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If Our Schools Are So Bad, Why Are They Teaching This Stuff?


By now, thankfully, most people have come to the realization that the so-called “reform movement,” nominally dedicated to improving America’s public schools, is as bogus, misleading, and greed-driven as those tricked-out, bundled-up, sub-prime mortgages that almost sank Wall Street, and required a nearly trillion-dollar bailout from taxpayers.

Make no mistake. This well-coordinated effort to debase our schools is being fueled by (1) Republican anti-union forces who want to bust the teachers’ union, (2) entrepreneurs who see privatization as a potential gold mine, and (3) education mandarins and “consultants” who make their living peddling the view that our schools are in crisis.

Of course, all three groups blame the teachers and the teachers’ union for the mess we’re in, which, besides being vicious and duplicitous, is tantamount to blaming doctors for America’s obesity epidemic. (“Hey, you’re a doctor, aren’t you?? Then do something about all these fat people!!”)

Another thing most people probably realize is that there is an almost one-to-one correlation between bad, rundown, low-employment, high-crime neighborhoods and bad, low-achieving schools. Even though that correlation is a fact, the purveyors of public education horror stories continue to ignore it, and try, instead, to blame the teachers, accusing them of incompetence and apathy. Why? Because blaming teachers is so much easier than addressing those knotty sociological or economic problems.

But something that most people may not realize is that the curriculum being taught in those distressed inner city schools (where the percentage of students in foster care can be as high as 35-percent) is the exact same curriculum being taught in those affluent, stable, high-achieving school districts. Moreover, both sets of students take the exact same standardized tests to determine proficiency.

I asked a teacher in the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District), the second-largest school district in the U.S. (behind New York City), for some sample 5th grade math questions from the CST (California Standards Test). At the bottom of the page are five (5) actual math problems from that test.

Take a peek at them and ask yourself this question: If our schools used to be “good,” and are now “bad,” why do these math problems seem harder than the ones we had as 5th graders? I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t exposed to this material until the 7th grade. They’re also teaching the periodic table to inner-city 5th graders, which, I vividly recall, we didn’t learn until high school.

Another thing people may not realize is that the CST has no bearing on a student’s report card or whether he or she will be promoted to the next grade. You can bottom out on the CST and pay no price (hence the concern over a student’s incentive to do well on an “irrelevant” standardized test). The CST is used solely as a means of measuring overall proficiency….and, of course, as ammunition for attacks on public school teachers.

Here are those test questions. I did not include the most difficult problems because the most difficult ones used geometric figures, algebraic graphs, and truth tables, none of which, alas, I was able to format.

But if the material I did include is the kind of material 5th grade teachers expect students to know, then the standards of our “bad” schools are not only significantly higher than people realize, but the 5th grade today is significantly harder than it was when I was a kid, back in the days when our schools were “good.”

1. 15.12 ÷ 2.4 =

A. 0.513
B. 0.63
C. 5.13
D. 6.3

2. What value of p makes this equation true?

44×73 = 44×( p + 3)

A. 41
B. 47
C. 70
D. 73

3. c + 2.5
Which situation could be described by the expression above?

A. Lia jogged c miles yesterday, and 2.5 miles farther today.
B. Lia jogged c miles yesterday, and 2.5 miles fewer today.
C. Lia jogged 2.5 miles yesterday, and c miles fewer today.
D. Lia jogged 2.5 miles yesterday, and c times as far today.

4. What is the prime factorization of 36?

A. 2-squared  ×3-squared
B. 2-squared ×3-cubed
C. 4×3-squared
D. 4×9

5. Javier bought 9 pounds of ground beef. He saved $8.37 by using a store coupon. How much did he save per pound of ground beef?

A. $0.89
B. $0.93
C. $1.08
D. $75.33

Answers: 1. D, 2. C, 3. A, 4. A, 5. B

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former union rep. He can be reached at

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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