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Chapter 06: Fixing our education crisis

“Too many of the people coming out of even our most prestigious academic institutions graduate with neither the skills to be economically productive nor the intellectual development to make them discerning citizens and voters.” —American economist and columnist Thomas Sowell

 “Many public-school children seem to know only two dates: 1492 and 4th of July; and as a rule they don’t know what happened on either occasion.” —American writer and humorist Mark Twain


What’s wrong with

education in America

  • Too many citizens aren’t learning the basics. Democracy demands that the overall population be well enough educated to make intelligent choices. If people lack critical thinking skills and the basics of economics and history, they can be misled into making political decisions that put their very freedom at risk. They’ll also have difficulty supporting themselves. Our public education system is failing us.
  • Poor outcomes. In almost no part of American society do we spend as much money for such dismal results as we do in public education. This is mainly because the system is controlled by government bureaucrats and labor unions, competition is minimal, and many consumers (especially the poor) don’t have choices.
  • Government as the sole provider. When we structured public education, we established government as the primary provider. As with any bureaucracy, the bigger it has gotten, the more bureaucratic it has become. When a bureaucracy starts to fail, its first instincts are to solve the problem by adding even more bureaucracy. That’s what has happened to our public education system over the past few decades. The more problems we find, the more levels of costly bureaucracy we add. And the more bureaucracy we add, the more problems we create.
  • Political meddling. Education is as fundamental as a teacher and students. Yet every politician in the country has a finger in the classroom. The president, Congress, and various federal agencies. The governor, state legislators, the state board of education, district school boards, state and district superintendents, and administrators. School principals, department heads, advisory councils, the PTA, teachers’ unions, and individual parents. With all those layers of bureaucracy, it isn’t surprising that so few of our education dollars ever find their way into the classroom. In fact, it’s amazing that any learning takes place.
  • One size doesn’t fit all. No one educational approach is right for every child. Children are different, and they learn differently; slow students get left behind or passed without acquiring basic skills and fast learners get frustrated and bored. We need a variety of educational approaches if we want to help each child achieve his or her full potential. But our government-provided education system provides us with schools that are essentially the same, with very little real diversity. Outmoded teaching methods too often bore students. Long summer vacations cause them to forget too much of what they have learned. This is especially hurtful for poorer students who may not get enough positive stimulation at home.
  • Repressive bureaucracy. Big government bureaucracies deny choices, limit competition, stifle creativity, ensure mediocrity, and overwhelm schools with counterproductive regulations that often have little or nothing to do with education. Public education is underperforming because it is provided by an inefficient virtual government monopoly. Our schools are run like the Soviet economy and are showing the same symptoms of failure.
  • Self-serving unions. Powerful labor unions protect bad teachers at the expense of good ones, as well as stifling excellence and innovation.
  • Frustrated teachers. We have plenty of talented and dedicated educators, but they are being pulled down by the system. Education naturally attracts people who want to leave the world better than they found it. While they would like to be paid decently, money isn’t the most important thing in the world to them—otherwise they would have chosen another occupation. But many of the best teachers leave the system because they become frustrated with poor results, oppressive unions, unresponsive bureaucrats, and repressive red tape.
  • Outmoded and misguided priorities. The structure of today’s public education was designed a century ago. Today’s society is more complex. The world has changed, but public education fundamentally has not. Public schools continue to invest too much in outmoded school buildings when the rest of the society has increased productivity and reduced costs by embracing the Internet and developing new technologies.

How to fix what’s wrong

with education in America

  • Fund students instead of bureaucracies. If we truly value education and want better results, we will provide funding to students instead of bureaucrats, empower schools, get government bureaucrats out of the way, and let consumers make their own choices in a free market. This country’s greatness was a result of allowing individuals to make individual choices. Why not try it in education?
  • Parental choice. Increasing competition and providing more choices would be the most powerful and effective education reform. Instead of funding bureaucratic and union-dominated government-run schools, allow parents to choose the best education for their children and have funding go to the child’s chosen school without regard to district boundaries. Some of these schools could be run by government entities, some by entrepreneurs, some by teams of like-minded teachers, and some by not-for-profit corporations. Some could be traditional; others could be Internet based. But in order to attract and keep students, they would all have to be good.
  • Student commitment. Imagine students attending schools tailored to their needs—schools that they had a voice in choosing. Under the present system, students are seldom asked to commit to a school. They are simply assigned to it. In a choice system, a student would play at least some role in the family’s decision-making process. He or she might be more willing to abide by the school’s rules in order to stay there. Imagine what might happen if we can get more students actually committed to their schools!
  • Get regulators out of the classroom. Public education can be improved only if we shift power and resources away from the central bureaucrats. Parental choice would be the ultimate regulation. If a school doesn’t do a good job, parents will move their children (and their money) to a different school. This will get the politicians and regulators off the backs of the schools and break up massive school bureaucracies. Government regulations would be replaced by a student-driven system. And the thousands of school administrators who would no longer be needed could compete for teaching jobs.
  • Decentralize decision making. Empower education providers to determine their own objectives, strategies, and tactics, and let them compete for students (and the funding that would come with each one). Each school could develop its own budget, curriculum, admission and discipline standards, scheduling, staffing, facilities, and investment in technology. (Especially in today’s real estate environment, some schools might choose to rent or barter vacant space to free up more money for teachers and technology.)
  • Encourage innovation and experimentation. With today’s technologies, education could be custom-designed for each and every individual student. Individual schools (private, public, or charter) would be free to innovate, excel, and specialize in order to attract students and the funding that will come with them. Some could choose to excite their students by using educational games and new technologies. More computer-based learning could reduce the need for traditional school buildings, cut transportation costs, and give more students the opportunity to learn from the very best and most inspirational teachers.
  • Beyond high school. All of the principles and solutions outlined here would apply equally to our bloated, expensive, and underperforming public colleges and universities. Funding the students instead of the institutions would magically improve every public college and university. And since college isn’t right for everybody, students should have many more choices, including trade schools.

“Twenty years from now we will look back at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder that we could have tolerated anything so primitive. —American educator John W. Gardner

“True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius; for inequality, not mediocrity, individual superiority, not standardization, is the measure of the progress of the world.” —American educator Felix E. Schelling

“Why is it that millions of children who are pushouts or dropouts amount to business as usual in the public schools, while one family educating a child at home becomes a major threat to universal public education and the survival of democracy?” —Author Stephen Arons in Compelling Belief: The Culture of American Schooling

  1. Joe, there’s a lot of tired rhetoric in the above post… “Ideas” based on statements that aren’t factual, things that have already been tried and have failed, and other things that are already available and have been for a long time but are not utilized. Our public education system is broken. On that we seem to agree. But what I’ve never understood about people such as yourself is this: What do you have against looking at, say, the education systems in the top 10 democracies – the countries that routinely outperform the U.S. in education – and simply advocate for structuring our education system to copy the best parts of those education systems?
    As to the dead horse you’re beating about “parental choice”… Joe, we already have that in many forms. The problem is that the relatively few parents who value education end up at cross purposes with the majority of parents who are checked out (at best) or who simply do not value education. That’s one reason why charter schools haven’t worked; and it’s part of the reason why efforts at restructuring schools and school districts inevitably back slide and fail. America IS a democracy – and the disturbing truth is that parents DO have choice, and the result is that all across the land, for better or for worse, we have about the education system parents want, are willing or able to support, and are ok with sending their children to.
    The whole issue of public education – including parental involvement – is extremely complex. More so than you seem to realize. Honestly? Writing such as yours isn’t helping; it’s part of the problem. It belongs in a huge pile along with virtually every newspaper article, TV news report, radio commentary, magazine article, and book on the subject AS WELL AS virtually all of the legislation politicians in BOTH parties have passed regarding our schools.
    There are no easy answers, every stakeholder and institution is part of the problem, and too many people in this country cling to a stubborn, irrational refusal to LOOK at what works in other countries – and in quality schools in this country – and copy those practices.
    I’ll leave you with this last thought: In ALL of the democracies at the top of education performance, teachers are represented by STRONG unions. So, for you – or anyone – to conclude that American schools would be better off without unions is hasty and ill-informed. It’s not the unions per se that are the problem. I agree that education unions in America are an impediment to improving our schools. However, Joe, if you got rid of them, our schools would not magically improve.
    You can go right down the list. Point your finger at any of the stakeholders. They all deserve blame. But removing any one of them from the equation would, on the whole, change absolutely nothing.
    The whole thing is incredibly complicated – and more than a little corrupt.
    Jack Donachy


    • Jack, I really appreciate your thoughtful criticism as well as the civility of your tone.

      You and I agree that the system is broken, that teacher unions don’t deserve ALL the blame, and that continuing to tweak a broken system isn’t going to do much to improve the situation.

      I don’t agree that parents don’t care, that they already have meaningful choices (especially with so many inner city children trapped in some of the worst-performing public schools), or that charter schools “haven’t worked”. (Many charter schools are not only working, but also helping to improve other schools by providing at least a small amount of much-needed competition.)

      Yes, this is a democratic republic, but that doesn’t mean that we must take a political/bureaucratic approach to providing education. Government could fund public education — thereby creating markets — without running “state schools”.

      Children don’t all learn the same way. Freeing more families from the existing compulsory system would surely create more diversity (choices) and make all schools less bureaucratic, less top-down, more results-driven, more efficient and more responsive. Just one guy’s opinion.


  2. My gripe after three kids & my wife as a public school teacher… Teachers represent the most highly educated workforce in the country. Yet, they are swamped with overpaid administrators. In many districts it can be close to, or more than, one admin per teacher. That seems to me to be the real waste and what’s holding everything back from true excellence. The whole system needs to be rethought with teachers given more independence, responsibility and tremendously empowered.


    • Chris: I agree entirely. Part of the problem is that lawmakers and bureaucrats — federal, state and local — have piled on such a heavy load of regulations, standards and mandates that schools are forced to beef up administration to comply. Substitute parental choice for all those regulations and schools could devote more resources to empowering teachers to educate students. A key to Arizona’s early development of charter schools was to free those schools from most of the regulatory burden so they could focus on education!


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