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7 minutes reading time (1376 words)

Stop Picking on Teachers


I am growing weary of all of the “blame it on the teachers” articles I encounter in the popular media. This IAE Blog entry suggests that if you are unhappy with the results of our current informal and formal educational systems, you can find many better scapegoats than our teachers.

Formal and Informal Education

Whether awake or asleep, the human brain is processing information it has stored, information from external sensors (such as smell, sound, and touch), and information from internal sensors (such as from a bellyache). So, information processing and learning are a 24 hour a day, 365 days a year process.

A 365-day year contains 8,760 hours. I think of this as being divided into sleeping hours, formal schooling hours, and informal education hours. Here are some one-year time estimates:

      Nine hours a day of sleeping is 3,285 hours. Information processing and learning are going on at a subconscious level during this time.

     Six hours a day of formal schooling, for 180 school days, is 1,040 hours. The instructional content, instructional processes, and assessment are under the control of teachers and other school personnel. Current cuts in school budgets have led to cuts in the 180-day school year. In addition, many students miss quite a few days of school due to illness, truancy, and other reasons. So, the average number of hours of school for a student in the United States is under 1,000 hours a year.

     The remaining 4,435 (or more) hours of time are devoted to what might be called informal education.

  With these definitions and rough estimates of time spent in each category, we see that in a year a typical student has about four times as many hours of informal education as hours of formal schooling.

The Hours of Schooling

The 1,000 or so hours a student spends in school is about one-fifth of the student’s awake time in a year. During this time schooling focuses on students gaining a common core of knowledge and skills.

 We want students to learn within subject areas such as: reading, oral and written communication skills; math; science and technology; history and geography; fine and performing arts; study skills, work ethics, and basic social skills; information retrieval, including separating the wheat from the chaff; diversity and tolerance for of others; health and physical education; and so on. We want all of this to be accomplished during the (approximately) 13,000 hours of K-12 schooling that a student has attended by the time he or she graduates from high school.

I am amazed that we do as well as we do with formal education. Certainly it is easy to find fault with what is learned and what is not learned by a particular student or group of students. But, think back to the past. After the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson tried to get the State of Virginia to provide free education up through the third grade. He deemed that this level of education would prove adequate for an average person in our new democracy. His proposal was rejected. See We have come a very long way since that time.

We have quite a bit of data about how well our schools are doing. In reading, writing, and math, for example, average adults in the United States perform at about the 7th to 8th grade level. This suggest that, for long-term retention of knowledge and skills, it takes perhaps three to four years of schooling above the level at which we want people to perform. We improve our overall formal educational system by striving to have more students graduate from high school.

Major Inequalities in Informal Education

While there is a reasonable amount of uniformity in the common core school curriculum in grades K-12, there are huge differences in the informal education of our children. Wealth and poverty are one basis for these differences. Children who grow up in lower-income households tend to have: poorer diets and more exposure to lead and other brain-damaging poisons; poorer health care; less hours of being read to during their childhood; less opportunity to participate in instructional lessons in the fine and performing arts; less opportunity to participate in physical education instruction in golf, swimming, tennis, skiing, or other sports; less opportunity to travel; and so on. Their home environment tends to include more hours spent watching television, playing computer games and social networking on the Internet, “hanging out” with the gang, and in other activities that are not very oriented to formal education (school learning). See

Robert Sternberg uses the term street smarts (as distinguished from school smarts) to help describe much of the focus of the informal education of children growing up in lower-income environments. See Such children and their families tend to focus on meeting their basic day-to-day survival needs. Their home environment tends to place less emphasis on school-oriented content than will be found (on average) in more wealthy households.

In brief summary, children from low-income homes tend to be less prepared to start their formal schooling. They are often behind when they start school in kindergarten or first grade, and continue to fall farther behind year after year in school. Read more about this topic at

Recent Research on the “Summer Slide”

Their summers tend to provide limited intellectual stimulation for many children living in lower-income families, and this contributes to their falling farther behind in school. See Quoting from this article:

"Lower-income kids in our research are basically treading water in the summer months," says Karl Alexander, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who has done extensive work into the setbacks for children without summer educational opportunities, known as the "summer slide." …

“Lower-income children are falling behind. There's no questions about that, but they're falling behind during summer months.… Kids from better-off families, he says, continue to improve skills over the summer months, and it shows up tangibly in the next school year." Meanwhile, the gap between them and their lower-income counterparts widens.

Final Remarks

To significantly improve education, we need to place much more effort on improving informal education. We can and will make improvements on what teachers accomplish during their yearly approximately 1,000 hours of student contact. But such potential improvements are small compared to the potential of doing much better in the 4,000 hours or so of informal education that is not under the control of teachers.

Informal education is improved by programs such as: Birth to Three; Head Start; free parenting courses; structured after-school and weekend activities; free sports and summer camps; summer schools; Boy Scout, Girl Scout, Camp Fire, YMCA/YWCA, Little League, and other organized group activities for students; activities offered by museums, libraries, churches, and other community facilities; providing free books to children; and so on. I believe that all of these are good ways for our country and its people to invest in improving informal education.

What You Can Do

Take a look at how your children and grandchildren, your students, and other children you know are spending their informal education time. If you don’t like what you see, plan and implement an intervention designed to improve the situation.

Use your voting power and your volunteer time to help provide more intellectually stimulating environments and opportunities for children from lower-income homes. You, personally, can make a major difference in the life of a child.

Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications

You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.

Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.

Here are some examples of publications that might interest you:

Declining level of student creativity. See

Deep insights into problems with our educational system. See

Each of us can help improve education. See

Moursund, D., and Sylwester, R., eds. (March 2013). Common Core State Standards for K-12 education in America. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. See for the Microsoft Word document and for the PDF.

Tapping into what makes teachers tick. See

Taylor. J. (4/11/2013). Is big media slowly killing our children? The Cluttered Mind Uncluttered. Retrieved 8/25/2013 from

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Friday, 18 June 2021

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