Richard Du Four: What’s Right with American Education!

Nov 23, 2015 by

An Interview with Richard Du Four: What’s Right with American Education!

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Richard, first of all, tell us about your education and experience.

I received a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in United States History. I earned an Ed.D in educational leadership. I was a teacher, president of our teacher union for a short time, a principal and superintendent. I worked in three different public high schools in Illinois for 34 years.

2) Now, in your mind, what is right with American Education, and what is wrong with American Education?


There is a lot right with American education. We have achieved record highs in the percentage of students who graduate from high school in each of the past two years. We have more students taking more rigorous curriculum than ever before. One of every five high school seniors earned college credit while in high school last year. Our students consistently score in the top ten nations and well above the international average on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS exams).

We are one of the few nations that has consistently higher scores on that test over the years. United States students won the 2015 Math Olympiad in a contest with over 100 other nations. Although parents are ten times more likely to give the nation’s schools a grade of F than a grade of A, they love their local schools. Over the past five years 75% of parents have given their local schools a grade of A or B. On the OECD survey of students, American students rate their teachers among the highest in the world in terms of fairness, willingness to give them extra help and support, and their interest in overall student well being.

All of this is occurring despite the fact that last year the majority of students in the public schools qualified for free and reduced lunch for the first time in American history and 1 of every 5 students does not speak English as the primary language at home.

The biggest problem facing American education is that there is a strong movement to privatize education and abandon the public education system that has helped create what has historically been one of the most highly educated populations in the world. The other problem is that whereas in the past attacks on public education have focused on the system, the curriculum, the lack of rigor, etc., increasingly attacks today are focused on the educators themselves – the very people most important in any effort to improve our schools.

3) I get letters, phone calls, and I actually talk to teachers—the story is pretty much the same—they encounter a lot of students which, in their mind, should have been retained or kept back in early grades. What has been your experience?

The research evidence is abundantly clear that retention has a negative impact on student achievement, does not lead to improved performance, and increases the likelihood that the student will drop out of school when in high school.

The better solution is to carefully monitor student learning and provide extra time and support for learning through intensive, systematic intervention systems that removes the individual teacher from sole responsibility for student success and creates a school-wide approach to helping all student acquire the essential knowledge and skills of their course or grade level.

4) The other comment I get from teachers is the student who is “inappropriately placed”—the student with an I.Q. of 30, sitting in an algebra class- because “there is no where else to put him”. Is inappropriate placement a big concern nationwide?

No. I doubt that there are students with an IQ of 30 sitting in regular classrooms. Special education has given students access to public schools, and teachers today are called upon to help students learn who would have been excluded from school prior to the early 1970s.

5) Changing gears talking about test scores—what I hear is that the vast majority of students–70 to 75 percent are doing well-making annual yearly progress- but the test scores are being dragged down by those kids on IEP’s and those on Section 504’s. Your thoughts…?

Although special education students are generally less likely to demonstrate proficiency on high stakes exams than regular education students, poverty is the bigger problem. One of every 5 schools in the United States has over 75% of its students living in poverty. These schools struggle to perform well on national and international tests.

6) Do we need more special education teachers, more vocational teachers, more gifted education teachers, and more remedial education teachers? And would that help the regular education teachers?

We need schools to create new cultures and systems. Putting more good people into a bad system, will not solve the problem. Adding more people to a bad system is not the answer. The number of educators supporting students today is much higher than it was a generation ago.

7) Teachers and truant students—what should their responsibility be- if any—and what do we need to do about what appears to be more and more truant students?

Every teacher should be part of a collective effort to make school a positive and successful experience for every student. Students will be reluctant to come to a place where they experience only failure and frustration. But it is not the job of teachers to track down truants.

8) The vast majority of high school kids go on to college, university, and community colleges- but there is a small minority that end up in the school to prison pipeline ( if such a thing exists ).. What can teachers, or the system do to help those kids?

Students who drop out of high school are far more likely to spend time in prison than students who graduate from high school and college. Once again, schools need to create systems to ensure:

a) teachers are working collaboratively and taking collective responsibility for student learning rather than working in isolation

b) every students has access to a guaranteed curriculum,

c) that each student’s learning is carefully monitored,

d) that the school provides systematic interventions that give students extra time and support when they struggle

e) teachers have access to transparent evidence of their students’ learning so that they can use that evidence to improve their instructional practice.

If these conditions were the norm in every American schools, more students will be successful and the number of dropouts ending up in prison will be reduced.

9) I am somewhat biased in that I believe in teachers unions. While I hope that there will never be a strike- in some instances it seems imperative. And is seems that teachers don’t want more money or more benefits—they want the discipline problems removed from their classes so that they can teach. Is there a happy medium?

Teacher unions have an important role to play in reforming schools, and in general, states with teacher unions outperform states that do not allow for collective bargaining. At the same time, however, unions must abandon the adversarial approach to collective bargaining and be willing to change their position on some issues that not even its members support such as the costly process for removing an ineffective teacher, the idea that seniority should trump all other factors when a school must reduce staff, and the amount of time a teacher should be in the profession before becoming eligible for tenure.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

Do the highest performing countries on international tests use American school improvement strategies such as vouchers and charter schools to increase competitive pressure on the public school system, legislation to punish or close failing schools, making it easier to fire educators and replace them with people who have no educational training or background, and offering merit pay to some teachers based on student achievement on high stakes exams. The National Center for Education and the Economy could not find a single high-performing nation using any of these strategies. Instead, according to a study by the McKensie Research Group, the highest performing nation’s in the world recognize that a school can only be as good as the educators within it. Therefore, these countries intentionally organize their schools into professional learning communities to provide the ongoing, job-embedded, focused professional development that is essential to continuous improvement.

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