Why Government Schools Fail

A new PBS series, School Inc. by Cato's Andrew Coulson explores why American schools don't improve.


Every year, almost every industry improves.

We get more choices—usually better choices, for less money.

"But of all the products we make and the services we provide, there's one that stands out as an exception," according to the Cato Institute's Andrew Coulson. "One activity in which excellence doesn't spawn countless imitators or spread on a massive scale: schooling."

Why not? What can be done about it? These questions are asked and often answered by Coulson's new PBS TV series School Inc. It's a wonderful three hours, reaching back years to America's first experiments in education and traveling the world to look at schools in Chile, England, Sweden, India and Korea. In Korea, top teachers make millions.

Why haven't American schools improved? The education establishment says, "We don't have enough money!" But American schools spend more per student than other countries. Spending tripled during Coulson's lifetime and class sizes dropped. But test scores stay flat.

"Schools adopted all sorts of new technologies, from projectors to personal computers to 'smart' whiteboards," says Coulson. "None of these inventions improved outcomes … Educational quality has been stuck in the era of disco and leisure suits for 40 years, while the rest of the world has passed it by."

The main reason for that is that most schools are controlled by government. Government is a monopoly, and monopolies resist change. Actually, most of us resist change. We don't want to give up the way we've always done things. Certainly, few of us want to work harder, or differently. We get set in our ways.

But when there is competition, we can't get away with that. If we don't adopt better ways of doing things, we go out of business. That forces innovation.

But government-run schools never go out of business. Principals, school boards and teachers—especially union teachers—have little incentive to try anything new.

One of the documentary's illustrations of this might be familiar because the story was also told in the movie Stand and Deliver.

In that film, actor Edward James Olmos played math teacher Jaime Escalante. Escalante taught at California's Garfield High School. The student body was, and is, composed of some of the most "disadvantaged" students in America. Yet more Garfield High students passed advanced placement calculus tests than did students from Beverly Hills High.

Escalante was the reason. He was simply a better teacher.

Coulson interviewed some of his former students, who said, "Escalante worked as if his life depended on the success of his students."

The results were beyond belief … literally. His students did so well on the state calculus test that authorities accused them of cheating. They made them take the test again. The students aced the test the second time.

What made Escalante a better teacher?

One student tells Coulson, "He built a relationship with each student, knew them by name, knew their story… Students didn't want to disappoint him."

The movie made Escalante famous, but he didn't change. He kept teaching at Garfield, telling students that even though they were poor, "With enough drive and hard work, the sky is the limit."

"The lessons I learned from Jaime, I apply them every day," a former student told Coulson. "With my children I talk about Jaime and about ganas—desire. Nothing's for free. You have to work really hard if you want to achieve anything."

Stand and Deliver has a happy ending, but what happened in real life was no fairy tale.

Coulson says, "In any other field, we might expect this combination of success, scalability, and publicity to have catapulted Escalante to the top of his profession and spread his teaching model across the country." That isn't what happened.

Garfield's union teachers resented Escalante's fame and work ethic.

A former Garfield student who now is a teacher told Coulson, "The problem was that Escalante's classes were big… He was setting a precedent, giving the message to the administrator: 'If Escalante can do it, why not you?'"

The union used its organizing power to get votes to oust Escalante as math department chairman. Escalante then quit.

Unfortunately, Coulson did not live to see his TV series finished. He died while completing it. School Inc. is a wonderful memorial to Andrew Coulson and inspiration to all of us.


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  1. Disbanding all teacher’s unions and hunting down their administration like the vermin they are might not solve every problem with Public Education, but it sure would be satisfying on its own merits.

    1. it sure would be satisfying on its own merits

      Agree – we’re going to have to come up with additional reasons why our government-controlled and union-operated schools suck so much more than some other countries’ government-controlled and union-operated schools.

      1. How many of those other Government controlled schools are Union operated? I genuinely don’t know. I DO know that in Japan (which is the usual ‘why can’t our schools be that good’ case) Unions tends to be very difference from Unions here.

        Of course, the comparison with Japan fails on many levels. For one thing, I seriously doubt we would tolerate a system that appeared to foster their rate of school-related suicide.

        1. I know Germany’s all-public school system is run by unions and is generally well-regarded (note: they do a LOT more “tracking” than in the US). But I have also heard it said that their unions are “different” from ours – I lived there too young to know for sure.

          1. I think that the tracking is a big part of their success. Their “free college” isn’t for just anyone who manages to make it through high school.

            I don’t know too much about how it’s run in Germany and other European places that supposedly have better schools, but I understand that they pay teachers pretty well there, so they can attract people who are actually highly qualified in teh fields that they teach, and that they actually expect results from teachers. I don’t know if it’s easier to fire a teacher there, but I think it’s harder to become one in the first place.

            1. I would guess the crucial questions are, is there such a thing as a degree in education in Germany and is one required to teach in the Public Schools.

              When I lived on the edges of the American academic culture it was widely believed by everyone IN academia that colleges of education were generally the grease-traps of any university; where the worst muck settled. I have yet tomsee any indication that that wasn’t true then. If it isn’t true now, it is probably only because of the baleful influence of Ethnic/Gender Studies departments.

          2. Tracking bothers me a lot personally. Perhaps that gets better statistics, but I think there might be something almost unethical about forcing people hard into certain life tracks.

            Probably one of the better things about our education system, when I was at Community College I had co-students who were 40+ years old, never having had post-high school education before. And they worked, and they were able to get better work in the long run.

            It’s certainly harder, but we do seem to value second chances an awful lot here.

            As for Japan. I really don’t know. They do well on tests and such, but 30 years into their lost decade I’m not sure if that’s translating to particularly great workers. At least one problem is that all comparisons are of various test scores, and I truly don’t know how well that translates to real life.

    2. Public sector unions are pure evil. They only exist to advocate for the employees with no though about cost to the shareholders – the American public. At least private sector unions exist to bargain on behalf of the works with management for profit sharing. This isn’t my original thought but a paraphrase form something I read years ago. I wholeheartedly agree with this view on public-sector unions.

      1. Private sector unions are bargaining against a clearly adverse party.

        The problem with public sector unions is they most often aren’t in true adversarial bargaining positions with the local government. They are often in a symbiotic relationship with local politicians and their students and the tax payers interests aren’t represented. That’s how these awful schools in Democrat cities ed up with terrible adminstrative rules that keep terrible teachers to the detriment of the students.

    3. CSP, are you suggesting hunting parties, or deploying early model Terminator robots? I’m down with it either way.

  2. My public school was badass and the private schools around us were run by religious nut jobs. So there’s that to consider.

    1. What you didn’t realize is that your bad ass school was run by regular ‘ol nutjobs who were using taxpayer money as a piggybank and your education as a tool to further their interests.

    2. My public school was badass

      How would you know if it wasn’t? “Ignorance is bliss,” after all.

      1. Schools in wealthier districts might be pretty good places to go but you are still being brainwashed on the benevolence of government and how great FDR was. At least good private schools offer to teach one system vs the other.

        American public schools are factories of waste. I imagine your public school was good because you have good parents.

        1. I’m not srue private schools are a lot better in terms of indoctrination, but at least parents get to decide what kind of indoctrination their kids get. And if public schools were replaced by privately run ones, you would see more diversity, I’m sure.

          1. I went to private school through high school and I was told my whole life that FDR was a god. I also remember spending a fair amount of time learning how bad the robber barons were. Think about that horseshit.
            I was taught that these entrepreneurial geniuses were bad guys because they brought millions into the cities from toiling in the fields doing sustenance farming and starving in the process.
            Those evil robber barons had the gall to provide jobs and cheaper goods and services to the masses and thus create the first middle class in history.

            Can you believe those guys?

            1. I also had a few teachers that weren’t leftist zombies though. I doubt there are more than three public school teachers per state that are not brainwashed.

        2. I read The Fountainhead in my public school…

          1. I had one English teacher who liked to assign Rand stuff. I read Anthem and parts of Atlas Shrugged. Maybe it’s changed, it’s been over 20 years since high school, but I didn’t find that teachers were all that ideologically uniform.

            1. Oh yeah. As someone that was coming of age when No Child Left Behind passed, schools have been getting dramatically more anal about the dumbest things whilst not actually teaching.

              …phrasing, yeah.

  3. Also of note: Escalante was a vocal opponent of bilingual education efforts, and wanted English-only classes in California.

    1. Probably another reason they drove him out – not woke enough.

  4. Like everything else touched by government.

    Competition doesn’t solve problems. What it does is two-fold: it lets problem solvers get their chance, and it lets the status quo fail.

    Every time some statist whines about market failure, I bring up the subject of government failure. It’s rampant. Statists like to pretend government failure is caused by market interference, but they know better, instinctively, and you can see it in their eyes and their flinches as you point it out. They recoil, they back off, they change the subject.

    It’s fun, if you’ve got nothing better to do. Like riding a bus; what else you gonna do that’s half as entertaining?

    1. The problem with market failure is that no one explains who is supposed to define optimality.

      It reduces to the complainer’s subjective preference.

      1. That’s the market. You either figure out what is optimal or you lose some more.

        1. One of my professors’ examples of market failure was essentially, “Free public roads are great, but no private company will provide light for the roads, because they can’t figure out how to charge people who use it. That’s a market failure.”

          No, that’s retarded. That’s just pointing at people, wishing they’d do something different, and pretending it’s some objective failure of markets.

          1. So by free you mean no cost? Cause I’m pretty sure those roads weren’t cheap, and don’t you cars come with headlights?

          2. That and privately operated toll roads that do not subsidize the expense. Government run utilities are sweet at below market prices until they fail. Which they always will do eventually.

            And that right there will cause a leftist to spins in circles, cry, accuse you of being racists, and likely huddle in a corner while peeing on themselves. These people are so stupid, they are afraid of daily life. That is why none of them have a sense of humor, much less a functioning brain.

      2. Of course it is a failure if it failed to produce the desired result of me and my whiny tribemates.

    2. So everytime someone brings up a market failure, you decide not to deal with the issue and change topics?

      I’m all for looking at the problems presented by both, but to deny one or think its inevitably, always the better option is wrongheaded.

      1. Just let me know who gets to decide what’s optimal.

        Otherwise, market failure is question begging utilitarianism, assuming itself settled.

        1. All policy decisions come down to choices made without perfect information, if thats where youre going to end your analysis quit now and let the rest of us move on. In any particular case it matters less “who gets to decide” and more about how that setup determines “what gets decided.” Per your street lamp example, if there is data corroborating public safety concerns, etc. im fine with the government paying for street lamps, where the market might be less concerned with safety than it should be (value judgement, let us all shake in fear).

          1. This is how market failure, as a concept, is just about as valuable as nirvana fallacies.

            When “I want street lights!” becomes “market failure”, than basically any policy action you wish automatically becomes a market failure.

            It’s just question begging.

          2. Literally everything government does comes with a potential death sentence.

            Think that is hyperbole? Well, what happens when people refuse. Hm. They are ordered to go to court. When they refuse that then men with guns are sent to kidnap them. If they resist this initiation of force then there is a good chance that they will be killed.

            That is how everything in government works. Don’t like what your taxes are paying for, refuse to pay them, and you may wind up dead. Don’t obey arbitrary diktats (what you would call policy) and you may wind up dead.

            So your “value judgement” is that streetlights are so important that anyone who acts against you should be killed.

            1. Once we say “value judgement”, it immediately proves the point of the first question: who gets to decide? Who’s values?

              The concept of objective market failure is, essentially, the idea that markets can produce suboptimal outcomes.

              As such, it is based on what are usually implicit, unstated assumptions. Namely, that there is some objective cost/reward function we can apply to society to measure performance, and, thus, what is more or less “optimal”. And we can take a complex society full of diverse people with diverse wants, needs, and goals, reduce them into this cost/reward function, and then drive them all to where we want to live on the curve with social policy. And, that we should do that.

              Those are highly debatable claims in general, and, given any specific issue or policy decision, “market failure” is just the assumption that all of those questions have been answered for the topic at hand (usually without being very well shown).

              So you end up with “I want street lights! Thus, market failure! QED!”

              Pure question begging.

              1. Using a hypothetical scenario to illustrate a point obviously assumes truths, in an attempt to explain or figure out outcomes, so the whole question begging bit is off the mark. Since you seem distraught by this though, if we “assume” something along the lines of “75 out of 100 people would prefer street lights and total utils would be raised by their introduction, but the market isn’t providing them because no one can decide how to implement it.” This is a market failure that can be fixed by say, using taxes to put in street lamps. Other market failures involve more basic things, like price fixing and collusion, which are typically private endeavors that require public enforcement to change. There is no “debating” whether someone who price fixes a market is engendering a market failure. This isn’t the bogeyman. There are real failures that require real solutions.

                1. “There is no “debating” whether someone who price fixes a market is engendering a market failure.”

                  This implies that labor unions, which attempt to fix the price of labor, are market failures, and that is beyond debate.

                  Is that correct?

                  1. Protip: when you’re trying to be “beyond debate”, it’s usually a question begging tell.

                  2. Yes, of course.

                2. I see your tripe continues. If you want to see real price fixing look to industries with heavy government interference, e.g. medicare pricing of ICD10 codes. It’s a sweet deal. Or college tuition costs. It’s not a coincidence that the highest rate of inflation of any good or sercice is higher education followed by medical costs. Both industries are deeply entangled in government. There’s your real market failure.

                  1. Sure, these are market failures in that they aren’t the most productivity related efficient distributions of those goods and services. They have policy reasons for doing so, that may or may not be good in some circumstances. In any event, I haven’t argued that government doesn’t need to be simplified and limited.

                    But as I pointed out to you previously, real price fixing occurs in the real world all the time. In oligopolies, which are an increasing problem across almsot every industry, the ability to collude on price (create monopoly pricing problems) is not an efficient distribution of goods and services either. These are “real,” even if there are also issues healthcare and tuition. My two examples I used yesterday were titanium dioxide and airlines after fuel prices fell.

                    1. And labor union price fixing isn’t market failure, because…. subjective value preferences about winners and losers.

                      Market failure is just false objectivity dressing around your own subjective preferences.

                      Pure question begging.

                    2. I’ve always thought the term “market failure” meant “nobody will do it for what I want to pay for it! Not fair! Not fair! Waaaah! Mommy!”

                    3. “Market failure” is just a fun euphemism for “creative destruction,” used primarily by people who don’t understand the “creative” part of that phrase.

                    4. “”Market failure” is just a fun euphemism for “creative destruction,” used primarily by people who don’t understand the “creative” part of that phrase.”

                      Alternatively, you could open a textbook. Or google, I guess. Anything would be better than whatever you’re presently sourcing.

                    5. Literally in the post above this, I agreed with you on that.

                    6. You pointed out literally nothing. Airfares are DOWN in real terms over the last 30 years. You have some irrational notion that thry should perfectly track spot market fuel prices even when airlines HEDGE to protect themselves from upside prices (see Southwest Airlines). So when ticket price reality was pointed out you went to the old chestnut counterfactual that it could be even lower based on… your feelz. Given that there’s essentially no inflation outside of those government industries referenced above and the fact that industry in general is proving to have no pricing power, you have a hell of a lot of homework in front of you to show these “price fixing oligopolies” are anything more than ravings of your fever dreams.

                    7. This is basic economics. Depreciation in prices occurred, then fuel prices bottomed out, and prices remained stable, suggesting that these markets were competitive.

                3. Markets do not fail, but are destroyed by coercion. A market operating with coercion is like an organism infected with a virus that perverts the natural operation.
                  The valuable good of streetlamps will be provided by the market if consumers value the end more than the means exchanged, period.

            2. No, not everything. Where I live, if you receive a parking ticket and refuse to pay, the downside is that you can’t renew your driver’s license. They also send the ticket to a private collection company after time has passed. In no way does it result in arrest. Although moving violations can.

    3. I agree with you about the value of competition – but the reality is that that CAN exist even within a govt system. Further, privatizing a public function that still uses taxes for revenue (and education – at K-12 level at least – will do that) is almost inevitably not a way to increase competition but simply to transfer an existing monopoly into private hands or to encourage rent-seeking behavior.

      We did used to manage schools right – even within the govt framework – until the 1950’s. Before the country was ‘school districtized’, schools were governed as individual schools. 130,000 of them as true governance entities. Run by (mostly semi-volunteer elected) school boards – able to make their own teacher hiring/curriculum decisions – and able to decide on their local mill rates and capital budgets (rolled up to county level). It meant elementary schools within a county had the incentive to compete with other elementary schools in the county. That they could experiment. Governed by those with the best incentive to deliver true improvements and measurable to their kids – not generic ‘education professionals’.

      There were legitimate reasons why we consolidated that stuff into districts and eliminated 90% of those governance entities. But those reasons no longer apply now. Reverting back would solve a lot of existing problems. And unlike charters/vouchers it’s not merely perpetuating a top-down system that fosters monopoly and rent-seeking.

      1. So you’re saying it’s just as hard to fire a private company providing a service as a government organization resulting in no change to competitive pressure.

        Makes sense.

  5. The union used its organizing power to get votes to oust Escalante as math department chairman.

    Why the FUCK was this up to the union to decide?


    1. Easy

      Unions purpose is represent the interest of their members

      High achieving members are detrimental to the majority of the members in that the high achievers show what is possible with motivation and hard work so high achievers must be reigned in to protect the members who are unable or unwilling to be high achievers, as well as to protect the standard mantra of ‘we need more money to be more effective’

      1. Exactly. Unions protect mediocrity.

        1. No different than police unions. They only look out for their members, not the public they serve. They go to ridiculous lengths to protect the small number of them who are absolutely fucking terrible, and tarnish the entire profession in the process. They also vehemently oppose any sort of reform.

  6. “Principals, school boards and teachers?especially union teachers?have little incentive to try anything new.”

    I watched “School, Inc” (in fact I refuse to erase any of the episodes from my DVR). Being in the trenches for the past 20+ years (mostly urban/inner-city high-poverty public schools), I can assure you that much of what is revealed in all three episodes, and what you state in the article is true. However, the quote above is not accurate. While there are some holdbacks in education who fit that quote perfectly, one of the problems in public education instruction ISN’T schools NOT trying anything new, in fact it’s just the opposite. Just about every two to four years there is some new “innovation” in education that is supposed to bring the latest and greatest in “educational research” to the classroom and raise achievement levels to new heights. Every fall, teachers sit through inservices on some brand new shiny initiative, which is abandoned a few years later when it is discovered it doesn’t work because variables we can’t control have a greater impact on our students. We are always presented exciting new ways of teaching. What is usually replaced is what has traditionally worked for the greatest number of students.

    1. This is an interesting phenomenon, and dovetails nicely with an observation of mine;

      Educational innovation sought by students and/or parents is often very successful. Educational innovation imposed by school administrators frequently fails. This is less because parents and students are wonderful and administrators are not than because education always works best when its recipients are deeply engaged.

      Many of the Progressive educational theories that have proved questionable at best were wildly successful when tried in ‘experimental’ schools in the early part of the 20th Century. The obvious reason is that the students involved were, to a large degree, a self-selecting sample. The same can be said of students in magnet schools, charter schools, or home schooling.

      By contrast, students in a Public School cannot be a self-selecting sample.

      The cold truth may be that the only thing that can really be done for primary education in the U.S. is to allow all students who are motivated to seek a particular kind of education to do so, leaving the Public Schools to be holding pens for the unmotivated.

      1. The same can be said of students in magnet schools, charter schools, or home schooling.

        I remember in Freakonomics there was a discussion how the students who applied for the lottery to get into magnet schools but who didn’t get picked had nearly the same level of improvement vs. the general population as the students who actually did go to the magnet school.

        That is, it appeared the difference was having the sort of parents who tried to get their kid into a magnet school rather than the magnet school itself.

        1. I’m not totally surprised. However “nearly the same level” is not the same level. I have encountered enough people whose love of some form of education was derailed by an ed-school drone that I am broadly in favor of anything that cracks the near-monopoly held by schools required to hire such vermin.

          Also; in answer the the usual hand-wringing over ‘religious nutcase schools’, I observe that students taken out of slum schools and put in private charity schools with religious connections generally have MUCH better outcomes … for less money spent.

          And since the youth of a society usually rebel against whatever religious pieties they were brought up with anyway, I’m unconvinced that there is anything to worry about.

        2. It’s probably because the students themselves were motivated to learn, for one reason or another, so their outcomes will be ‘better’ regardless of other features.

          I don’t think it’s debatable that there are many students in public school who have zero desire to learn, and these individuals destroy the learning experience for plenty of students who could otherwise do better.

          The worst of those noncomplying students are usually put into a little prison that they call a ‘school’ but in reality is just where they stick the complete rejects who actively fight against public schooling. In my home district when I was a kid, they called it the ‘alternate school’ or something along those lines.

          For some reason, public school operates on the theory of you can lead a horse to water, and you can make it drink too.

          1. It wasn’t “nearly the same level.” Outcomes were still statistically better for those who won the lottery.

            1. But better than the average otherwise, which indicates that drive to do better on it’s own improves outcomes beyond the average. This supports the idea that it’s a general lack of drive on the part of the students themselves helping to keep outcomes flat, which is hardly surprising when it’s mandatory attendance endeavor. Add a stifling bureaucratic governance, and unions intent on keeping teachers in the job who don’t ever bother engaging the students themselves, and you begin to see part of the problem.

              In other words, it’s exactly the way you would expect. Those who want to be there, and want to learn, are going to have better outcomes. Add engaging teachers with a motive to do better, and your incomes improve further. This is apparently a revelation to some, but it should be patently obvious.

        3. Sometimes you just have chaff instead of wheat. After all, as the great jurist, Judge Smalls once said, “the world needs ditch diggers too!”.

      2. The cold truth may be that the only thing that can really be done for primary education in the U.S. is to allow all students who are motivated to seek a particular kind of education to do so

        B-b-but… what if they pick the WRONG KIND of education? What if they pick schools run by “religious nut jobs” or something?! Better that everyone get the same shitty, mediocre education than have some opt for the WRONG KIND. /prog-tard

        1. And that argument is exactly why the Progressive/Left should no longer be allowed to pretend that their grab-bag of faith based pieties is NOT a religion. As matters stand they can (at the cost of personal hypocrisy, which they never seem to mind) invoke ‘separation of Church and State’ (their favorite part of the Constitution, which isn’t IN the Constitution). Rip the pretense from them and they will have to admit that they want public subsidy of THEIR religion, at the expense of everyone’s else.

        2. I actually had a discussion with someone who labels himself a “progressive” who basically made this same argument. He was trying to call me a hypocrite for being a public school teacher who selected a charter school instead of sticking with a failed public school for one of my children. He didn’t understand that with school choice, a public school is just one of many. One of my children is served just fine with public school, the other is not. I asked him if he had had children and he lived in a failing district but couldn’t move, would he keep his child in a failing school? His response was “We all sink or swim together.

          1. Please God he doesn’t reproduce!

          2. This is why progressives must not be allowed to make decisions that affect anything, ever.

      3. Really good points here.

      4. The cold truth is that the compulsory nature of what we call public schooling is the #1 cause of the failure.

    2. Good point. How many New Maths have there been…?

      1. Everyone is actually still learning New Math, it’s just not called new math anymore.

        Easiest way to tell is ask someone to do a subtraction problem (says 342 – 173).

        If your thought process goes, “you can’t take 3 from 2, so we borrow 1 ten from 4 and turn it into 10 ones, add it to 2 to make 12….” then congrats, you learned New Math.

        The traditional way actually involved memorizing that 2 – 3 is 9 and then carrying one to the tens column to turn 7 into 8. Which is computationally equivalent and faster, but doesn’t emphasize the distribution that is explicitly occurring in the New Math method.

        1. what if I figure it out but adding 27 to 173 to get 200, add 100, then add another 42 to 169. Is that new math or just my own crazy math? That’s the way I would work that problem in my head, with bigger numbers, I’d reach for a calculator

          1. The “fastest” way to do it, or at least the fastest way to give an answer verbally, is to attempt to go left to right, since we essentially speak our numbers from left to right; with some effort you can effectively solve the latter parts of the problem whilst uttering the first part of the answer. If you’ve ever heard stories about young mathematical prodigies (or just generally people who are quick with mental math), this is one of the tricks they use to calculate things faster.

    3. ^This.^

      I have always stated that the solution is to look for the last year SAT scores were rising(without being tweaked). Check the procedures used to teach those students. Use them. They work. What they’re doing now doesn’t.

      1. This does assume that the procedures used by the teachers are the only major factor in whether test scores are improving, and also that the SAT is an accurate way to measure education, but is otherwise not a bad observation.

    4. Yeah the education establishment is deeply entrenched and able to dictate curricula that teachers have very little control over. They have created their own nomenclature dubbed “eduspeak” by cynics for the purpose of pretending that their’s is an actual science and baffling anyone who doesn’t speak their language. They are rarely questioned by politicians or school boards who are fearful of betraying their ignorance because they can be convinced that these “Top Men” and (mostly) “Top Women” are their intellectual superiors. The result is that public and private school students are effectively made into guinea pigs for the amusement of well paid hacks. When the latest fad inevitably fails they simply create another fad with a whole new indecipherable terminology for the purpose of baffling parents, teachers, politicians or anyone else who might question their authoritah. There are a lot of “old school” teachers, even in the public system, who take their work seriously and know how to teach but are unable to do so because the school board has bought into the latest bigger, better, more expensive scheme concocted by researchers at some teacher’s college who’ve never set foot in a classroom.
      Most human beings can learn basic reading and mathematics by age six, in fact their brains are wired up to do exactly that thing. Once they can read, they are literally no limits to what they can learn.They don’t need to be institutionalized for 13 years.

    5. The problem is that there is no profit or loss mechanism to communicate what works and does not wrt the values of the consumer. The best guess of bureaucrats may actually be superior to that of an entrepreneur, but without market prices and the profit/loss test one can only assume and knows nothing. So who knows how well things are working and when change should be initiated, but by profit and loss? Which is why standardized testing has become so popular, bureaucrats are trying to understand what works and what doesn’t without acquiescing to the market and instead trying to “play” market. See Mises “Socialism” (1922) on the socialist calculation problem, QED.

  7. Biggest problem: parents who don’t give a shit.

    1. I think this comes closer to nailing it than simply blaming the government. I have seen America’s higher crime rates relative to other Western countries explained in part by cultural differences. There’s no reason why the same couldn’t explain relatively poorer educational results.

      1. You may be right. That does not, however, necessarily justify any roadblocks that make it harder to exercise parental interest. The combination of Union indifference to parental complaints and gradual movement of controlling authority out of neighborhoods to state level (with a smattering of Federal interference) must damp much parental interest.

    2. Philadelphia Collins|6.28.17 @ 10:30AM|#
      “Biggest problem: parents who don’t give a shit.”

      Could be, but when they do care, they can’t do anything about getting their kids in better schools

      1. True, but they can make sure the homework gets done, the kid goes every day and has some respect for their elders.

    3. Why should parents give a shit when government claims to be able to take care of someone from cradle to grave?

    4. This is lazy nonsense that just leads to lazy/worse ‘solutions’.

      The problem is that parents have no ability to CHANGE anything in a timeframe that can benefit their own kid. That leads to rational ignorance.

  8. Escalante was the reason. He was simply a better teacher.

    Unfortunately, that kind of excellence isn’t mass-reproducible.

    1. If you don’t think that all teachers can be above average, and that all students are entitled to have above-average teachers, you don’t understand political math.

      1. Or you live in Lake Woebegone

    2. It is more reproducible if the rewards are aligned to the behavior. His reward was being cast out.

      1. Of course. He made the his progtard colleagues look bad by comparison. They might have actually had to do a little hard work for a change. That simply could not be.

    3. Unfortunately, that kind of excellence isn’t mass-reproducible.

      Therein lies the rub. Systems love plug and play. People are just so hard, and expensive.

  9. Garfield’s union teachers resented Escalante’s fame and work ethic.

    The union used its organizing power to get votes to oust Escalante as math department chairman. Escalante then quit.

    That’s rage inducing. Stossel usually isn’t known for nut punches, but holy shit, that’s a big one.

    1. Stand And Deliver a kick to the dick.

  10. Public schools. Doing the work that private enterprise refuses to do.

    1. Holy crap that’s creepy.

  11. There are two separate issues here – cost and educational outcomes.

    Lifelong pension and healthcare benefits for unionized teaching staff are the root cause of the high cost of public education.

    As far as results go – if you have disengaged parents, you will have kids that fail to perform in school – it does not matter who is doing the teaching. Charters and private schools have generally good outcomes due to a self-selecting motivated population of parents and students.

    The fixes are simple – yet unpopular.

    1. Ban unions in all government work as North Carolina has done. Fulfill the existing pension obligations, but create no new ones. All new staff get a 401k or equivalent retirement option.

    2. Promote vouchers and school choice. Eventually a robust alternative education system will grow around that. Motivated parents and students will enroll in the best schools and the non-motivated parents and students will remain in the existing system. This will separate those who genuinely care about their education VS those who do not.

    1. “Promote vouchers and school choice”

      Especially with regards to the African-American community. I have been saying for some time; we (Caucasians- I am one) do not owe Black Americans reparations for Slavery. We DO owe them for allowing the Liberal/Progressive Left to turn their schools into intellectual cess-pits. Even if they use vouchers to send their kids to completely bullshit ‘Afrocentric’ schools that teach that Cleopatra was a Black African (demonstrably hogwash, traceable to pre-Rosetta Stone fantasies about Egyptian culture that were popular with the Rosicrucians), the results almost HAVE to be better.

  12. Public education needs changes, no question about it; for me, a lot of it comes by approaching elementary and high school very differently than we do now, and very differently from each other. Allowing parents to send kids to charters, etc. is a good way of promoting competition. Obviously getting rid of many of the stringent firing laws would help promote teaching standards.

    One good point that people on the left have made, and that advocates of stronger competition often leave out, is that education of children is NOT like selling cell phones or pizza. The price of school failure is steep, and can really damage kids.

    I left private school and went to one of the better public schools in the country, and enjoyed my experience there – had great teachers, met interesting people that went on to do interesting things, etc. Still, I remember one year where we had a chemistry teacher quit before the school year started and were given substitutes for nearly six months. Nearly 80% of the class failed the state Chemistry tests and only one person went on to AP. In schools with high amounts of “tracking,” this can be devastating. Losing a year of education because your privately funded charter was a scam, or failed, etc. can change lives irreversibly and cannot be treated the same as the bagel shop down the street closing because a better one opened up nearby.

    1. The owner of the bagel shop that closed probably ended up in bankruptcy, lost his life savings and any hope of retirement. But yeah, some high school kid failed his chemistry test. That’s a real tragedy.

      1. Besides the fact that this misses the point of the post, thats the free market you guys are extolling. I’m all for creating a stronger social safety net for failure such that people are more willing to take risk.

  13. The results were beyond belief … literally. His students did so well on the state calculus test that authorities accused them of cheating. They made them take the test again. The students aced the test the second time.

    The amusing part of this is that it’s a blatant admission that they know public school is a failure. If any outlier ‘good’ teacher actually manages to teach something, well, it must be cheating because all the other schlub teachers only have failing students because…definitely not entrenched unfireable bureaucrats?

    I still think you can’t teach people who don’t want to learn, which is in my opinion the central fallacy of public mandated schooling, but it’s undeniable that a good teacher can make a world of difference.

    1. Actually, the “cheating” label was applied because the students were poor, Hispanic kids who traditionally have not shown themselves to be AP material (in the eyes of the College Board). Those who came before them did not want to learn. Even these kids were reluctant at first until inspired to do better.

  14. Even if vouchers and school choice were made the law of the land tomorrow (which I’m all for), school would continue to suck for millions of students who would continue to mostly learn how to hate history, science, literature, math, etc, because most people who want the freedom of school choice (and all who don’t) accept the arbitrary authoritarianism of conventional, coercive schooling.

    1. Probably true, but they should have the option to say “screw this”.

  15. schools in Chile, England, Sweden, India and Korea

    But test scores stay flat. The main reason for that is that most schools are controlled by government


    1. Let’s also ignore the fact that test scores are normed so that average always remains the same.

      The only place on Earth where test scores keep rising is Lake Wobegon because all the kids there are above average.

      1. And all the men are good looking.

  16. i think there are three issues at play here:

    1. What is learned at schools. Seems to be the number one issue here.
    2. The impression that government run is automatically bad. In Singapore, the government tracks the students and basically abducts the kids for the gifted program, and it works. I believe Canada has a strong teachers union, and I get the impression they are doing fine.
    3. Privatization is the only solution. It may be. But I do not think it is the silver bullet. After all, who will be their customers? The students or the parents? There are reports of teachers bending in every which way to satisfy the very whim of students and parents, regardless of how it relates to the education.

    While the public system needs improvement, lack of parental accountability should be at the forefront of these conversations. To criticize the current system in a vacuum does not help.

    1. Nobody is criticizing American Public Education in a vacuum, unless they have been living in a bomb shelter for the last forty years. They are criticizing it in an atmosphere of contunued failure. Increased spending has been tried. Increased government oversight started with the establishment of the Department of Education in 1979, and there is the strong appearance of that only accelerating the rate of decay. Homeschooling does better. Private Schools do better, often for less money. The core issues seem to be Government meddling, metastatic bureaucracy, and Union obstructionism.

  17. Government control is a strong influence, but no one talks about the capabilities of the children themselves. The children whose parents care about them do better. They are pushed to study and spend time learning to read, in libraries and not waste time out on the streets. They are pushed away from schools which are filled with students who can be a bad influence, into schools where the other students have similar higher aspirations. It is the parents who segregate their own children, by their own aspirations for them. As a result, the children whose parents don’t care, get left behind.

    The social “scientists” say that if those children are placed in close proximity to the ones with ambitions, some of that ambition will rub off. This is wishful thinking, and if the parents don’t have those ambitions for their children, then it is very unlikely that it will “rub off” on them.

    The right question to ask is what to do with the children who have failed parents, and are not able to mature themselves out of childhood. They have always been with us.In the past they could get jobs as menial laborers. Now, with $15/hr wages, they are quickly being replaced by machines and smarter work plans. But they continue to breed, and they will not advance. They do not have the ability to become productive members of our society (I have relatives who behaved like this).

    It is the part of the problem that no one wants to talk about. It will not go away.

  18. Compulsory schooling was brought to you by the same people who promoted eugenics, Marxism and and the Nazi party. It is ultimate progressive scheme. Based on most of the comments here it appears that most readers of Reason believe that if you can somehow tweak the existing system “schooling” will become education and more of the proletariat will achieve a higher arbitrary test score and we’ll beat the Asians or the Brazilians or whothefuckever and live happily ever after. The purpose of schooling, as it exists, is to destroy independent thought and create compliant drones to serve whatever industry, war or banker’s scheme serves the public interest as dictated by whatever elite happens to be in power. Ultimately teacher’s unions, parents, charter schools, politicians, education experts, students and everyone else sucked into this monstrosity are just more pawns on the chessboard.

    1. So the answer is to just teach them basic math and reading skills and then give them a library card?

      Will the next issue then became what books the library has or has not?

      Have you ever seen non compulsory schooling work at large scale, once you take out the rich that sent their kids to private insitutions?

      I lived in Africa. Nigeria to be exact. The majority only go to school for a few years, learn the basic math and reading skills, with most being bilingual (granted their collective English is poor), and I do not see your statements holding water.

      “The purpose of schooling, as it exists, is to destroy independent thought and create compliant drones” This will always exist, in one shape or another. Societies produced compliant drones before education, and will always do so. Compliance is part of the social contract, docility and lack of true independence is part human nature.

      1. A lack of compulsory government schooling does not equal a lack of education. The progressive movement for government schools in the U.S. was not a reaction to a lack of schooling, there was plenty of that going on. It was a reaction to wrong think schooling, primarily among disfavored religious groups. The fear then, and now, is that the great unwashed, clearly incompetent to manage their own lives, would not conform to the proscribed “citizenship” required by the elite, unless they were institutionalized by right think bureaucrats. All one need do is look at the war on home schoolers, and movements to require compulsory pre-school and college, to realize that the philosophy has not changed. Where the system fails, the underclass either lives out their unproductive lives in perpetual welfare poverty or are re-educated in state or federal penitentiaries.
        And while docility and lack of independence may be your nature, it is not mine.

    2. “Compulsory schooling was brought to you by the same people who promoted eugenics, Marxism and and the Nazi party.”

      It came from the Prussians, you moron.

  19. Go get The Saber-Tooth Curriculum from your local library if you want a good read on the purpose of education. It’s satire written in the late 1930s, so don’t be afraid of the subject and say “fuck that.”

  20. American schools were intended to fill American factories with semi-skilled workers. They are still trying too.

    1. “They are still trying too.”

      Every teacher is an individual and they all have their own agendas. And once the classroom door is closed the teacher has the freedom to do pretty much as they please. To say that teachers are still trying to fill American factories is ridiculous.

  21. Why do government schools fail? Because there’s no reason for them NOT to fail. Public education is one of the few industries in which the consumer is asked to pay more and more for less and less productivity. Even if they decide to “consume” a competing product (in the form of private school) they must still pay for the one with the near-monopoly.

    1. “Even if they decide to “consume” a competing product (in the form of private school) they must still pay for the one with the near-monopoly.”

      No, they don’t have to pay. Most students are too young to pay taxes. Their education is funded by others.

  22. Maybe the schools could only teach academic subjects, and not be a statistical reporting factory for an entire federal cabinet level report reviewing factory?

  23. Public schools in upper middle class neighborhoods are still pretty good. The unions don’t improve anything, but the better public schools draw better teachers even if they are in unions. Of course you have high property taxes in the neighborhoods with good public schools, but the private schools are even more pricey.

    The people in these neighborhoods vote their own property taxes up to get the good schools because it’s cheaper than a private school in these neighborhoods. They could send their kids to cheaper religious schools, but they don’t think that’s a good bargain.

  24. ” In Korea, top teachers make millions.”

    It’s basically a scam. Believe me, Americans don’t want to adopt Korean methods in education. There’s a reason why Korean universities attract 1 American student for every 100 or so that go the other way. The quality of the education on offer. They also have some pretty militant unions. It’s not as scary as Japan’s teacher unions, though.

    Don’t put too much stock in high tech gadgets in the classroom. They end up wasting time and cluttering up the classroom. The teacher should focus on the student.

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