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The Bottom Line The Ultimate Mission Drift

The U.S. Education System Fails to Fulfill Its Purpose

The mission of the United States Department of Education is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Breaking this down, the U.S. government-run education system is failing on all four fronts — student achievement, preparation for global competitiveness, educational excellence, and ensuring equal access.

Student Achievement Failure

K-12 student achievement continues to fall despite ever-increasing annual per-student spending. Already at nearly $15,000 per student per year, the government pumped more than $201.2 billion into the system within the span of one year, from March 2020 to March 2021. Despite the spending spree, over 70 percent of public school students fail to achieve basic proficiencies across core subjects by their senior year. And 15 percent are calling it quits without even finishing high school.

Additionally, today’s schools don’t look too different from that of our grandparents in spite of the world dramatically changing over the past decades. Instead of continuing to push memorization and having students select from multiple choice answers in a uniform, one-size-fits-all system, students need to develop solid literacy, numeracy, and logic skills, as these are foundational to other intellectual skills and understanding.

Yet, despite the dismal academic results and an unequivocally changing world, those calling the shots in the U.S. education system are bent on abandoning their stated mission. In place of academic learning is indoctrination in radical political ideologies and the breeding of confusion among students by redefining core realities related to gender, history, and mathematics.

The U.S. government-run education system is failing on all four fronts of its mission — student achievement, preparation for global competitiveness, educational excellence, and ensuring equal access.

Keri D. Ingraham

Impact on Global Competitiveness

Not only failing relative to objective learning criteria, the U.S. public education system is also slipping behind our global competitors. Today, twenty-five countries outperform U.S. K-12 public school students academically — this despite America’s outspending nearly every other country in the world on its education system. Academically, U.S. students straggle in at 33rd in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading.

The implications for the future of our nation’s international strength are alarming. Others will replace the United States’ economic and military power if we continue our apathy regarding the prospects for the next generation, given our under-performing educational system. One key competitor (many would say adversary) does not share our apathy: China leads the world in the education of their students overall and in each individual subject — math, science, and reading.

Lowering Standards Further

Instead of making changes to improve U.S. public school education, educational standards are being lowered, and even removed, to create a false impression that more students are achieving success. For example, the requirement for students to pass a basic math, reading, and writing test to graduate from high school has been removed by the State of Oregon. New York is manipulating qualification and admission standards for gifted and talented programs and other academically challenging programs in the name of equity. Montgomery County, Maryland, and Seattle have gone one step further and eliminated honors programs entirely.

The justification for dumbing down K-12 education lies in student performance varying based on race. The obvious answer is to provide individual students the additional time and instruction they need to be successful rather than lowering standards for everyone in a vain effort to make results more “equitable.” Instead of lowering the bar, it’s time to redesign the U.S. K-12 education system in order to educate all our students effectively.

Denying Equal Educational Opportunity

The data consistently reveals that students in private schools, charter schools, and homeschools outperform students in traditional public schools. Yet other than for a small percentage of children, school choice is not allowed, even for students trapped in failing public schools. On the contrary, powerful teacher unions and their Democrat allies block parents from having equal access to these options for their children. Consequently, school choice is restricted to those with the financial means to pay expensive private school tuition, those lucky enough to win a spot in a charter school lottery, or those who have a stay-at-home parent able to provide daily academic instruction and supervision.

A bad situation was made worse by teacher unions throughout the country keeping a significant number of public schools closed for the majority, or all, of the 2020-2021 school year. Among those that opened mid-year, many did so with greatly reduced in-person instruction hours — 30 percent of pre-pandemic hours was the norm in multiple states. Clearly, the unions’ priority is benefiting their members and not students. Their refusal to reopen schools was used as leverage for inappropriate (and often not even related to education) demands, ranging from defunding the police, Medicare for all, and a moratorium on charter schools.

Even before the pandemic era, teacher unions have worked in tandem with Democratic leaders to support one another’s political agenda and pocketbooks, all at the expense of what’s best for children. As one example, teacher unions use their power to make it exceedingly difficult for a district to fire a poor-performing teacher. According to the New York State School Boards Association, “firing an incompetent teacher on average takes 830 days and costs $313,000,” which means children are subjected to an incompetent teacher for two full school years. New York City, the largest school district in the nation, dismissed only 12 teachers for incompetence between 1997 to 2007, despite the district’s consistently dismal student achievement.

Since the teacher is the number one contributing factor to student learning (aside from one’s parents), it’s disturbing to observe the great lengths unions will go to protect adult employment at the expense of student learning and wellbeing. No business or other large organization, outside of those unionized, would fail its customers year after year while protecting the employment of poor-performing employees.

Final Thoughts

The great American thinker, Thomas Sowell, reminds us of an unassailable truth: “Schools exist for the education of children. Schools do not exist to provide iron-clad jobs for teachers, billions of dollars in union dues for teacher unions, [or] monopolies for educational bureaucracies.” Yet, in a quest for power, control, and the pushing of radical political ideologies, the education of our nation’s children has fallen to a distant priority within our education system.

Schools must fulfill their basic mission. To do so, the American education system needs a redesign to foster innovation and raise the academic bar. In short, we need to see results. Instead of focusing on peripherals, political agendas, and adult employment priorities, every education idea and decision needs to address Sowell’s simple question: “How is this going to affect the education of children?”

Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?