For example, you usually have a base school which is either year-round or traditional, and then an alternate calendar option. So if your base in year-round but you’d rather have your child in traditional, you can apply for the traditional calendar option school for your address. There are magnet schools, but Wake is currently evaluating existing magnet schools, and adding and removing programs and not all magnets are available to all people – it’s based on your address. If you apply to a magnet school and your child gets in, that is your school – you do not have much of an option to change your mind. And while there is usually some sort of transportation provided to the magnet school, your child may be on a bus for quite a long time. Charter schools are also prevalent, but you provide your own transportation. There are year-round elementary and middle schools, but not high schools. If you have multiple children, be prepared for the possibility of a high school student in traditional calendar and an elementary student in the same family on year-round. Finally, finally – Wake County doesn’t utilize textbooks. This may be the case everywhere across the country – I don’t know. But we have no textbooks. Teachers use worksheets. Some of the material may be provided by Wake County, some of it they find online…


  3. I had read about the budgetary decision to eliminate textbooks. If felt like it was disguised as a decision to embrace technology. How does that play out in elementary school? Do the children have access to an online textbook? Are they used? Do the children have access to tablets/laptops/desktops? How frequently? How do parents know what is being taught? We make good use of our online textbooks at home as our children are not allowed to take textbooks home. While my opinion is likely biased as a former producer of online textbooks, I think they can be really great if they are set up and used properly by the school. But it still feels weird to not have them at all.


    • In elementary school, kids do not have any online textbooks. They do have access to several computers in the classroom, and there are tablets that are brought around to the classes. I think they’re working toward having permanent technology for all students. And the teachers utilize blackboard in each class. The teachers are good about communicating the weekly curriculum in elementary school via paper handouts and email. In middle school, all teachers have online presence and many put up their homework assignments, study resources, tutorials, etc. so there’s lots of resources available to students at all times. Some WCPSS middle and high schools have BYOD – kids are allowed to bring and use their own phones and tablets in school for access as part of a class lesson, and I think all schools will eventually be on board with that. But to my knowledge, there is not one specific online textbook that’s used. Teachers make use of various educator online resources for sure, but no one specific source to pull from. Again, this is my perspective – a WCPSS teacher may have more accurate insight as to the actual resources they are using.


  4. Dear Susan, Thank you so much for this post – I concur with every word. In the past five or six years (out of 30 years of teaching college), my writing classes have all become remedial writing. I don’t exaggerate when I say that many of my students cannot correctly identify the verb in a sentence. It breaks my heart and makes me angry. I appreciate that you are voicing these concerns so passionately and eloquently. Best, Maggie


    • Thank you Maggie – I truly appreciate your thoughts on this subject, especially with your insight as a college professor. I feel the ability to communicate effectively is incredibly important and I just hate how our education system seems to be abandoning the concept, and so many others as well. I feel like there’s no depth to anything that’s being taught at the public school level and for a system that’s become so fixated on teaching to the test, kids ironically aren’t even testing that well! Ah well. Hope to see you next time we’re in B-More and we can discuss it in more depth 🙂


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