Larry Sand joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the quality of American public schools.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Larry Sand. Larry is a retired teacher and president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. He’s written about education issues for City Journal for many years, and his work also appears in USA Today, the Orange County Register, National Review, the New York Post, and a number of other distinguished publications. Today, we’re going to discuss his recent work on the state of education in America. Larry, thanks very much for joining us.

Larry Sand: A pleasure to be here, Brian. Thank you for having me.

Brian Anderson: The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a test. It’s regularly administered to American students measuring their knowledge in key subjects—math, reading, history, science, and more. It’s often referred to as the nation’s report card. The NAEP, as it’s known, NAEP scores provide valuable insight into student performance over time. And you can get a snapshot of the health of our education system from it. The latest scores, which were based, I believe, on tests that were administered in 2022, showed some alarming declines in a number of subjects. I wonder if you could give us a quick overview of those latest NAEP scores and how they looked depending on subject and grade level.

Larry Sand: Yeah. Well, the scores that were released for eighth graders, in other words, 13-year-olds, and Peggy Carr, who’s the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, and I quote her here, “The mathematics decline for 13-year-olds is the single largest decline we’ve observed in the past half-century.” As far as specifics goes, eighth-grade reading, 31 percent scored proficient. Not even a third of our students are proficient in reading in eighth grade. And in math, it was even more, 26 percent are proficient. Twenty-six percent of eighth-grade students are proficient in math.

Brian Anderson: That’s saying that that’s quite astonishing. So three-quarters of the students are not reaching proficiency.

Larry Sand: Yeah, in math, three-quarters are failing or not where they should be. And this is tragic for the students and frankly for the country. This is the next generation that’s coming up.

Brian Anderson: Now the-

Larry Sand: These tests are administered very, very fairly and objectively. I used to be the testing coordinator at my middle school, and one day the NAEP people showed up. I knew they were coming out, didn’t surprise me. And I was very impressed with how they handled it. I have every confidence that these scores are accurate.

Brian Anderson: Well, yeah, and they’re done nationwide. And now the response to this from analysts and some commentators generally has been to point some of the blame or a lot of the blame to Covid for the students’ poor performances in this past round. And certainly, you would have to say Covid has played a role in that you had prolonged school closures, you had limited supplemental programs, you had remote curriculums that were kind of thrown together. People, teachers really didn’t know how to do this kind of remote learning, which has limits anyway. But it’s also true that the NAEP scores started dropping, I think, well before the pandemic. I think even if this latest round of scores was particularly bad, they haven’t been looking good for a while. I wonder what your view is about the factors that are contributing to poor academic performance and how far back that does go?

Larry Sand: Yeah. Well, it goes back into the 1970s, which is when the tests were first given. We can’t obviously compare NAEP scores forever because they only started giving the NAEP in the ‘70s, but this is at the lowest point ever, and the scores were sinking before Covid. Clearly, Covid did damage. There is absolutely no doubt about that. But just to say, “Aha, the poor scores are due just to Covid,” is wrong and frankly dangerous. The question then becomes, as you asked, what other factors are involved? And let me just get too ahead of the way that people tend to talk about, and one is lack of money in school, the teachers’ unions love this, “Yeah. If we just spent more money, things would get so much better.” And as I think I wrote, it was in ‘71, ‘72, we were spending $7,000 a student. In 2019-2020, we were spending $17,000 a student, and that is correcting for inflation. So we more than doubled.

It’s 140 percent more in 2017, excuse me, in 2019 and 2020, and the scores are not changing positively at all. And the other thing is that, “Oh, classes are too large. We need smaller classes.” and small classes work for some kids. They don’t work for other kids. And in 1921, the average class size in the country was 33. And most recently the statistics have it at 16 to one, so it’s less than half what it used to be, and kids are not any better off for it. It’s a red herring. And to me, what we have to look at is failing teachers, plain and simple. Now, I’m not teacher-bashing here. Most teachers are adequate, some are wonderful, let’s get the job done. But there’s a whole cohort that doesn’t get the job done. And unlike other professions, they don’t get fired. You can’t get rid of a bad teacher.

Jack Welch, GE CEO, famously said, “We need to get rid of the bottom 10 percent of workers in any profession. The bottom 10 percent needs to go. They need to do something else.” And Eric Hanushek of Stanford pointed out recently, “If we could just get rid of the bottom 5 percent to 7 percent of teachers, we could have a world-class education system like Finland.” But we don’t do this. We fire almost no teachers. In California, I think about two teachers out of 300,000 lose their jobs because they’re incompetent because of seniority rules or what they’re really called is permanence rules, which are written into teacher earning contracts. And you can’t get rid of teachers. And as I say, if we could, the NAEP scores would maybe not go through the roof, but they would improve greatly.

Brian Anderson: I wonder, another aspect of this is the kind of curricula that are being used in classrooms. That’s something we’ve written a lot about in City Journal. Educators in some areas are pushing what we view as radical ideological agendas on students, or certainly also flawed pedagogical approaches in things like math. I wonder what’s your view on the curricula side of things? The history and physics scores, for example, in the NAEP also came in very poorly. How much of this is a question? What is being taught?

Larry Sand: Well, clearly that does have an effect because the more time teachers spend on DEI, BLM, CRT, and all the other alphabet soup radical ideas that are involved, inculcated education now, it’s the less time they have to spend on the ABCs and the 1, 2, 3s. And this is where education should be, teaching the basics, and certainly in elementary school not talking about oppressors and the oppressed and the racist country that America is. Of course, every second you spend on that nonsense, not only are you creating more radical students, you’re depriving them of an actual education.

Brian Anderson: Another recent article you did for us looked at a very disturbing trend in the schools, which was the sexual abuse of students. Reports of sexual misconduct in schools have proliferated in recent years. Surveys of students in grades eight through 11 indicate that up to one out of 10 have been victimized in some ways from sexual abuse, both physical and verbal, by school personnel. Too often, offending teachers don’t get penalized for the reasons you were just suggesting perhaps. Instead, they’re allowed to seek employment at other schools where they’re probably likely to continue their sexual predation. What is your sense on how these kinds of offending teachers are dealt with within the system? Why are they permitted to remain in proximity to children, and what should be done with them?

Larry Sand: Well, clearly, that 10 percent number’s just shocking. When I read that, I almost fell out of my chair and then I did a lot of research on the subject, and it is really in line with other studies that were done over the years. So I have no reason to believe it’s not true. And it’s basically the reason you can’t get rid of teachers, once again, it’s collective bargaining agreements between teachers’ unions and school districts. And they often allow for scrubbing of personnel files. State legislators notoriously lack against fighting the teachers’ unions because so many of them are there because of the political spending of the teachers’ unions. We need to stand up to these unions. We need more legislators. And more than anything, we need parents to get involved in schools.

Now, I know that sounds almost like a silly statement, but when I was a kid in the 1950s, my mother could send me off to school and be reasonably sure that I was going to get a good education. She didn’t have to bother too much with the teachers. She’d done an open school night, that sort of thing. Now, parents could make no such assumption, whether it be a radical agenda or sexual abuse, parents must be all over their kids every day questioning them. Better yet send them to a private school or homeschool. And when I publicly speak on this, I always talk about it. Parents must deprogram their kids and must get involved. Excuse me. And to that end, this is indeed happening now. There’s a group called Parents Defending Education, which is nationwide, and even a bigger splash is being made by a group called Moms for Liberty, who now has 120,000 members, 285 chapters in 44 states. And these are not shy ladies, God bless them. And they’re annoying all the right people.

The Southern Poverty Law Center called them an extremist group, and The Nation describes them as hateful, fascist bigots. Good grief. Even the New Republic, which I used to think was sane, the famous group has created nightmares for schools across the country. Why? Because they care about their kids and their teachers may care about the kids, but they may not. Anyway, parents need to get involved. And as I say, thankfully, this is going on, but we need even bigger participation.

Brian Anderson: There has been here in New York where I am, but in other states as well, really a marked decline in the number of students enrolling in public schools. This probably was a reaction to extended lockdowns in states that did that, parents just finding alternatives. I wonder in your view, if the reaction to Covid on the part of many school districts was a wake-up call for parents to really get a glimpse inside of what was going on in the classroom. And that the emergence of these groups you just discussed is another aspect of that, that the parents are starting to get mobilized.

Larry Sand: Yeah, absolutely, Brian, parents were awakened brutally, sharply, violently by COVID. First of all, the schools closed, which was a useless exercise. And this is primarily as many people now realize because of the teacher unions, specifically Randi Weingarten, who seemed to have a hotline to the CDC. And also it showed what teachers were teaching because most of the teaching went online, so parents saw what their kids were learning and weren’t learning, and many were outraged. And just between the schools closing down and what they saw online caused many parents to just wake up, and they didn’t like what they saw and have responded accordingly.

Brian Anderson: Well, that’s a sign of hope, I think, for the future. These NAEP scores should provide further evidence that more shaking up is necessary. And you are starting to see some real alternatives in terms of things like charter schools, various tax-incentive programs, growing school choice, really across the country in many states, right?

Larry Sand: Oh, yeah, a good point. I don’t have the latest tally, and even if I did, I prepared for that, it would probably change by the time this podcast is over because it’s just growing in leaps and bounds. Ohio just flipped the other day, and I think seven, eight, maybe nine states have gone universal choice in the last year and a half or so. Not exactly, I’m estimating here, but yeah, all of a sudden school choice is exploding. Too many teachers are involved in radical teaching, and because of the Covid shutdowns, and this is a very healthy sign. And it’s especially important because the kids who need this most were kids, inner-city kids, their parents are in increasing numbers for money going to putting parents in charge of the spending of their education dollars.

Brian Anderson: Well, it is a fertile time, I think, for these kinds of innovations, and I think we’ll be seeing more of them going forward. Larry, thanks very much. As always, good to talk with you. Don’t forget to check out Larry Sand’s work on the City Journal website. As I mentioned earlier, he has been writing on education issues in California and nationally for City Journal for a while now. That’s We’ll link to Larry Sand’s author page there in the description, and you can find him on Twitter @LDSand, @LDSand. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal, and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. As always, if you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. And Larry Sand, great to talk with you.

Larry Sand: Thank you, Brian. It’s been a pleasure to be here.

Brian Anderson: Thanks for joining us for the weekly 10 Blocks podcast featuring urban policy and cultural commentary with City Journal editors, contributors, and special guests.

Photo: skynesher/iStock

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