The American Educational System: Not Really All That

In many ways, Georgians seem to idolize America. I benefit directly from the perception that America is great – after all, it’s one of the main reasons why we’ve all been invited here to teach English – however, I do not necessarily share this perspective, especially when it comes to education. The American educational system sucks, and if you pay attention to the news, you probably have some idea of how bad the problem is.

But bizarrely, it often seems that everyone here in Georgia has implicitly accepted the idea that Americans know better when it comes to things like educational policy. I personally have said that we are here partially to bring Western ideas and attitudes to Georgian education, and I stand by that statement, but it’s important to draw the distinction between Americans as possessing valuable outside perspectives and Americans as possessing some kind of special education expertise. It’s always beneficial to exchange ideas with people from different backgrounds, but the benefits are lessened when one or both sides approach the exchange with preconceptions about which perspective is superior.


One of the first things I realized about talking to Georgians about America is that they don’t respond well to my criticizing America in any way. It’s hard to describe exactly what the reaction is, but I think the closest is embarrassment. I think that by complaining about my own country to foreigners, I am (according to the rules of Georgian culture) shaming myself and most Georgians would never dream of participating in my shame by agreeing with me or even really acknowledging what I’ve just said. For the most part if I have anything negative to say about America, Georgians seem nervous, or confused, or embarrassed, and do everything they can to allow me to rethink my statement and correct my enormous faux pas before it gets tacitly acknowledged and reified.

Still, when I got to Georgia, the flaws in the USA stood out for me much more than the merits, and so I found myself avoiding talking about America. For the first time in my life, actually, I began to observe the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” rule, which I had previously despised and ignored but which has since served me very well. And the peculiar thing is that most of the TLG people that I met here basically agreed with me about the problems in America – that the economy and job market were both terrible, and that the existence of a tiny class of people who profited from making the economy terrible in an enragingly unfair aspect of American society; that political discourse in the US is designed to appeal to the basest elements of the psyche and has thus become basically a giant room full of idiots shouting nonsense at each other for no real purpose; and that our politicians and our political system itself seemed to be failing us – whereas most Georgians that I’ve met here basically idealize America to the extent that I don’t even recognize the country that they are describing when they talk about America.

At School 51, the focus tends to be on education, rather than on politics or economics. My coteachers like to ask me what education is like in America. I think they want me to say that the students are all disciplined and smart and respectful (they aren’t) so that the students will believe that if they are disciplined and smart and respectful enough, Georgia can become modernized like America.

It’s nice to have something to aspire to, I guess. In Georgia, America is perceived as a rich and modern country. Most of what the Georgian people know about America is from movies and television, and, I suspect, from a certain subset of movies and television. And in many ways, America is rich and modern, but as I’ve complained about above, the wealth is mostly concentrated at the top.

I went to school in New York City – a city with roughly twice the population of the entire country of Georgia. There were poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods, and schools tended to vary in quality with the affluence of the neighborhoods they were in. So-called “inner-city” schools in poor neighborhoods were chronically underfunded, couldn’t retain teachers, had no textbooks, and suffered from serious social problems like drugs, violence, teen pregnancy, lack of parental involvement, and a general overall sense of futility. There were apparently also good schools in good neighborhoods, but for the most part, I don’t know anything about these. Then there were the specialized schools – the charter schools, magnet schools, and the elite public high schools that you had to apply to like a college to get into. These tended to be very well-funded, but in my experience, even these had their share of problems.

When I was in elementary school – in a solidly middle-class neighborhood in Queens – we had asbestos removal teams going through the school pulling out insulation that had been demonstrated to cause a number of severe lung diseases. We had two types of emergency drills: fire drills, in which an alarm went off and we all had to evacuate the school via the nearest exit in an orderly fashion; and air-raid drills, in which a different alarm went off and we all had to get under our desks and sit in the fetal position with our arms over our heads. Students were divided into two classes: the “smart” class and the “dumb” class. The “dumb” class had severe discipline problems and the teachers generally had no control over the class whatsoever, so basically students who had performed poorly on an IQ test – a measure of questionable merit – never really ended up learning anything.

In Junior High School – grades 6-8 – I went to a special magnet school (The Louis Armstrong Middle School) that was created to promote diversity by bringing students from all over Queens – the most diverse county in America – to study together. Apparently it is considered one of the best public middle schools in New York. What I remember is being bullied relentlessly because, again, the school had absolutely no mechanism for providing meaningful student discipline, and a large percentage of the teachers were incompetent or desensitized or apathetic. There was a sharp contrast between teachers would could control a classroom and teachers who either could not or chose not to.

Finally, my High School was like a fairyland. One of the top schools in New York, you had to test to get into it, etc. It was well-funded and had a new modern building to house it, with ten floors, escalators to move students, modern biology, chemistry, physics, electronics, robotics, ceramics, and photography labs, a swimming pool, two gyms, a dance studio, and god knows what else.

Still, like every high school in America, mine had some problems with things like drugs and alcohol and there was a subset of the school population – a solid two to four percent – who were just serious hardcore stoners, who experimented with harder drugs, who went to school basically as a way to hang out with their stoner friends in a warm, friendly environment. The school administration had a tendency to look the other way, and we always suspected that it was because they didn’t want to damage the school’s reputation. I watched a number of my friends fall prey to drug addiction. Some got past it. Some did not. My point is that American society can’t protect its children from drugs, that there are people who are perfectly willing to sell heroin and LSD to thirteen and fourteen year olds, and that this is a systemic problem that I witnessed as a teenager in the best public school in New York.

I’ve been very privileged to go to these schools – LAMS and Stuy – that offered a top-notch education, for free. I was privileged to be exposed to the diversity of ideas and people, privileged to have classes available at higher levels, so that I could, for example, complete my college-level math requirements by 11th grade. And despite my privilege, I still feel like the problems that I encountered at these schools left me deeply scarred.

Most Americans are not nearly as privileged as I was. Most Americans went to schools that did not offer top-notch education. By the time I got to college, I already knew enough math (everything up through integral calculus with analytic geometry) that I’d never have to take another math class again if I didn’t want to. My college, though, offered classes like “Algebra for College Students” which was for students who managed to graduate from high school and get accepted into college while somehow managing to have never learned basic algebra.

I won’t recount every single failure of the American educational system. It’s been all over the news this year that American students are performing badly on math, reading, and science tests when compared to the rest of the developed world. When I think about my experience going through the public school system, and then realize that I was one of the luckiest students in that system, it seems to me that American education is failing on a massive scale.

There’s no way to sort good teachers from bad teachers. Student discipline is a joke. There are metal detectors in many public schools to keep students from bringing knives and guns to school. Drug dealers target kids who are barely through puberty. Bullying goes completely unchecked and results in teen suicides and shooting sprees. It’s not just about test scores – for many students, just surviving public education is a dangerous and painful daily struggle.

And so when my coteachers ask me to tell my classes about America, I try to be honest – School 51 seems roughly comparable to the schools I went to in the US, which means that to me it seems like it’s better than the average American public school. I know the grass is always greener on the other side, and I know that as an outsider and a newcomer I haven’t seen everything yet, and certainly not from a student’s perspective – but it seems to me that while School 51 has fewer resources and academic opportunities than the schools I went to as a teenager, it also has fewer social problems that interfere with the learning process.

And generally, my coteachers seem not to believe me. The Hollywood factor is too strong. I wish I could explain that my high school was more like MTV’s Skins than Saved by the Bell. Like I said, to Georgians, America seems like a magical ivory tower of goodness.


I don’t have all the answers. I doubt that I could fix the American education system. So, I try to approach the Georgian education system with a little bit of humility. Yes, I work with coteachers who run their classrooms differently than I would run mine. Yes, it is occasionally frustrating that the process of disciplining students, choosing course materials, or evaluating students is obscure rather than transparent to me. And yet, I also know that successful education is tricky. It’s a combination of factors inside and outside of the classroom, and as an outsider and a newcomer I’m only really connected to very few of those factors. I have a lot to contribute – especially as one of the rare people who managed to actually get a really good education out of the American education system – but I also have a lot to learn.

I guess that’s why frustrates me a little when TLG volunteers think they have all the answers, or think that they know better than their Georgian counterparts, or are overly critical of Georgian education in general. If it’s frustrating for you to teach without modern textbooks, without chalk, without heat, for one or two semesters, how do you think it feels to teach that way for twenty or thirty years? Georgian teachers have been providing Georgians with education for decades and have developed methods of teaching – and coping – that are adapted to the realities of teaching in Georgia. We come here from the Western world with teaching methods adapted to having the resources available in America and other modernized nations, and then we complain because we can’t (and Georgians don’t) teach the way we are accustomed to. It just seems so arrogant and shortsighted.

And I guess part of the problem is that people didn’t necessarily know what to expect. TLG occupies this weird in-between space which is actually very typical of Georgia. Georgia is in between Asia and Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Georgia is in between ancient traditions and modern aspirations, between third-world style subsistence agriculture and first-world trade and financial developments. So it’s only fitting that TLG is somewhere in between a volunteer teaching position like you’d find in Latin America and a paid ESL teaching position like the ones in Korea. Volunteers are in between helping to develop new educational techniques and build new community structures for education, and trying to integrate into existing teaching structures and defer to coteachers and school administrators.

But now the information is out there. It’s here, it’s on the recruiting agency forums, and I expect soon it will make it to the new TLG forums. Now people should know what to expect – Georgia is a developing country, and you’re going to teach English in an environment that is potentially resource-poor with teachers and students who potentially have never met a native speaker.


I’ve let this post get really, really long, and a little preachy. I apologize for that. I guess my point is that nearly everyone I speak to here – whether it’s Georgians who long for the resources that they think all American schools have, or Americans who wish that their job was a little more like what they were used to in the US – seems to have the opinion that if only schools in Georgia were more like schools in America, everything would be better. I disagree.

The American model, simply put, fails most of its students. Whether it’s the students whose families can’t afford to live in neighborhoods near good schools, the students who go to good schools but fall prey to the social problems that run rampant in these largely unsupervised environments, or the students who go to average schools and get average grades and grow up to find that students in most of the rest of the modern world consistently outperform them on every measure of educational quality, most of the people who go to school in America end up basically getting screwed. American education basically needs to be completely rethought if American students are going to catch up to the rest of the world, but that will probably never happen, which is tragic, but then we all know that it’s military power and not education that keeps America running, so if Americans really want to succeed in the new world they’re probably better off turning out increasingly stupid and brutally violent youngsters anyway. After all, people with a real education are far less likely to sign up to go kill strangers in countries they’ve never heard of. I hear the US is going to war in Libya next…

So if not America, what should Georgians aspire to? Like I said, I don’t have all the answers. Like I said, education is a tricky formula that involves a lot more than just what happens in the classroom. The countries that beat America at education may have cultural or socioeconomic factors at work that neither America nor Georgia have, and in terms of overall attitude towards education, maybe America and Georgia are a better match than, for example, China and Georgia.

But right now, it seems like Georgia – with its massive educational reforms, its libertarian socialist model of school funding, and the political capital to continue to effect meaningful and substantive changes – is doing its own thing. Georgia isn’t trying to copy America or anyone else. To me, that’s really cool, and if it works, in twenty years other countries could be aspiring to have an educational system like Georgia’s.

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12 Responses to The American Educational System: Not Really All That

  1. Neal, what are the methods the Georgians use in their classrooms? and the Georgians English teachers? and how exactly are the English native speakers/teachers supposed to fit what is already in place?

    In what areas should they fit in and in what areas should they bring changes or new ideas?

    I think your post is clear about American schools but your description of the situation in Georgia is somewhat vague. Maybe everything about Georgia has been so vague so that the TLG teachers are just trying to make heads from tails.

    How exactly is the co-teaching supposed to work???


    • panoptical says:

      Well I don’t think there’s been a set directive from TLG about how exactly the coteaching is supposed to work, but it isn’t exactly rocket science. Ideally, coteachers should meet and plan how lessons are going to go and how responsibility will be divided. In my classes I find that my talents are best utilized in going over the homework and exercises while the Georgian teachers handle explanations of grammar and vocabulary. I also occasionally lead free speaking exercises, and sometimes I will teach the class a related or interesting bit of English. I tend to defer to coteachers on matters of discipline and grading, although I like to take the lead on correcting assignments.

      All of this seems totally logical to me. Georgian English teachers have specific training in English grammar and teaching English grammar, which means that they are better at articulating grammatical rules that for a native speaker would be completely intuitive and, thus, difficult to communicate. Georgian English teachers can also resort to Georgian or Russian to explain the meaning of a particular word (although I am increasingly able to do this myself). Meanwhile, I have a much better ear for catching mistakes than the Georgian teachers do. Also I find that Georgian teachers tend to miscorrect their students a lot (some teachers do it in every lesson) because they don’t have a broad enough knowledge of English to know when a usage that they weren’t expecting is actually correct.

      Of course, what seems logical and obvious to me may not work for other teachers. Everyone has a different style of teaching and different teaching strengths, and indeed I work slightly differently with each coteacher, and I know a lot of my fellow TLGers have totally different arrangements – some do nothing for half the lesson, then teach whatever they want for half the lesson while their coteacher does nothing, so that rather than team teaching they’re actually tag-team teaching. Others have not found ways to work effectively with their coteachers, so some end up doing nothing at all, and others end up teaching whole classes.

      I don’t know how well I can answer all your questions without writing an epic novel, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what I mean about how I coteach. I’ll continue writing about the subject as I have more time.


  2. Debates about educational policy and methodology have been and continue to be great arenas of debate in the ESL community. Foreign “experts” come in fresh out of college or older, observe for a bit, not entirely agree with how things are done, try to incorporate their own ideas, usually get shot down, sometimes get things through, but only really shine when they have control of their own classrooms.

    When a group of people are use to learning a certain way, you can easily spend a month trying to get the class in sync with your teaching style which is usually very different then the host country nationals style. Some educational policy, unofficially of course, are about passing tests, some about babysitting, some about brainwashing, and some about critical thinking. You can debate the merits of each one. If I live in Turkmenistan, I probably don’t need the latter so much seeing as my future is pretty bleak. If I live in China, unless I want to end up in prison, I should probably stick to memorize and repeat learning to pass tests and move up the ranks. Don’t question, just answer and follow.

    America is a pretty amazing country as I sit here in my red, white, and blue suit typing this. Yes, most people get their information about America from movies and television programs. Some from local newspapers and the educated elite get it from English websites and related forums. We aren’t any different when we get our news about other countries. I don’t know much about Denmark, but their films give me some insight into the land and people. A website gives me economic, social, and political information, but until I go there, I don’t really know anything.

    I think America is an idea for people, a place where not necessarily anything, but most things are possible. There is little chance that America will be invaded, little chance of war at home. In America if I work hard I will at least get paid for it. If I live below my materialist dreams, I can save money and provide some of it to my relatives in a distant land. Even if I live in a lower income area, there are still schools with books, tables, and chairs that my children can go to and if they work hard they at least have the possibility of having a higher standard of living then I had as a child growing up in X country. I have money for a pencil and notebook.

    In America our average way of living is light years ahead of poor countries and much further ahead than developing countries. When you have a well paid job in Eastern Europe and Central Asia you are getting by but certainly not saving much and definitely not going to some beach for a two week vacation unless it is a bus ride away.

    America and a handful of other countries have their act together. When most people overseas admire another country, it usually being America or some European country and Australia and NZ, it is the possibility of having practically unlimited possibilities that appeals to them, food security, personal security, and yes, houses, cars, Apple products, and other material possessions impossible to get on base middle income salary which most people don’t have.


  3. Interesting article.
    In China they don’t idolize the US schools like that, but most of them think the schools, and especially universities are much better. So when I teach my students about the Western school systems, I try to dispel some of there myths like you do, although I try to come to a nice middle ground. It helps that Chinese students are exhausted by tests and think that any school that isn’t so exam oriented is the next thing to paradise.
    I’m curious how much Georgia enforces discipline on the students? How is that different from the West?


  4. Tymala says:

    “I’m curious how much Georgia enforces discipline on the students? How is that different from the West?”

    To answer the question- they smack them (at least in the villages and smaller towns) and scream at them constantly. And they scream at them when they do not know the answer to the question-not only when they are being naughty. On the first day of teaching to a class in the village through a private language school (not the footprints program), my friend asked the students what hopes and expectations they have from the class. The main response was, “please don’t yell at us all the time”.


  5. Eyaj Ilyk says:

    I agree with you that the Georgians I have also encountered had the perception that the American education system was one that they should strive to emulate and that it was exceptional. Since I taught in public schools in East Oakland, Richmond, and Marina California, I know that the American education system is lacking.

    I told my Georgian students in Kutaisi, that I had 6 students who were murdered walking home from school in California and they refused to accept this. I also told a co-teacher that one of my former 5th grade students was shot in front of the I taught at and was in the ICU and my co-teacher refused to believe that this could ever happen. It was frustrating. I also told my co-teachers about the ESL students I had taught who had a horrible state curriculum and about the English-Only (EO) students that I taught who were from monolingual homes who were illiterate and were allowed to go on to the next grade level even though they couldn’t read or write and when they could it was at the 2nd or 3rd grade level. I explained about the teachers unions, the lousy teachers, the budget cuts for the chool programs, the metal detectors in the schools, the police raids and drug dogs. No one believed me because of the image from American movies and TV that everything in America is perfect. After 3 months of this, I gave up and let my Georgian students and co-teachers continue to believe the Disney-esque fantasy about the U.S. department of Education.


    • --> says:


      > Since I taught in public schools in East Oakland, Richmond

      I knew an English teacher in Richmond High, her name is Jennifer Walden, do you know her.

      > I had 6 students who were murdered walking home from school

      About an year ago the story that 15 year old girl was gang raped by 20 men made national news:


      • Ilyk Eyaj says:

        @ the unnamed person who posted the ABC news link about the girl gang raped by 20 men in W. CoCo County. Yes! I’m all too familiar with this tragic story and I have a lot of friends who were teachers at Richmond high, are alumni of Richmond high, and I know people who are currently attending Richmond high. The American Educational system is one that screams about inequality, injustice, institutionalized racism, and class warfare. In “some” ways the Georgian educational system is superior than what I have seen in the urban jungle of the U.S. Plus I noticed that Georgians LOVE children, and I know why. I did journalism research on this when I was there because I’m not used to being in an environment with adults who love children, Georgians LOVE children!!!!! Yes, there are some Georgians who use corporal punishment with the kids but I’ve seen kids being treated much worse in the states….and I know enough social workers and people who work can provide stats from the foster care system to back up my statement. Americans DON’T love children…..Americans tolerate children and give “lip service” to caring about education. I respect Saakashvili and what he is trying to do by “overhauling” the Georgian education system. Now I just wish the last 5 U.S. presidents had the audacity and concern to do the same thing as Saakashvili.

        Good for you President Saakashvili! I’m glad you care about kids!


  6. Tymala says:

    I give up too! They worship America; but do they miss all the news about school shootings, poverty, how the U.S students are usually about 25 on standardized testings worldwide, and all the negative aspects of the States?

    As for discipline, my friend teaches ESL in S.Korea, a system flawed in many ways but always competes as the top spot in scoring worldwide with Finland. She says that naughty kids are required to do push-ups in class or run laps outside. I would definitely want to behave in class if this was my punishment, but if I did misbehave, I would get to burn a few calories. I told this to my colleagues, and they believe such punishment is violence! Their words were “violence”, but they believe that smacking the kids is OK.


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  8. joninews says:

    I respect Saakashvili and what he is trying to do by “overhauling” the Georgian education system. Now I just wish the last 5 U.S. presidents had the audacity and concern to do the same thing as Saakashvili.
    Nowhere n the US Constitution is the Central Government engaged with the right to determine education, other than to assure that there is no discrimination and assyre equal protection under the law. Education and how it is carried out is left to the states, school districts and local school boards. Anyone who has taken education 101 knows that! The question is now Georiga is basically teaching the test and has centralized an education system and many things have been lost in the process, and it is one size fits all and provides few with skills that will find them gainful employment. This is a problem at all levels – and the so called education reform is not all what it is touted to be.


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