Why Are American Schools Failing?

Lately, I have been reading the works of Charles Murray, an author of social commentaries who is not at all popular with those on the left side of the political spectrum. Mostly, I’ve wanted to determine whether his unpopularity is due to the fact that he is right, or whether the criticism that he uses data to fit into his preconceived conclusions is a fair criticism of his work.

One area where I do think his work is right on the money is when he talks about why American public schools have declined. If I had to paraphrase his work into a sentence, it would be this: American public schools are generally on the decline because individual communities no longer consist of a wide range of students from significantly varying economic backgrounds, and to the extent that you still do have areas where kids of the affluent and relatively poor intermingle, the affluent often choose to send their kids off to private schools. I call it the loss of the “invisible father.”

If you grew up in a broken home two generations or so ago, you had two potential ways to benefit from an “invisible father.” First, you could have attended a public school in an area where students of different economic backgrounds were also on the rolls. This is important because, if the school district starts to pull shenanigans, you had the fathers of the local lawyers, doctors, and community businessmen to step in at school meetings and correct the bad behavior in the school district. In other words, when they were protecting the interests of their own sons and daughters, they were also protecting the interests of the children born without parents actively securing their interests.

It’s almost like a checks-and-balance system of sorts. If all of the parents in a particular area are apathetic or unable to realize the implications of changes in the school curriculum, then their kids are left out like a fish that turns up on the dock under the summer sun. But as soon as you have one parent in the district speaking out forcefully against goofball policies, then you have a way to get the fish back in the water.

The second line of protection had been this: even if the parents of the affluent students in the area opted to send their children to private schools, they still paid money on their property taxes that benefit the students in the school district—so if you’re surrounded by a bunch of $200,000 homes and the guy with the $500,000 house sends his kids to private schools, you still received the benefit of his property taxes to go towards your school district. Money doesn’t automatically solve the remaining problems, but it should sure makes it easier.

The problem is that, directionally speaking, people are choosing to live more assortative lifestyles. People tend to marry people from their economic background, and then put themselves in communities with people from their own economic background. In other words, you don’t see a whole lot of women getting their PhD and then marrying the guy that collects her trash in the morning. For those of you interested in the data on this, I encourage you to check out Pennsylvania Professor Jeremy Greenwood’s research on the topic, which you can find by clicking on this entry from Pew Research.

Solutions to this problem are extraordinarily hard to come by if you want to remain faithful to the principles of freedom that are supposed to govern this nation’s lawmaking decisions. There is nothing more fundamental than the parent’s right to educate their children in a way that they see fit, and it would crumple that principle of freedom into a ball and toss it into the trash-heap if you forced parents to send their children to underperforming schools out of a desire to impose a duty on parents to improve the performance of underperforming schools. Human nature being what it is, the school district probably wouldn’t improve anyway under a coercive approach because bringing affluent, intelligent people in against their will would motivate them to undermine the education efforts because I’ve yet to meet someone that responds with good faith in response to coercion.

In short, the solution involves this: the students that have parents that don’t give them the tools they need have to find a way to get their hands on culture and intelligence and social norms of those doing it the right way. The best way to accomplish this historically is to have blended districts with affluent and not-so-affluent students so that the benefits designed to accrue to the more affluent students also reach those that are less well off. The reason why very intelligent people can’t resolve this problem is because not enough affluent parents are voluntarily putting themselves in positions where they act in the interests of the greater good, and forcing them to do so would violate the principles of freedom that we treasure.




Originally posted 2014-05-30 14:05:05.

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4 thoughts on “Why Are American Schools Failing?

  1. Glenbogle says:

    Tim, I’ve learned a lot from you regarding building a good infrastructure with my investments. However, on this issue of education and the issues discussed in Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart” (which I read a while ago because it was of such intense interest to me), I have to add my own experience.

    I grew up in a very affluent town in the Northeast, a New York suburb filled with rich kids. I was upper middle class. There were also plenty of middle and lower middle class kids in the school. The problem was not money. It was the leftist agenda held by the school. The one year I was taught any American history, I learned narrowly about Teddy Roosevelt by a gifted young teacher who was soon gone. After that my 10th grade history class, titled “American History” was “taught” by an old, loud, forceful leftist who had us each buy our own copy of the NY Times and each class period was spent “discussing” it. He informed us that George McGovern should be elected (1972, running against Nixon)j, that the Vietnam was wrong, wrong, wrong. No other views were presented or allowed. I graduated (near the top of my class in scholastic achievement) and was denied entrance into the National Honor Society in deference to B and C students who had spoken the party lines.

    What is the solution to the problem in education? Keep your kids out of public schools. It’s only getting worse as the teachers unions have become more powerful.  Get smart by reading. Look falsehood in the eye and call it what it is.

  2. scchan_2009 says:

    While I think a fair school district dividing is indeed part of the solution, but it may be not easy to do.
    Having lived in DC for 4 years, all the good or bad areas of DC are clustered together – literally, most of the nasty parts are east and most of the best parts are in the west (which includes some of the most affluent areas of all of America). It is hard to draw a district fairly when all of Fairfax or Montgomery county have family income twice or triple of even more than SE DC (one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in US) and southern Prince George’s county. You don’t need to fudge school or election districts to get divided districts. The divided districts are already in place. No extra gerrymandering is needed; natural gerrymandering is already in place.
    Teachers are not supposed to politically and ideologically aligned when teaching. Their job is to teach what is best known to be facts. It is really a shame if it happens (and both the left and right do that; and the same issues apply to many sensitive social issues – and there are often fact distortion when teaching sensitive issues that tends to align along certain political lines).

    An issue that I am highly concerned with US education system is also the curriculum. Partially due to political divide in the US, sometimes teaching facts (historical or scientific) are dis-encouraged, and that is very bad. Kids don’t learn their maths, sciences and history properly are unlikely to develop the right skills. Education is the ultimate long-run investment; there should be no compromise in curriculum for teachers or local politicians personal or political believes.

  3. matthewriedle says:

    While a good read, I feel you are missing another salient point. Competition. The unions running the schools really have no competition. Yes, they may lose a few affluent students but really a drop in the bucket when combined with reduced class room sizes (which has little to do with quality of education and everything to do with union membership rolls). The solution is school choice of course. Empowering even the low income to choose a school for their child that they feel meets their needs would introduce competition to the system that it so drastically needs. This would also have the desired effect of eventually weeding out poor teachers as well which is virtually impossible under the current system.
    School choice, implemented properly, is the solution to this system. The teachers union is a very powerful democratic contributor ( last I checked, THE most powerful) which is simply put, the thing that is holding back this sensible approach.

  4. jsarnow says:

    This article misses in a significant way. In the past, teachers taught and parents supported the education of their children. The value that parents place on education has changed in drastic ways in the past 50 years. In 1950, parents pushed….HARD…for their children to get a good education. In general, that is not true today. Sure, there are a great number of parents that still want for their children to be successful in school, and that will happen whether it is in the public or private setting. From a general perspective, and for whatever reasons, the “work hard in school and you will succeed” philosophy of raising children has drastically eroded.

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