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Are American Schools Failing? – How to Improve the U.S. Education System


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A headline in the December 2013 issue of The Atlantic claimed that American schools compared to the rest of the world – the members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – were “expensive, unequal, bad at math.” Their conclusion was based upon American student performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2012. Far East countries such as China, Korea, and Japan were top performers, while most European and Scandinavian countries ranked higher than the U.S. as well. Even the country’s former Cold War competitor, the Russian Federation, ranked higher than the United States in the assessment.

At the same time, Universitas 21, a global network of research-intensive universities, ranked the American higher education system – its colleges and universities – as the best in the world in 2014, a rank it has retained for years. It is also the reason that foreign students flock to the United States from around the globe.

So what is the truth about the American school system? Is it a success or a failure? What should we expect from our schools, and how can we improve them?

History of Public Education in the United States

Contrary to popular belief, the right to an “education” is not mentioned in the Constitution. In the early years of the republic, public education was considered important to the nation’s progress as evidenced by the granting of more than 77 million acres of public domain to the individual states for the support of public schools. At the same time, the responsibility for education was delegated to state and local governments. The Federal Government was not heavily involved in the administration of public education until the end of the Civil War, establishing the original Office of Education in 1867.

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It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the Federal Government assumed a dominant position in the administration of education, primarily stimulated by racial discrimination. A second driver for the Federal Government’s increased role was the perceived failure of the state-run schools, especially in science and math, compared to national rivals. The passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) was in direct response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik as a consequence of the general perception that “American schools and colleges were not producing the quantity and quality of scientific and technical specialists necessary to keep pace with the Soviet Union.”

As a consequence, the first federal student loans capitalized with U.S. Treasury funds for college students in science, math, and foreign languages were instituted. Since that time, financial assistance has alternated between direct loans capitalized with U.S. Treasury funds and loans from private parties secured by federal guarantees.

Costs & Scholastic Performance of American Education

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, total expenditures for elementary and secondary schools in the United States by the federal, states, and local governments in 2010-2011 were more than $632 billion, or about $12,608 per public school attendee. About one-half of the expenditures were for student instruction – salaries and benefits of teachers and teacher assistants, as well as instructional materials and services – with the remainder being spent in peripheral services such operations, maintenance, and administration.

Furthermore, these costs do not include such items as the following:

  • School supplies such as laptops, software, and Internet connection fees, essential to a modern education.
  • Extracurriculars such as sports, band, and drama participation. Graduation trips and proms are also expected, but often not considered.
  • College prep courses including Advanced Placement tests and tutoring.
  • Transportation going to and from school and school activities, and parking at school.

According to the OCED study, America spends more than any other nation for public elementary and secondary school education. United States parents also bear a greater proportion of the costs than parents in other countries. In fact, according to CBS News, the government of the average OECD nation covers more of the total educational cost of students – about 20% more – and they get better scholastic performance while having a lower per-student cost than the United States.

College costs for Americans have been generally paid through student loan programs, with more than 60% of college attendees borrowing to help cover costs. As of 2012, there are approximately 37 million student loans outstanding totaling $864 billion in federal student loan debt, and another $150 billion in private loans.

A typical college student graduates with more than $26,600 in debt and is often unable to find a job in his or her chosen field. As a consequence, almost one half of students become delinquent in repayment. This analysis indicates on a performance and cost basis that America’s schools – elementary, secondary, and colleges – are indeed failing.

American Education Scholastic Performance

Expectations for an Educational System

Diane Ravitch, author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education“, wrote, “They [parents] should be able to take their child to a neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program.” In his book “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling,” veteran teacher John Taylor Gatto is blunt in his assessment of the American system: “No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.”

A May 2013 Pew Research poll indicated that 66% of Americans say either that the education system in this country needs to be completely rebuilt (21%) or that it requires major changes (45%). Only 31% think the system works pretty well and requires only minor changes. The same percentage of Republicans and Democrats (67%) agree that drastic change is needed.

A 2011 survey of more than 1,000 college presidents found that fewer than 20% thought the U.S. higher education system was the “best in the world,” and only 35% of those rating it the best thought the system would remain best in 10 years. It is clear that on a professional and popular level, the perception is that American’s schools have failed and continue to fail.

An Ideal Educational System

Many U.S. citizens agree that an effective and efficient educational system is essential to the maintenance and security of a strong economy and a stable society, especially considering accelerating technological changes and sociopolitical global competition. At the same time, the national debt level has become unsustainable, and state, country, and local government budgets are overextended, with the likelihood of increased revenues from taxes and fees remote. The allocation of public funds – while balancing the demands of global leadership, a deteriorating infrastructure, and increasing income disparity of a diverse racial, ethnic, and socio-economic population – is almost impossible.

Regardless of political perspective, most people would concur that, at a minimum, an educational system should do the following:

  • Teach students to think intensively and critically – or, more simply, how to learn and how to think
  • Prepare students for their desired occupations by ensuring fundamental skills – reading, writing, math, and history – are learned by every pupil, with further specialized knowledge available to those who choose more technical careers
  • Recognize the differences in ability, aptitude, and attitude of students while ensuring an equal opportunity to learn to all
  • Transfer basic social skills and societal principles, values, morals, and ethics to all students
  • Promote civic responsibility and nonviolence
  • Attract, retain, and motivate excellent teachers
  • Deliver its lessons in the most effective and cost-efficient methods possible

Unfortunately, the American school system has become a battleground for cultural and religious differences in the country. Schools are expected to right historical racial and economic discrimination, perform as surrogate parents, teach traditional family values, and function as immigration and health authorities. As technology has transformed the American workplace and ethos, it has intensified pressure on teachers to remain informed, school administrators to continually update curriculums, and governmental entities to finance an ever-changing infrastructure.

Ideal Educational System

Recommended Changes

Despite the need for consensus on the role of public education and the method by which such education would be best provided, solutions are generally split along political party lines. Republicans and Democrats propose different remedies for improvement, even as they share the desire for drastic reform.

Republican Position of Education

The Republican Party supports a massive restructuring of the educational system, including a reduction of the Federal Government’s role in education. They believe that the existing system has not provided students a proper basis for obtaining a job or success in a career and promote fundamental changes such as:

  • Eliminating public student loans, relying solely on the private sector to provide financing, if needed
  • Supporting school choice through public vouchers
  • Promoting homeschooling, especially where parents want religious beliefs inculcated in their children
  • Private initiatives to promote science, math, and engineering courses
  • Abstinence education courses in lieu of family planning or sex education
  • An English language-first approach to encourage assimilation into the general society

Republicans generally support a system based upon an individual student’s talents and motivation. Programs that discriminate positively or negatively based upon race, ethnicity, or income (such as Affirmative Action) would be eliminated in education.

Democrat Position on Education

The Democratic Party is committed to “ensuring that every child has access to a world-class public education” and “will continue to strengthen all of our schools and work to expand public school options for low-income youth, including magnet schools, charter schools, teacher-led schools, and career academies.” They support investments in education on every level.

Other key objectives include the expanded use of vouchers for publicly supported entities, such as charter schools and magnets. While some Democrats have softened their opinion on private school vouchers, the Party has been historically tied to the teachers unions, which have opposed private school vouchers and loss of teacher seniority.

Education Democrat Position

The Most Likely Outcome: Continuation of the Status Quo

With the existing political turmoil within the electorate and the almost equal divide between the partisans, it is unlikely that significant change in the educational system will occur in the near future. As a consequence, the Federal Government will continue to use education to implement social programs unrelated to the schools’ primary objectives of literacy and technical proficiency. Primary funding will continue to be provided by individual state and local governments with outmoded and stressed financial structures, resulting in reduced total spending each year. Class sizes in the public schools are likely to increase, school infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, and teacher unions will increase efforts to protect their dwindling ranks and reduced compensation.

Those financially able to send their children to private schools will further exacerbate the public school funding crisis, especially if they are successful in diverting public funds to cover private and religious school tuition. As the country eats its seed corn – the potential of young minds ignored and squandered – the short-term economic effects will be positive: lower costs as a whole, and lower per-student costs.

However, the poor and disadvantaged number of society will grow, further exaggerating the structural inequities within the economic system. In the long term, America’s position as the world’s strongest economy and land of opportunity will erode, with countries like China and India assuming global leadership.

Final Word

America’s educational system is being tested as never before, primarily due to unprecedented social and cultural change. There are no easy answers, and no quick fixes for problems that have existed for generations of students, especially the poor and disadvantaged.

At the same time, the country is dealing with a myriad of other major problems, including the loss of job security and escalating healthcare costs. There is no doubt that a major overhaul of many of our government and societal systems is justified, but a national consensus on priorities or actions has yet to coalesce.

What do you think can be done to improve the U.S. educational system?


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Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.