Government Don't Know Jack: Education

Public education has no carrots and no sticks for anyone.

This is a multi-part series examining inherent conflicts in government and the ultimate goal of avoiding the Confucian Cycle.

This series examines ways the government ought to be able to help the economy, assuming that politicians want the economy to grow and assuming that the government is able to do what the politicians promise.  Our article on the Confucian Cycle draws from a pattern that has played out over and over throughout human history.

When governments are founded, there isn't much bureaucracy so it's possible to get things done.  As bureaucrats and other interest groups multiply, however, it becomes more and more difficult and more and more expensive to make anything happen.  Finally, there comes a point when government becomes so expensive that the society can't support it any longer and the civilization collapses.

This is not because government employees are stupid; they aren't.  The problem is that the peculiar incentives that come with working for the government have nothing to do with benefiting society, the incentive is to benefit the bureaucracy.  This gives bureaucrats every incentive to push costs up and reduce the amount of work they have to do by redefining their objectives over time.  This is sometimes called "dumbing down."

Bureaucratic excess is particularly ruinous in the educational system.  Our society must have a highly educated work force.  If our educational level declines so far that we can't maintain our high-tech agricultural system and our petroleum-based food distribution system, we'll go back to the productivity of muscle-powered farming and about half our population will starve.  In our case, having an educated citizenry is literally a matter of life and death.

The Old Ways

Our schools used to work well.  When wave after wave of immigrants arrived in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the children learned English very fast.  An article "New York, Immigration 101" on p 70 of the Winter 2008 issue of Wilson Quarterly makes this point indirectly.

For much of the 20th century, one in five New York residents was foreign born.  That figure reached 41% in the 1910 census, a level it's again approaching, at 36% in the last census.

At the time of the 1910 census and for many years afterward, the New York schools were effective at teaching English.  There were no issues of bilingual education, there was no whining about the number of foreign languages spoken in the schools.  Street signs, product labels, and instruction books were written in English.  Teachers rolled up their sleeves and taught the kids to speak English.

"Education" used to consist of learning classical literature.  Graduates knew enough about different ways of thinking to be able to manage society, and they knew how to learn whatever they needed to know to survive as the economy changed.

Today, "Western Civ" has been replaced by more specialized technical training.  Specialized training is OK so long as there's a market for the skills being taught, but if the market changes, skilled people who haven't gained a broad education which helps them adapt to new conditions may find themselves out of luck.  This is demonstrated by the increasing number of highly educated people who can't find jobs for which their credentials would appear to have qualified them.

The New Ways

Unfortunately, the American educational system has been hijacked by academics who'd rather write papers or socialize kids than teach.  Socializing children is a lot easier than teaching them, so the concept of a teacher as a social engineer has become popular.

Public education is free to customers, required by law, and still loses market share as parents switch to private schools and homeschooling.  The reason isn't hard to find - American public education is not as effective as it used to be, and some public schools are worse than no school at all.  Adult literacy was higher in colonial American before public schools were established than it is now.

Schools are particularly bad in large, heavily unionized cities such as New York and Los Angeles.  The New York schools got so bad that they were recently handed over to the mayor's office and the mayor is trying to make them more effective.  It remains to be seen whether he'll have any success; fighting a bureaucracy is worse than fighting kudzu.

The decline is partly because public education has been around long enough for the bureaucracy to take over from parents.  Teachers want bigger budgets just as you and I would like more pay, so they lobby the legislature for "mandates" that force schools to do something.

There was a lot of flak when New Hampshire first mandated that every school had to have a nurse, for example.  Did having nurses around make kids any healthier or make schools any more effective at teaching?  No, but it pushed up costs and gave school administrators bigger budgets to brag about.

Should There Be Consequences in Schools?

Our society has pretty much given up on the idea of kids suffering consequences for anything they do.  If a young person becomes pregnant, for example, the government is right there with a welfare check.  If someone contracts AIDS, the government supplies free treatment.

One of my friends is a selectperson in a small town in northern New Hampshire, the "Live Free or Die" state.  He told me about going through some old records.  When the town first hired a teacher for their one-room school, the selectmen (they were all men in those days) would ask how the kids were doing.  If a kid didn't learn or gave the teacher any lip, they'd take him behind the barn and beat the snot out of him.  For lesser offenses, they'd apply the board of education to the seat of learning.

People my age may remember the song "School Days":

School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days,
readin' and writin' and 'rithmetic,
taught to the tune of a hi'k'ry stick...

It's difficult to motivate students to learn; traditional corporal punishment worked wonders.  The men who beat the students into submission and forced them to learn under pain of pain were responsible for collecting taxes as well as for spending them; they knew the importance of training kids to be taxpayers.

No Carrots, No Sticks

In the present social climate, schools can barely regulate what kids wear; there's no practical way to make them learn if they don't want to.  Instead of criticizing kids who don't learn, schools engage in "social promotion," which results in kids being pushed up to classes so far beyond anything they know that they can't learn anything at all.

When there are no unpleasant consequences for not learning, why should the kids bother?  Learning, like teaching, is a lot of work: why not just play Nintendo, particularly given that they can always go on welfare?

In addition to having lost the right to punish students for not learning, schools can't reward them for learning either.  Kids who got A's used to be honored; then some egalitarian decided that rewarding good grades made other students feel inferior.  With no carrots and no sticks, how can schools motivate students to work at all?  Coaches reward good performance by awarding slots on the starting team without making lesser athletes feel inferior, but recognizing academic performance is out of bounds in many schools.

This attitude leads to schools defrauding their students.  The implied contract is, "Sit here every day for 12 years and we'll teach you how to be a productive adult."  Social promotion teaches kids that all they have to do is show up; what happens when they get their first job and find out that merely showing up isn't enough?  They realize they've been lied to.

Instead of rewarding learning, schools reward athletics.  What happens to a high-school football hero?  Unless he's really good, he goes from hero to zero during graduation.  My town has ex-football quarterbacks who find occasional work driving snowplows; they didn't learn anything salable in school. By showering so much recognition and adulation on football instead of rewarding studies which would lead to careers, the school defrauded these kids.

No Management

Unions have lobbied for laws and union contracts which make it practically impossible to fire bad teachers and react negatively to any suggestion of rewarding good teachers for performance.  Thus, school administrations have no carrots and no sticks to use on the staff either.

The result is a hugely expensive education system which is ineffective in most places.  It's never provided enough technical workers at any time I can remember; my clients were importing programmers from England back in the mid 1980's.

The only cure for bureaucratic excess is competition.  Breaking up AT&T cut telephone costs and saved customers huge amounts of money, but 19,000 unionized workers were let go.  Deregulating airline fares has led to low-cost airlines like Southwest, but unionized carriers are in trouble.

Unions know that competition benefits the public but hurts them.  That's why they fight home schooling, charter schools and vouchers so hard.  We've described some hopeful signs that competition is beginning to have an effect.

As UAW membership declined in large part because the Big Three were not permitted to run their factories efficiently, lost market share, and needed fewer workers, so we may see teachers' unions decline as parents decide not to take it any more.  But it will be messy.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
There is so much I want to say about this topic, I do not even know where to start and I certainly do not have the time at this moment to write it all. Let me just start by stating that I have over fifteen years of teaching experience in both a large American university and a small liberal arts college. There is definitely a worrisome, negative trend in the quality of the students entering university/college. I and my colleagues noticed this over a decade ago and I am in complete agreement with the author that there is a truly serious problem with our education system. However, the author is too quick to blame American academics and the government and does not mention other factors that are even more influential.

I have observed four distinct factors that contribute to the decline of the educational system. It all starts with the parents:

1. A weakening of the family. Sound moral teachings are lacking (e.g., most young kids and many young adults do not know the Golden Rule) and respect for authority is not reinforced. This also includes the hyper spending that parents (who probably feel guilty for not spending enough quality time with their kids) do where young kids are getting outrageous amounts of toys/gifts for their birthdays and Christmas. This tends to result in disrespectful, older children that do not appreciate that they are getting an education in the first place. It also results in kids that are very monetarily driven and all they are interested in is learning what they need to learn so they can get a good grade, graduate, and get a job and make lots of money (this is also related with our society's ever increasing desire to make more and more profit - but lets not get into that now). The drive to learn for the sake of learning and bettering yourself is practically dead in today's college students.
2. Our out of control legal system. You can sue anyone for anything nowadays. Parents threaten schools all the time. This is the main reason teachers can not enforce the rules properly and can not fail students that deserve to fail. Heck, they can't even get a student in trouble for cheating anymore. Principals are always worried about suits and most fail to support the teacher. Also, many of these parents are on school boards and change rules to help their own.
3. Increasing feelings of entitlement, hypersensitivity, and the need to treat all students equal. It is a mistake to lump students of different intellectual capacities and physical needs into the same course. It can be truly devastating to the quality of learning for some. It forces the teacher to teach to the average or takes time away from other students when the teacher has to devote more time to a student with special needs (typically, the teacher does not get an assistant). Also, it is amazing how many parents will argue with a teacher in front of their child in a disrespectful manner about awarding an A to their child who clearly does not deserve that grade. They are convinced their child deserves the grade - is entitled to that grade. The teacher that stands their ground usually gets in trouble later after the parent makes a big stink. Today's society drives the teacher to avoid upsetting students. These are reasons grade inflation is out of control - even at Harvard.
4. The decline of the arts and physical exercise in schools. There are data that show that students that play an instrument or are in choir are better disciplined and become better students. Taking away the arts is a mistake that I think we will feel in the decades to come. Finally, in an age of ever increasing obesity, it is appalling that recess and other physical activities are going away. All it does is promote laziness in overweight students and take away the chance for more hyper students to work off some of that energy so they can pay better attention in class.

Well, I could expand on this for quite some time so I better close with one last comment:

The author makes a very good point about athletics, but he fails to blame the fundamental cause. Do you know how much money football brings into a University? Our library despeartely needed a bioabstracts system. What did they end up having to do? They begged the athletic department for a grant and fortunately got it.

University alumni do not donate to the library. They all give to the football team! Why?
February 1, 2008 4:10 PM
Dr. G's number 3 is really important and one of my personal pet peeves. What silliness that American educators force every kid to think that they're all equal. Or maybe it's the parents. Every @#$@! kid IS NOT equal and life AIN'T FAIR. I'm so sick of running into over-stimulated, ADD-ridden, ego-maniacal brats that this country puts out. They're like a herd of locust.
February 1, 2008 4:20 PM
twibi and the Doc are right on. It has atually put me and my husband off from having kids for a long time. I'm scared that there's some sort of craziness in the water when you turn into a parent. It seems like perfectly rational people go over the edge when they have kids and just ignore the lunacies that their children are doing. Or even cover them up or defend them. In today's schools (and everywhere else) the success of kids is everything. And the "success", as the Doc mentioned, isn't even measured in the right way.
February 1, 2008 4:25 PM
Teachers are increasingly lazy, immature, and (most importantly) hand-cuffed by psychologists who "diagnose" ADD and a plethora of other "disabilities". The minute the psychologists got in the door, education was doomed. Even worse though, is that parents are almost more immature than their kid(s). Many try to, and do, act like teenagers and try to be their kid's best friend. That makes for a failure as a parent. They often refuse to believe their kid may be lazy and dishonest and, believe it or not, dull. Special Education is a fiefdom in our district, responsible for over 30% of the entire budget. As I've written before, we see before us the worst generation of parents this country has known because they won't tell their cherub he/she must work or looks like an idiot or whore by the way they dress. We won't even get started on the "Gay-Straight Alliance" groups the schools try to start. Uh oh, my writing is getting disjointed as the steam comes out of my ears. That means it's time to sign off...... Sorry!
February 1, 2008 7:20 PM
So the answer is to do what? Shut down the DoE? Papers like this offer no solutions, only criticism. If poor school were given more money, they'd be able to buy better teachers and you'd see a massive increase the overall standard. I would say that the majority of kids are taught in poor schools.
February 1, 2008 8:57 PM
Sorry z, the public doesn't understand the problem or are part of it. Look at how much cash is spent on education NOW, and you're saying spend more? Here are the keys: Vouchers. More private schools means less gov't mandates to entitle bad student behavior and performance. Private schools mean NO special ed. or silly mandates unless the schools choose to deal with such cases. Private schools mean the parents tow their weight and support the faculty or the student goes elsewhere. Schools with a successful student body will be rewarded with increasing enrollments. Students who want to drop out of the education scene early (prior to 18?) will sign a waiver saying they surrender all access to gov't food stamps, home heating assistance, welfare, medical aid, etc., since they in their infinite wisdom "don't need no education". Students expelled from an educational setting forfeit access to the same assistance. Illegal immigrants will not be needed for "menial" jobs, as drop outs need to eat and will be able to move into these jobs. The importance of education will thus be emphasized and the restoration of true high standards aided, with private schools free from the shackles of the present system. One catch though, parents will really need to start being parents......
February 1, 2008 9:20 PM
Scragged has a number of articles about solutions to the school problem; we forgot to set up links to some of them. Look for "Related Scragged Articles."

All of the solutions require getting the government out of the business of PROVIDING education; it might be OK for government to FUND education if parents were free to chose where to send their kids.

When airline fares were set by the government, flying was expensive. When airlines were deregulated, competition flourished, fares went down, but a lot of union workers were unhappy.

When AT&T was a regulated monopoly, telephone calls cost a lot. When AT&T was broken up, competition flourished, the price of phone calls went down, and 19,000 union workers were laid off.

Unions HATE competition, so they fight vouchers and charter schools. Unless the teacher's unions are broken or change their ways, our society will separate out into two tiers - kids whose parents can afford either to home school or to send them to good schools and kids who were stuck in the public schools.
February 1, 2008 9:25 PM
Vouchers would completely gut inner city schools. What do you do with the millions kids who have no funding since half their classmates went to private schools? Those kids would just get left behind and the gap between the educated and noneducated would grow wider and more pronounced.
February 2, 2008 4:51 PM
Well z, comments like that offer no solutions, only criticisms (where'd I get that....?). Remember that vouchers DO NOT represent a complete loss of tax receipts per student, only a discount to a private institution. If the cost per student is $10000 (not unreasonable), then vouchers would cover a minority of this. As student populations decrease in schools, staff is reduced, saving money. Overall, the reduction in staff, transportation and facilities may balance the loss in school tax revenues. How would millions of kids have NO funding because half their peers went elsewhere? Besides, if half of the student population IS withdrawn from public schools, what does that say about the system in the first place? The only reason "those kids" would be left behind is because they chose to do so. I thought that learning was up to the individual! Many of our most famous achievers had to overcome incredible difficulties, and they did. And this was NOT because of high paid teachers. We MUST stop thinking of our students as intellectual cripples and start the massive doses of responsibility early. We seem to insulate our cherubs and then make excuses for them. All the while the quality of the high school graduate goes down.... just see Dr. G's comments. Check out "The Myth of the Teenage Brain". I forget the publication, so Google it........
February 2, 2008 5:15 PM
z also forgets the effects of competition. A voucher program wouldn't pull all the students out of the public schools overnight because it would take time for other schools to pop up. As they lost market share, however, sensible principals would try to find out why their customers were departing and try to do better.

Because public schools have been required by law for so long, they've forgotten that their purpose is to serve the students. When home schooling started, sensible public school officials would have tried to find out why the most dedicated, most caring, and most energetic parents were leaving. Instead, they tried to get social workers to take parents to court for "educational neglect" to try to force them bask in,

The UAW did the same thing - they tried to get the government to make it impossible for us to buy Japanese cars.

Their monopoly really hurts the public schools - because they have a monopoly, they think they don't have to do a good job. Before they lost their monopoly, AT&T had 19,000 too many employees and WE paid for that. Just losing their monopoly would get sensible teachers thinking about improving.

Ineffective inner city schools DESERVE to be gutted, filleted, and put under. Effective schools and good teachers have nothing to fear from vouchers, mediocre educrats who don't care how they're damaging kids fight vouchers fervently.
February 2, 2008 7:47 PM
Ah, Will. You miss the key variable. No where do you mention PARENTS. Unless parents get serious about PARENTING their children, the success of any school changes will be moot. Stop divorcing, stop lying for your kid, stop giving them everything they want, stop letting them do nothing (i.e. - no chores, homework doesn't matter, etc.), stop sending them to school wearing shorts when the wind chill is 0, stop letting them stay out all night, ...get the point? Many parents say matter-of-factly that they'd die for their child. Well, start LIVING for them (not lying for them). As far as the inner city schools, before you gut them, take a look at the parents. Or should I say, parent.
February 2, 2008 9:29 PM
JQ is correct. The ultimate fault (not the only fault) does lie with the parent. There has been a notable shift in our society from strict parents that discipline their children appropriately to parents that focus on friendships, do not discipline, do not spend appropriate time instilling good moral behavior, and/or try buying their children's affection. This was coupled with an additional shift in our society where everyone is supposed to be extra sensitive towards people's feelings and everyone is entitled to get offended and expect the situation to be fixed to their favor (tolerance has diminished). The result: a bunch of fragile and insecure young adults (who in turn become bad parents). Kids need to be embarrassed ever so often so they can learn how to deal. And yes, our legislation (e.g., leave no child behind - when at times Johnny and Suzy need to fail) contributes to the problem. It's a vicious cycle now.

I am a product of the public school system and I received a good education. I was either in phase 3 or AP courses. I also was involved in soccer and choir. I was having problems with math and when I got in trouble at school about it I got even in more trouble at home. But that was a long time ago when you feared to come home with any bad news from the teacher and in the days of good ole' detention (now kids get sent home for punishment - what kind of punishment is that?). Much has changed.

I argue that public schools did not get worse because of unions or the government (they may have contributed, but only through association). They got worse because of shifting social values (this includes the shift to bad parenting) and also because the pay for teachers has not kept up with middle class economy. When middle class families are paying over 1/2 million dollars for a home and both parents must work (significantly contributing to bad parenting), very few gifted teacher are going to be able to live off of the starting salary offered by our secondary school system. If they are smart, they end up getting a better paying job anyway. This is one of the main reasons teacher quality has suffered greatly over the years.

It is a pity that middle class Americans feel the need to own such large expensive homes and toys when they clearly can not afford it (look at our mortgage problem today). We used to be happy with a 2-bedroom home and 1 car. Now we keep buying more and bigger and better. This is a fine example of what I mean by shifting social values.

February 3, 2008 8:21 PM

Very interesting article. Some of
its conclusions are correct, some are not.
Some of its facts are a little off, but it
was in the vicinity of truth at least. Still
it misses a big part of the broader issue:

Perhaps we should ask what it is we
expect the public schools to provide from
a PARENTS perspective? Let
me guess, you are thinking something like this:

1. To make good citizens.
2. To create self determined independent
minds and hearts.
3.To create strong intellects.
4. Maybe make a buck as well.

Sounds like a great list to me. But what
is expected from public schools
from the SYSTEM ITSELF? Just this:

1. To create docile citizens that do
what they are told.
2. To learn to tow the line or else you will be left out.
3. To create minds that make consumption
their first priority.
4. To make pragmatic "half people" who
shun non-material things and whose
philosophy is "do whatever you can get
away with" as long as it works.

So, from a systems perspective, the schools
work exactly as intended. So why would
the system ever change itself? What would
happen if we shifted back to old
time America with citizens that were
educated(I mean for real, before the
Edward Bernays propaganda "education =
school" snuck in)?

Educated people are not predictable.
Educated people are resourceful and
reuse or fix things rather than throw them
out. Educated people are eccentric and do
not like to be told what to do. Educated
people like to invent things and
create their own lives from their own
sweat and thought. That is, they desire
to write their script for their lives
without interference. You know, like
Abe Lincoln and Ben Franklin.

How ever would you support a mass society
and mass consumer economy with such
people? Answer: you can't. And that's
why school forces students to attend
with laws and regulation.

So, what's the answer? As Jerry Farber
would say "If you have to ask, you are
not ready." I think you know.

If you resonate at all with any
of what I have said, I would strongly
look up John Taylor Gatto and read
his book "The Underground History of
American Education"

All the best,

February 5, 2008 12:50 PM

Well, Chris C certainly won the post-article debate.

November 6, 2010 12:55 PM
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