Consultant’s gripe: US education is a mess

By | April 12, 2016

Many of my friends have school-age children and they worry about their kid’s education. Sadly, they have a lot of reasons to be worried. For all the recent innovation, changing business models, and dedication of some teachers. . .

US public education is a mess.  Every few years, more than 470,000 students in 65 countries take the international PISA test to gauge their proficiency in a number of subjects.  The Economist summarizes the rankings here and the US was a big fail.  We ranked #17 (reading), #31 (math), and #23 (science). Sad state of affairs.

Thomas Friedman talks on the democratization of education – lack of boundaries, rise of MOOCs, and the drive for the best educated global resources – creates pressure for everyone to continually upgrade themselves through education and learning. The World is Flat, and there is not such thing as average; see at 4 min video here.

There is a world-full of hyper-motivated kids out there who have the democratized educational tools to learn, and pull themselves out of ignorance and poverty. Awesome. Democratic. Also, potentially worrying for US kids – if we don’t get our act together.

PISA scores

Generally, I am a libertarian. I believe in markets. Customers do a better job than any government in telling you that a product is good, or the price is right. People vote with their feet. While no system is perfect, the market does a pretty good job of picking winners and losers. So what is so “unfair” about the education crisis?

US Education $$ is unfairly distributed. In the US, a lot of school funding is local, which seems harmless enough on the surface. What happens in reality is a virtuous cycle in rich neighborhoods and downward spiral in poor places. Good schools boost property values, which creates a higher tax base, which funds schools, which boosts property values etc. . The same happens for poor neighborhoods, but in reverse.

Consultantsmind - Education

All kids deserve a decent education. I am a libertarian and generally don’t believe the government owes you much besides security, private property rights, industrial standards, and a system of laws.  I do, however, believe the country owes every single kid a kick-ass education. I mean access to great teachers, holistic curriculum, a safe school/home environment.

Education should be progressive. I actually don’t think we can over-invest here. This is an area where we should be so progressive that it hurts. The poorer the child – the better the education we should give them. We need to give kids the inputs (raw materials, foundation, core education) to be successful. Looking at this list, you can see that the US actually does spend a fair amount of money on education.

Education as a % of GDP

The bigger problem is the distribution of those funds. The Economist points out here how fatally flawed the US system is. . .

“According to the OECD, America is one of only three advanced countries which spends less on the education of poorer children than richer ones. And unlike most OECD countries, America does not put better teachers in poorly performing schools, where teachers’ unions often obstruct reform efforts.”

Education is an input, not an output. We provide a great education to ALL kids – the poorer, the more we invest. What they do with that learning, is up to them.

The libertarian logic goes like this: 1) give people the inputs to success 2) do not blindly hand out welfare / outputs / fruits of unearned labor. Inputs, not outputs.

Parents matter. This seems obvious, but my friends who are teachers will tell you that kids whose parents stay involved in their kid’s education make a HUGE difference. Multiple studies show that a parent’s attitude and behavior have a bigger impact on a kid’s education than the school here. BOOM.

My parents were sticklers for education – they never let me miss school, ensured I did my homework, instilled in me a pride for academic achievement, and basically nagged me until I got good grades. While I was not the brightest or most motivated kid, my parents made sure that I got good teachers and personalized attention. Trust me, that was an advantage.  As Warren Buffet might say, “I won the ovarian lottery”.

Even Bill Gates is worried about US education. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation focus on the BIGGEST global problems. . .sanitation, malaria, women’s rights. . .and US education. Sheesh.  Cannot believe US education made that list.

Consultantsmind - Bill Gates

Some great things from Bill Gate’s Blog here:

By 2025, two-thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school. At the current rate the US is producing college graduates, however, the country is expected to face a shortfall of 11 million skilled workers to fill those roles over the next 10 years.

The problem is that too many drop out before completing their degrees, especially students from low-income families. In fact, a student from a wealthy family in the U.S. is eight times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than a student from a low-income family.

America’s historically black colleges and universities still play an outsized role in providing education to underprivileged students. More than 60 percent of the students they enroll come from low-income backgrounds or are the first in their family to attend college.

Teachers matter. Duh. That is obvious, but something that needs emphasis. Look at this video about a teacher who 1) made his geometry classroom entirely experiential and student-centric 2) who cares enough about his students to visit them at home here.

We need to reward this creativity and entrepreneurship. Thank you Bill Gates. We should rage against the machine if there are laws / unions / organizational cultures / bureaucracies which are impeding good change. Innovation is never a straight line and we need some tolerance of failure, re-invention, and progress. Come on.

Consultantsmind - Betsy Lane High School

Education matters. Many of my friends are teachers, professors, mentors, coaches, and have a passion for teaching / learning / sharing. They are doing a great thing.

A couple from my church hold ad-hoc tutoring for non-English speaking kids every Saturday.  A high school friend is starting up a charter school in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood.  A college friend spent several years with Teach for America in rough, tough part of South Central Los Angles. The burden I need to take, and the question to answer now: How can I make a dent in the US education crisis?

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6 thoughts on “Consultant’s gripe: US education is a mess

  1. JM

    “I mean access to great teachers, holistic curriculum, a safe school/home environment.”<== I disagree and think that going down this road becomes very dangerous, very fast. Just think about the idea of a safe home. Some people will think that includes a gun and others do not. Some people think that includes organic food and others do not. Same idea with great teachers. How do you measure those teachers and then how do you equitably distribute that greatness? Suddenly those great teachers are forced to teach in places they don't want to go or forced to stream and record their lectures to make them scalable and accessible to the masses, but then lose that quality that makes them great… The reality is that it is unequal, but this is one place where an individual contributor can make a great impact in 1 or more people's lives by giving time, encouragement and support.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Thank you for the reply and the thoughtfulness to make me consider the law of unintended consequences. Yes, lots of variability and yes, probably naive to think there could be a formula to home life, safety, teaching excellence.

      Agreed. No formula. That said, we are far from basic standards. There has to be some scalability. . . need to attack the problem from multiple angles – culture, incentives, supporting infrastructure, great individual teachers. It is doable, it’s just difficult, and we should not over-simplify the problem.

    2. Luk

      You’re right, but… Having been educated in northern Europe I was schocked when my friends from Chicago mentioned that they want to move to another (expensive) area in order to secure better education for their kids.
      I was like ‘but schools are schools, aren’t they’? They sort of disillusioned me, it seems that access to a decent education in the US is not as easy as in Europe. Obviously there are better and worse teachers, but in general in Nordic countries all kids start from the very similar level, which is I think fair even though we all pay for that.

      1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

        Luk – thank you for the Nordic perspective. I thought that a portion of that might be 1) the relative educated level of the Nordic population – lots of masters degrees and lower cost of education 2) Strong sense of community identity and explicit/implicit emphasis on education 3) prestige of teachers (relative to other professions).

        I cannot comment on #1 or #2. . but looks like #3 is not necessarily true. Looks like Finland (you may be from Sweden, Norway or somewhere else), seem to have less “teacher-awe” than other countries.
        https://www.varkeyfoundation.org/sites/default/files/documents/2013GlobalTeacherStatusIndex.pdf

  2. oracleaide

    Another industrial revolution will force businesses to fund free higher education to produce workers. This is already happening with MOOCs.

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