What’s Wrong with American Education?

What’s Wrong with American Education?

© David Burton 2011

Today's American Liberals

      “While students in many developed nations have been learning more and more over time, American 15-year-olds are stuck in the middle of the pack in many fundamental areas, including reading and math.
      “This is according to the recently released Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment scores that measures educational achievement in 65 countries. This is despite the fact that the United States is near the top in education spending …

  • With the exception of Switzerland, the United States spends the most in the world on education, an average of $91,700 per student in the nine years between the ages of six and 15.
  • But the results do not correlate: For instance, we spend one-third more per student than Finland, which consistently ranks near the top in science, reading and math.
.       “Naturally, the OECD's report has sparked calls for more spending. But throwing more money at poorly performing schools has not moved the needle on performance.
  • During the last 40 years, the federal government has spent $1.8 trillion on education, and spending per pupil in the United States has tripled in real terms.
  • Government at all levels spent an average of $149,000 on the 13-year education of a high school senior who graduated in 2009, compared to $50,000 (in 2009 dollars) for a 1970 graduate.
  • Despite the dramatic increase in spending, there has been no notable change in student outcomes.” (Ref. 1)
      Starting in 2009, “when public education {was} slated to receive about $100 billion in new federal money under the recently passed economic stimulus package” (Ref. 2), President Obama has repeatedly called for an end to the relative decline of American education.

      Recently, the president said that "We have everything we need to be the nation that best educates its citizens... and yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us." (Ref. 3)

      “Since President Obama became president of the United States in 2009, the federal government has increased its influence and involvement in public education particularly in elementary and secondary education. The latest initiative came in the form of the Race to the Top reform plan designed to provide monetary incentive to schools in need of improvement.
      “Recently In 2007, Congress appropriated $125 million to states and school districts to support their efforts to improve under-performing schools. In 2009, about $3.5 billion {had} been appropriated through the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) to state governments and school districts.” (Ref. 4) In February, 2010, President Obama signed ARRA into law, providing approximately $100 billion for education. Quite obviously, lack of funding is not one of the problems facing the American educational system. What would appear to be required is a fundamental change in the American system of education. The traditional American public school system has been known to failing for decades. But, the entrenched bureaucracy and teachers unions have resisted the fundamental changes necessary.

Dumbing Down American Education

      “Would any management worth a damn put most of its dollars into its weakest divisions and starve the promising ones of capital? … {but} that’s just what the U.S. is doing in education.” In 1994, “70% of federal spending on elementary and secondary education {went} to the disadvantaged and handicapped.” (Ref. 5) Including bilingual and vocational programs brings that total up to 80%. The rest of the elementary and secondary school population - the gifted and most of us that are referred to as average - are left with the crumbs, the remaining 20%.

.       Through 1994, the only federal program that focused on brighter children, the “Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program” which began in 1989 never received more than “one-tenth of 1%” of federal elementary and secondary funding. It was reported that “state and local expenditures aimed at gifted and talented students in 1990 {amounted to} only 2 cents out of every $200.” Along with low funding for the gifted, educational standards were also lowered - the result being an overall deterioration in education. “America’s best and brightest decided to stop learning. They had figured out that they didn’t have to bother. The curriculum had been ‘dumbed down’ to help the weaker students.” While government educational spending has not benefited our best and brightest, it has risen overall, i.e., money continues to be poured into our elementary and secondary educational system. In spite of increased funding, American education has declined in quality. “U.S. education has a full-fledged productivity crisis to match its quality crisis. The more we spend, the less we get for the money.” (Ref. 5)

      “It is now well documented that there has been a significant dumbing down in education in order to keep test scores high. A comparison of reading comprehension tests from the ’60s with the ’90s is shocking. A ’60s reading test required a student to read a series of paragraphs on one subject and then answer specific questions about that subject. A ’90s reading test provided students with a restaurant menu and then asked a series of questions related to that menu. … In 1998, it was reported that 22 percent of Americans—44 million adults—are functionally illiterate.“ (Ref. 6)

      Over the past decades, a progressive agenda has been introduced into our education system. Included in this agenda are a number of romantic hypotheses that has resulted in the indoctrination of thousands of educators into the promulgation of egalitarianism, overemphasis on self-esteem, feeling over thinking, and a contempt for authority in general and direct instruction in particular. The teaching of the three R’s suddenly became passé!

      Starting in the late 1960s, teachers were taught “to avoid being authority figures. Arrange the chairs in a circle to show how we’re all equal. I’m your moderator, not your teacher. Notice how I don’t dress in a coat and tie, or skirt, so that I don’t look like ‘The Establishment’. … Caught up in the ’60s rebellion’, as a nation we removed all authority over education. Under the cloak of progressiveness, America’s adults gave the youth and special-interest groups the authority to decide what and how youth would be taught.
      “Progressive education methods replaced hard work and the transmission of essential knowledge with ‘life relevance’ and other naturalistic approaches. Teachers became more concerned about feelings and self-esteem rather than true achievement. … essentially, America’s educators {chose} the broad and easy way to educational ‘success’. … The results have been disastrous. … As progressive teaching methods’ influence increased, academic competence decreased.“ (Ref. 6)

      “Currently, there are approximately three million academically gifted and talented students in the United States; however many are not receiving the support and programs they need to reach their highest potential. Gifted and talented students need a challenging curriculum and a well-trained teacher who can inspire and motivate them, as well as challenge them to excel. … Additionally, the nation needs gifted and talented students to enter certain fields as part of our national and homeland security apparatus.” (Ref. 7)

      Reproduced below from Reference 7 are some facts about how gifted and talented students are treated in our educational system:
  • A 2008 report found that, while low-achieving students have made gains under NCLB, advanced-learners are ‘languishing’ and that teachers need to spend the bulk of their time with struggling students even though they know that others in the classroom need attention as well.
  • Many gifted elementary school students already know between 40 and 50% of the material to be covered in the class.
  • Most gifted and talented students spend at least 80% of their time in a regular education classroom.
  • According to a 1991 study, between 18 and 25% of gifted and talented students drop out of school. Gifted dropouts were generally from a lower socio-economic status family and had little or no access to extracurricular activities, hobbies, and computers.
  • Without properly trained teachers, {gifted and talented} students … often find themselves bored and frustrated in school.
  • 61% of classroom teachers did not receive any training in meeting the needs of gifted and talented students.
  • Gifted and talented students experience no instructional or curricular differentiation in 84% of the activities in which they participated.
  • Although gifted education programs and services yield increased learning gains for high-ability students, … 14 states allocated less than $500,000 in state funds for gifted programs in 2004-2005.
  • In 2007, .026% of the federal K-12 education budget {went} to gifted and talented students. [Emphasis mine].
  • By comparison, 3% of the federal K-12 education budget will go to the Reading First Program, 1.59% to Drug Prevention, 1.10% on Education of Migrant Children and 1.85% to English Language Acquisition. 64% covers the rest of the programs in the No Child Left Behind Act, and nearly 32% will be dedicated to children with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). (Note: although some states classify gifted students without disabilities in the ‘special education’ category, federal funds from IDEA do no support these programs.)
  • When looking at the estimated federal K-12 budget for FY 2007 in smaller increments, the Javits programs, the only federally funded gifted education initiative, receives just 2.6¢ out of every $100 spent on education. In contrast, Reading First gets $3.10, English Language Acquisition gets $1.85, Migrant Children Education gets $1.10, all other No Child Left Behind programs (in aggregate) receive $64, and IDEA programs will receive nearly $32 per $100 spent.” (Ref. 7)

Special Education

      In California, a first year high school student “kicked his pregnant mother. He set fires, lied and shoplifted. He swore at his teachers and threatened to kill his classmates. … he failed every course from math to gym. His parents enrolled him at a $20,000 a year private school and hit the public school district up for the tab. After years of court wrangling, theschool district ended up paying for everything - three years of private school tuition and legal fees for both sides, totaling $500,000.” (Ref. 8) This was in the mid 90’s and $500,000 then is probably equivalent to more than $1 million in today’s dollars. The result of all this public largesse? - After completing private school, this student who received special education services had 6 convictions “on charges ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to petty theft to vandalism. He was sentenced to more than two years in prison.” (Ref. 8)

      “An eighth-grader in Jasper, Ala. Entered the lunchroom a few years back, turned off the pilot light and then turned the stove back on and waited for the place to explode - twice. It didn’t, but the school expelled him. No way, said the parents: their boy should have been identified as needing special education services. The hearing officer hired by the state agreed, the would-be demolition expert went back to class, and the school board was out $20,000 in legal fees.” (Ref. 8)

      The federal special education law was passed in the 1960’s and was “supposed to male public education more accessible for blind, deaf and paraplegic children, as well as those with learning and emotional problems. .. Originally the program costs roughly $1 billion a year .. Sadly, the program has become a costly failure.” By 1997, the cost had risen to “about $60 billion a year” and was consuming 20 cents of every dollar spent. “Per pupil, about twice as much {was being spent} on the 5 million special education students than on the 52 million regular students.” In addition, once labeled “as needing special education - regardless of whether for visual disabilities or ‘behavioral disorders’ - he {couldn’t} be expelled by the public school system, no matter how disruptive his behavior.” A portion of the legal profession specializes in special education program cases - they love the profits they make from it. “Special education has become an ambulance - and the lawyers are chasing it.” Additionally, some affluent parents have abused the system by demanding “special privileges for their kids.” (Ref. 8)

      “In 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act required states to ensure free public education to all disabled students, and it spelled out in great detail what services school districts are required to provide. The result has been massive bureaucratic costs and a ‘lawyers’ playground’ of legal battles between school districts and parents regarding what services schools must provide to meet federal mandates. Today, special education is the second largest K-12 program, costing federal taxpayers nearly $12 billion annually.” (Ref. 9)

      “The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act sparked a huge increase in federal education spending and regulations. The legislation’s Title I was supposed to provide aid to K–12 schools in high-poverty areas, but by the end of the 1960s it was providing aid to 60 percent of the nation’s school districts. Today, Title I is the largest federal subsidy program for K–12 education.
      “In addition to Title I, the 1965 act created subsidies for teacher training, educational research, school libraries, textbooks, student literacy, school technology, school safety, and other items. It also beefed up state-level school bureaucracies directly with grants to strengthen state departments of education.
      “Since that time, federal education spending has gone through the roof. --- Has all that federal money translated into better educated students?” (Ref. 10) The answer appears to be an emphatic NO! Inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending had increased by nearly 150% between 1970 and 2006 while the percentage change in student math, science and reading score had remained unchanged or declined slightly, Sources: National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics 2008, Table 181 and National Assessment of Educational Progress, Long Term Trends.

      “Department{s} of Education operate a range of subsidy programs for elementary and secondary schools. That aid is matched by rising federal regulatory control over the schools, but federal intervention has not generally lifted academic achievement.” (Ref. 11)

      “Federal intervention into the nation's schools has consumed great deals of taxpayer money and created large bureaucracies to administer the funding and regulations. However, it has produced little, if any, improvement in academic results. The department will spend $79 billion in 2011, or about $670 for every U.S. household. It employs 4,400 workers and operates 171 different subsidy programs.” (Ref. 11)

      “After more than thirty-five years of experience and numerous careful efforts to evaluate its performance, the evidence has failed to demonstrate that Title I programs have been systematically and significantly contributing to reducing disparities in achievement by improving the performance of its beneficiaries . . . Experiments by federal, state, and local authorities and major shifts in the emphasis of federal policy have all failed to bring systematic improvement.” (Ref. 9)

      “Because of federal mandates, special education {has been} both costly and ineffective in serving a rapidly rising population of students with special needs. … One of the major factors contributing to the failure of special education has been its rampant growth.” (Ref. 12)

      From 1976 to 2000, the number of children between the ages of 3 to 21 that were found eligible for special-education services and accommodations grew from 3.7 million to 6.1 million - an increase of 65 percent. At the same time, the resident student population receiving special-education services and accommodations rose from 8.3% to 12.8%. “In 1991, the Department of Education issued a ‘policy clarification’ indicating that children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder {ADHD} may be eligible for special-education services and accommodations under the ‘other health impaired’ category of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Many suspect some school districts {have placed} non-disabled but low-achieving students into special-education classes in order to obtain state and federal funds that are available only after a child is identified as disabled under IDEA.” (Ref. 12)

      One aspect of special education that has assumed growing importance in the past few years is that of autism. The number of students being defined as autistic is rising as is the amount of funding and other resources being directed at the problem. “If past trends are any indication, autism rates could rise by as much as 75% in the next five years. This could not have come at a worse time for the nation’s overburdened and underfunded school districts” (Ref. 13)

      The question of why the rate of autism is increasing is largely unanswered. Is autism really increasing? Are more cases being reported because we have better means of diagnosing autism? Are some students being classified as autistic simply to obtain special education services for them? “In only the last 3 years we have seen autism prevalence in the U.S. as reported by the CDC increase from 1 in 150 to 1 in 4 children … While there has not been any indication that the rise in autism prevalence is slowing, recent research has shown that part of this increase may be due to changes in diagnostic approaches and awareness rather than a true increase in autism risk. On the other hand, converging findings also suggest that these factors account for only a portion of the increase and cannot alone explain the dramatic rise in autism prevalence.” (Ref. 13)

      “Federal data pegs the costs of educating a student with the condition at $18,800 a year, roughly three times as much as a child without autism. These figures are likely out-of-date since they were from the 1999-2000 school year” (Ref. 13)

      More recent data shows “there has been a 76% increase in the number of reported autistic students in public schools between 2004 and 2009, according to The U.S. Department of Education’s Child Count data.” (Ref. 13)

Federal Government Funding and Regualtions

      “Federal control over K-12 education has risen dramatically in recent decades. Congress has increased funding for the schools while imposing layers of rules and regulations on local school districts. …The Department of Education funds about 150 aid programs, which come with an array of regulations that extend federal control over state education policy.
      “Washington's role in education has grown to the point where it is difficult to track all the federal interventions. Using a narrow definition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined in 2010 that there were 151 K-12 and early childhood education programs housed in 20 federal agencies, averaging $55.6 billion annually.” (Ref. 14)

      “Major federal intervention into local schools began with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Since then, a half-century of continually expanding, ever-shifting federal intervention into local schools has failed to improve American academic achievement. …
      “But it has caused an enormous compliance burden, dissipating dollars and human capital that could have been more effectively directed to achieve educational excellence. The damage should be calculated not only in terms of decades of wasted fiscal and human resources and on-going opportunity costs, {but we} must also take stock of how federal intervention has created a dysfunctional governance system that undermines direct accountability to parents and taxpayers, while at the same time encouraging bureaucratic expansion and empowering special interests.
      “Specifically, we should count the following costs of compliance with federal policy:
  • The proliferation of federal programs and increased federal prescription to leverage ‘systemic reform’ have created a confusing policy maze that only a limited set of experts can navigate.
  • The growth of state bureaucracies to administer and comply with federal programs has given rise to a ‘client mentality’ that undermines effective educational governance and accountability that ought to be directed toward parents and other taxpayers.
  • The administrative set-asides and red tape associated with federal programs diminishes education dollars as they pass through multiple layers of bureaucracy.” (Ref. 15)
      “While state and local governments have been happy to take federal funds, they have chafed at the mandates imposed by Washington. … An accumulation of federal rules has suppressed innovation and diversity in state education systems, while generating growing bureaucracies of school administrators.” (Ref. 9)

      “Federal intervention has long been supported on ‘equity’ grounds, or redistributing funds toward less-advantaged schools. But studies have found that the federal government is not very successful at such redistribution, even if it were a good idea. When you compare a ranking of the states based on poverty rates with a ranking of per pupil federal K-12 financing, it reveals only a weak correlation. In other words, states with high poverty rates typically get only slightly more federal funds than wealthier states.” (Ref. 9)

      Not all federal funding benefits students. A portion of the money is utilized to fund the bureaucracy that has been created to oversee and manage the programs. “The larger educational bureaucracies are in the state and local agencies that comply with all the federal regulations. For example, in 2008 the Department of Education estimated that 7.8 million hours of work would be needed for state and local education agencies to comply just with regulations governing Title I grants. That figure had increased from 2.9 million hours in 2003, mainly as a result of the No Child Left Behind legislation. In many states, a majority of state-level education department workers are those administering federally funded programs.” (Ref. 9)

A Free Market in Education

      The American education system is not a free market system. The producers - public school systems and the public school educators - are insulated from their customers - the American public. Government subsidies go to the producers, not the consumers. The American public foots the bills for public education through taxation but the individual consumer does not, in reality, have direct control on where that money goes or how it is used. To have some degree of control, he must typically enroll his children in a private school at his own expense. The taxes he has paid for public education are then not used to benefit his children. Charter schools offer some relief from this conundrum, but teachers unions and many public officials fight the concept of charter schools tooth and nail. They do not want to lose their control and monopoly over public education.

      The typical American school “system demands that a child attend a particular public school based on where he or she resides, disabling them from being able to choose to go to another school for a potentially higher quality of education.
      “If {our} government subsidized the consumer side of the market for education, if they gave money to the student, he or she would be able to choose where to go to school. Obviously the child and the parents thereof would want to choose the best quality school with the best teachers and the best facilities; this would create competition. Schools would compete to meet the needs of the student in the best way. Quality and quantity would be ensured across the board, as subsidizing the student would provide an incentive for schools to work to outdo the other schools. As such, prices would be forced down as low as the competition would allow, and the quality of schooling would skyrocket consequently.” (Ref. 16)

      A privatized educational system would also … {allow} the poor and those in parts of town that are forced to go to the 'inferior' school to achieve better quality schooling than they currently receive.” Unfortunately, we've lowered the standardized rating of test scores across the board to make our public schools look good. “But when the real test, the international test, is implemented, the truth comes out. When put up against 41 other countries, American students do just as well...up until the 4th grade. Then, from the 5th grade on, American students score far less than the other countries that spend much less on education than we do.
      “Privatizing education would increase the salaries of teachers who” perform best. … “In terms of basic principles of economics, it's all about incentives. Pay would be based on productivity. That is, a great teacher will be paid more than a poor teacher, or the poor teacher will simply be fired to be replaced by a more qualified teacher.” (Ref. 16)

      “Teachers all across the board get paid the same independent of whether or not they are good teachers. The unionized teachers' contracts make it nearly impossible to fire most teachers, so they get away with many things that society and parents frown upon. Unionized monopolies ultimately fail. The education union does not allow the necessary changes to occur, and students suffer greatly because of it. Competition increases quality, quantity, and sustainability, and makes everything better.” (Ref. 16)

      “If the school is autonomous, it is free to hire and fire and choose and try out new things and experiment to get the best results possible.” Funding is not the issue! “Per-pupil spending has more than doubled in the last 30 years, while test scores and graduation rates remain flat.
      “It has been shown time and time again that private, alternative, charter, and independent schools do far better and cost far less than the highly bureaucratized {public} schools. “The … countries that beat America in the international tests do allow the parents and students to choose, and they do much better and get a much better education as a result.” (Ref. 16)

      “In the United States, the federal government has expended hundreds of billions of dollars on the schools, yet all it has to show for it is stagnant test scores, huge bureaucracies, and masses of federal regulations that smother local innovation. (Ref. 9)
  1. America Spends More on Education, Gets Worse Outcomes, National Center for Policy Analysis, http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=20378, February 28, 2011 {Accessed July 13, 2011} .
  2. Obama Criticizes U.S. Schools, Calls for Reform, Scott Wilson, The Washington Post, March 11, 2009.
  3. President Obama is bad for public education, Libby Quaid, Education Matters, http://jaxkidsmatter.blogspot.com/2011/03/president-obama-is-bad-for-public.html, March 13, 2011.
  4. President Obama and the Problems Facing American Education, Cozay World Issues Forum , http://cozay.com/forum/f2/president-obama-and-the-problems-facing-american-education-t2131/, {Accessed July 13, 2011}.
  5. Disadvantaging the advantaged, Peter Brimelow, Forbes Magazine, Pages 52-57, November 21, 1994.
  6. The Right Fix for America’s Public Schools, Dennis Leap, Trumpet, http://www.thetrumpet.com/print.php?q=387.144.30.0, February 2001.
  7. Why We Should Advocate for Gifted and Talented Students, National Association for Gifted Children, http://www.nagc.org/index.aspx?id=538 {Accessed July 14, 2011}.
  8. The special education scandal, Lisa Gubernick and Michelle Conlin, Forbes Magazine, Pages 66-70, February 10, 1997.
  9. K-12 Education Subsidies, Downsizing the Federal Government, The Cato Institute, http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/education/k-12-subsidies, {Acessed July 8, 2011}.
  10. The Cost of the Decline and Fall of Education in America, Brenda Bowers, http://brendabowers.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/the-decline-and-fall-of-education-in-america/, April 17, 2010 {Accessed July 8, 2011}.
  11. Department of Education, Downsizing the Federal Government, The Cato Institute, http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/education, {Accessed July 8, 2011}.
  12. Special Education Costly, Ineffective , National Center for Policy Analysis, http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=7356, December 20, 2001 {Accessed July 13, 2011}.
  13. Can America Afford The Rising Cost Of Autism? , 24/7 Wall St., http://247wallst.com/2011/03/10/can-america-afford-the-rising-cost-of-autism-education/#ixzz1RX77mRxQ, {Acessed July 8, 2011}.
  14. Washington's Role in Education, National Center for Policy Analysis, http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=20545, April 14, 2011 {Accessed July 13, 2011}.
  15. Effects of Federal Intervention in Education, National Center for Policy Analysis, http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=20445, April 14, 2011 {Accessed July 13, 2011}.
  16. The Failure of the American Education System and the Ultimate Solution, John Williamson, Armchair Economics | The Armchair Economist | Current Macroeconomic Situation, April 8, 2010 .

  22 July 2011 {Article 108; Undecided_21}    
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