Public School Failure in America



After my controversial post last week on income inequality in America, I became involved in a conversation about how the government actually helps foster these disparities. One of the main contributors to these dismal scores are the remarkably inept and dysfunctional public schools which trap the poor while the wealthy, as Barack Obama has elected to do, can afford to send their kids to superior private schools.

Other than the empirical failures of public schools, the government education system serves to infantilize children and indoctrinate them to unflinchingly accept the state and its omnipresence and presumed omniscience.

The abject state of US public schools is not in question. The Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) tests hundreds of thousands of international students from 65 participating nations. America was ranked 23rd in science, 17th in reading and a woeful 31st in math. Americans are also bad at actually completing high school. The US has a graduation rate of about 78%, good for 22nd out of 27 countries. Not too bad for government work?

South Korean students are routinely at the top of the global rankings. Having taught in Korea for three years and counting—and having been subjugated to the US school system for almost 18 years—I can say firsthand that the American system is a complete joke. After public school is over, Korean students are sent to two or three private schools every day to learn English, science or math. For high school students, a typical day of instruction begins at 8am and doesn’t end until 10pm, when homework time begins. I hardly remember doing any homework in high school; a day with 30 minutes worth was certainly rare. In Korea students routinely have 3-4 hours every night and often don’t go to sleep until after 2am. (Sleep is a precious commodity for Koreans. They have a special talent for being able to fall asleep on a dime, a technique often attempted in my classroom.) Students back home have a three month break during which they can forget half of the previous year’s lessons. Students in Korea have two months “vacation,” during which their parents send them to additional private schools. Education is religion in the Republic of Korea.

The Korean system is far too draconian and soul-crushing to possibly want to emulate. I have had students not understand the concept of free time. I tried to explain to one girl further: “What do you do when you’re not at school or doing homework?” She looked confused before she answered “I sleep!” There is absolutely no way American students can compete with fervor like that on a global scale unless there is a dramatic overhaul in the way the United States educates its children, and we don’t have to turn our schools into gulags to do so.

Not only do US schools fail their charges educationally, they have also become a place where logic and sanity have been eradicated and replaced with mindless procedures and an astounding disregard for the welfare of students. Zero tolerance policies for guns and drugs are a large part of the insanity. Schools and guns certainly don’t mix and never have, but the Sandy Hook massacre has intensified the animistic, knee-jerk reactions of school officials to “incidents” that aren’t.


Examples of this detached-from-reality thinking are not hard to come by. Earlier this month a 7-year-old boy in Baltimore was suspended for biting a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun. Colorado second grader Alex Evans was suspended in February for throwing an imaginary grenade while playing soldier at recess. In January, a 5-year-old boy at Hyannis West Elementary School in Massachusetts was threatened with suspension for making a gun-like shape out of Legos. Most absurdly, first grader Rodney Lynch was actually suspended for making a gun gesture with his hand, pointing it at a fellow classmate and saying “pow.” Seriously.



Zero tolerance hysteria also extends to the disastrous and failed War on Drugs. Honor student Savanna Redding was strip-searched by school officials under suspicion of concealing illicit substances. The catch is that Redding was being accused of holding prescription-strength ibuprofen, when another student caught with contraband fingered Redding as their source. The 13-year-old girl was forced to disrobe and to pull out her underwear, shake out her bra and expose herself. No drugs were found. The girl was so humiliated that she never returned to the school.

Redding’s parents took the issue to the courts, where the case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court. In a 8-1 decision, with Justice Thomas dissenting, the court decided that Redding’s constitutional rights had, indeed, been violated by stripping her down in the vain quest to uncover the equivalent of a couple tablets of Advil.

The buffoons who sign off on these searches and suspensions don’t belong anywhere near children, let alone be entrusted with teaching them critical thinking skills that the teachers and administrators clearly lack.

One of the biggest problems with public schools is that they are inescapable. Poor Americans can’t afford to Super Size their children’s future through privatized education the way that wealthier families can. People are forced to send their children to the public school in the district that they live in, regardless of quality. In fact, it’s illegal to fudge the truth about your place of residence in order to gerrymander your child into a better school. Kelly Williams-Bolar of Akron, OH learned this the hard way when she registered her children at her father’s house in an attempt to get them into a better school district. Even though the father claimed that the children did indeed live with him, Williams-Bolar was nonetheless sentenced to five years in prison. Although the judge suspended all but 10 days of that sentence, she still had to serve 80 hours of community service and was put on probation for three years. All for the crime of having her children’s best interests at heart.

The overarching and negative issues with public schools largely stem from the fact that they are centrally controlled and they disallow competition. Schools aren’t in a position to customize their curriculum or to innovate in ways that might benefit parents or their children’s education. The most glaring example of this is the disastrous 2001 No Child Left Behind policy, which mandates that schools won’t receive federal funding unless their students demonstrate proficiency in standardized tests. This misguided top-down control is one thing that helps foster substandard public schools: Rather than be able to adapt and adjust to the needs of the students and their parents, schools are forced to play by bureaucratic rules created by Washington that try to create a one-size-fits-all method of education. Private schools, able to exist without federal aid, are largely able to eschew these demands of conformity.

It’s important to note that the problems public schools face cannot be solved by continuing to throw money at them. According to numbers from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the amount of money spent per pupil has tripled since 1970 (see the chart at the top of this post), with absolutely nothing to show for it. Students’ scores in reading, math and science have flatlined. It’s clear that the problems with the system are not financial. The institution itself and the philosophy behind it is rotten. The supposed Tree of Knowledge can no longer bear fruit.

Public schools can be fixed if competition and choice are again injected into the system, allowing parents to freely choose schools that provide the best education to their children. Good schools would flourish and flagging ones would disappear from the market like a restaurant that has horrific service and serves rancid food.

Charter schools and programs like the Washington DC Opportunity Based Scholarship Program demonstrate how these principles can work in practice. Rather than forcing parents to send their children to the nearest public school, parents could be issued vouchers backed by tax-payer money. This voucher would represent the amount of money a state spends on each student per year for schooling, which averages about $11,500 although the figure varies between states. Schools that attract students are rewarded with the money allotted to that student. If a school fails to deliver the service it promises, then the parents are free to find a school that will, just like in any healthy business-customer relationship.

It’s time to completely revamp education in America. It’s a failed system that has been allowed to stagnate and fester like a bad case of trench foot. Institutional monopolies are uniquely capable of being massive while also providing piss-poor service, a reality that is readily admitted when it occurs outside of the public sector. After all, how happy would you be if you were forced to continually pay for a substandard computer that refused to upgrade and respond to market demand, year after year?

Inane bureaucracy and lack of choice are two driving factors to the inadequacies of public school systems in America. By allowing individuals to customize their children’s educational experience, we can dramatically improve their future by dismantling the idea that their place of residence shackles them to the school of nearest geographical convenience.




3 thoughts on “Public School Failure in America

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