It should come as no secret in the twenty-first century that the United States cannot hold a candle to other countries when it comes to education. Every year, American taxpayers contribute well over $800 billion to the public-school system, approximately the same amount spent annually in Australia, Canada, Brazil, France, Germany, Russia, Finland, South Korea and the United Kingdom combined.
One would think that with taxpayers paying such a hefty amount of money to the government for public education, our sacrifice would manifest itself in some way. Better test scores, perhaps, or increased student achievement on alternative assessments. Higher college enrollment rates, or better yet, increased job-placement rates for university graduates. But if history is any indication, whenever the government feels the need to intervene and siphons away American tax dollars, it rarely (if ever) utilizes that money well. And hell will freeze over before America gets even a reasonable return on its investment in the public-education system if things continue as they are.
This system needs to change.
To show you just how poorly America performs in relation to the rest of the developed world and drive this point home, let’s talk about some of the data.
The most up-to-date Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, from 2015, placed the United States 38th out of 71 “developed” countries in mathematics, and 24th out of 71 in science. A recent study from the Department of Education, part of the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), supports these rankings with astounding findings re: literacy rates, math ability, and knowledge of basic life skills (e.g. balancing a checkbook, creating a budget, buying a home, or saving money). In terms of academic achievement, our graduates look like the equivalent of higher ranking countries’ high school dropouts. Our students graduate without basic competencies they need to read and write, understand economics and finance, survive in the job market, and contribute fully to their society. These facts are terrifying. And incredibly sad.
Why is this happening?
The reality is quite complex, too much so for me to get into all of it within a single article. But here are a couple of the more prevalent reasons why our system fails so horribly.
Rigid Rules and Regulations. Schools with little to no interference from outside regulators on hiring/firing decisions tend to be the most effective schools as measured by student performance. Many administrators in the public sector have virtually no control over who teaches in their schools. Positions and salary levels are decided by the state, which often ignores a school’s socio-economic and financial situation while making such decisions. Teachers are egregiously underpaid for the job they are required to do, often putting in (on average) 10-12 extra hours per week into planning lessons, activities, and assessments for students, hours for which the district 9 times out of 10 refuses to grant recompense. Because of this, many individuals who are actually good at teaching and have a passion for helping students succeed end up leaving the field within their first three years, venturing into a different field with a greater ROI and higher economic value (i.e. engineering, law, medicine). If we hope to foster reorganization of schools and bring in more effective teachers, incentives must be provided. Competition must be encouraged. Schools must be able to employ their teaching staff as they see fit and pay them accordingly. Most private schools already do this, and many teachers who don’t completely leave the field of education migrate to the private sector for this reason alone.
As education researcher Denis Doyle of the Hudson Institute puts it: “There is no mystery as to how to find and retain qualified teachers […] Pay them what the market demands, provide them with benefits that are competitive, and create a work environment in which they can derive genuine professional satisfaction. Pay differentials are the answer.”
Yet this still has not happened. Incentive has all but vanished from the public sector of education, and the quality of the service they provide continues to deteriorate without consequences. Their funding from the government remains. The poor teachers keep their jobs and the good ones leave. The centralized decision-making process robs educational professionals of their individuality and turns them into cogs in a rotting machine.
Centralized Decision-Making. Speak of the devil. When decisions on issues like the makeup of the history curriculum, the daily school schedule, or the policy for failing students are mandated from above, school policies become disconnected with the students and teachers they supposedly exist to serve. Administrators and teachers accept this lying down, because they lack the initiative or incentive to fight back against these policies. Speaking out could cost them their jobs.
Last year, seven of my students were failing. These were not children who earnestly struggled and had fallen behind. These were children who would not try, refused to do work and turn in assignments. The administrators told me in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed to fail them. “Do whatever you have to do,” they said. “Let them make up missing work, let them do some extra credit. Just get them to pass.” In this example alone, it is easy to see how much the bureaucracy has poisoned our education system, how government interference has placed all focus on getting funding rather than truly helping the students. I was rendered helpless in my own classroom, unable to step outside the carefully crafted box my administrators had placed me in on the first day of school.
Students in my seventh-grade classes could not read. Some could not write legibly, others could not compute basic percentages, and still others could not tell me the name of the Vice President of the United States. The failure is widespread. The problems are vast. Tinkering around the edges of the public-school system might reduce its impact on students somewhat, but the deeper problems cannot be fixed without substantially limiting government interference in education.
In a world in which a junior-high school education was enough to obtain gainful employment and function in society, America could afford to have an inefficient, bureaucratized, and ineffective education system. When students fell through the cracks back then, they had a rather soft landing. But things have changed. No longer is this system providing enough to prepare the majority of our students for life outside of school.
Left the way they are, American public schools will continue to drive away passionate teachers. They will continue to drain our economy by wasting precious tax dollars. They will continue to produce helpless adults who lack basic skills, who, because of schools’ inability (or perhaps, refusal) to meet students’ academic and developmental needs, will have no choice but to depend on government aid to survive.
Take a moment. Let this all sink in. Think about the implications here, and the true reason why reform in the public-school system never seems to happen, no matter how much outcry we hear.
I leave you today with a couple quotes that will hopefully provoke thought and discussion:
“Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without its being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much of what is remembered is irrelevant.” – Russell Ackoff in The Objective of Education Is Learning, Not Teaching
“What is the purpose of industrial education? To fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence? Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States and that is its aim everywhere else.” – H. L. Mencken