So How Well are We Doing in Education?

I will present two arguments.  The first will be a logical one.  Its basis is that, at its core, collectivism believes that all people are not created equal – or more precisely that some are created more equal than others.  This is captured by both Plato’s and Aristotle’s thoughts on the relationship between the state, education, and citizenship.  Their relevant thoughts can be summarized as follows:


·       Rights come only from the State and can be changed by the State at any time based upon its determination of a society’s needs and goals.

·       Man is to be ruled by his superiors – those who excel in the ability to govern, who they believed would excel in virtue.  We are therefore not all equal.  There exists at least one elite class, perhaps more depending on the writer. 

·       It is the elite who decide the State’s needs and goals.

·       All the people cannot be citizens, that status is reserved for the elite.

·       Education should be publicly funded and received by all, as it is the state’s means of perpetuating itself.  Therefore, education is intended to serve the state.

·       Since Plato, the underlying notion is that man is self-sufficient; that there are many goods and many truths (moral relativism).  These goods and truths have their basis in man alone.

Think these are not true today?  Let’s take a look at what has been happening in education.  More federal funding is being provided and more mandates concerning education are being issued by the federal government.  The goal is the standardization of education – a standardization determined by those in government – those who view themselves as the elite.  Standardized testing is being required, first through ‘No Child Left Behind’ and now through ‘Common Core’.  Our textbooks are being increasingly ‘purified’ to remove any offensive materials or references to religion – at leastto  Christianity – with offensive being defined by those put in charge of the editing.  Teachers time is increasingly being scheduled down to the minute as to the text they will use, what material is to be presented, and how it is to be taught.  We have a federal government who is increasingly determining the curriculum, the materials to be used, how the class time is to be used, and employing testing to ensure that this material is learned.  Along the way there are many strings attached and regulatory requirements to be complied with.


Now, let’s take a quick look from the other perspective using a few key thoughts from our Founders, through some of the documents they left behind.  There are many we can look at, but we can simply use the Declaration and Constitution as these were intended to be public expressions of commonly held beliefs.  The Declaration states that we have rights which come from our Creator, which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Life is the most basic of all rights, for without this right none of the rest matter.  It comes solely from our Creator.  Liberty is the freedom from tyranny, or the right to make our own choices.  This is free will is a gift from our Creator and necessary in order for us to fulfill our purpose.  The Huguenots and others have equated the pursuit of happiness with property.  In a primarily agricultural society such as existed at our countries founding, and during much of the Middle Ages when freedom developed, property represented not only wealth but for most people the means to one’s own survival.  However, I do not think this was intended to be the primary reference for this last right.  The Judeo-Christian philosophy/theology that our Founders had received through their education asserted that happiness can only come from becoming like what Greek philosophers called The Good – our Creator – to the extent we are capable.  It appears to me that the pursuit of happiness is therefore also a reference to the freedom to fulfill our purposes – both as individuals and a people – which can only be achieved by coming to know our Creator.  This view is not only consistent with the rights of life and liberty, but serves as an extension of them into what we choose – to become good.  This point is expressed in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, and St. Thomas among others.  Even Plato stated that the end of happiness is The Good, and that every man should do his best to make his own character reflect His.


As for the Constitution, we can simply look at the rights contained within the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to this document.  The first amendment cited provides for the freedom of religion – the opportunity for each of us to know our Creator, to fulfill our purpose.   This is more than the mere right to worship.  Anyone who thinks those two ideas are the same does not understand their purpose.  They are lost like lost sheep, or perhaps wolves in sheep’s clothing.  This amendment also contains the right to express ourselves by both the spoken and written word.  In short, to communicate with one another.  Without this freedom, we could not become, nor remain, a people.  The remaining rights in these first ten amendments concern the purpose of government and the recognition of our equality as all being created in the image of our Creator.  These later rights have been expressed in many medieval documents, and I would suggest that the Declaration itself is also a medieval document.  These documents include:  The Magna Charta, The Petition of Right, The Right of Abjuration, and A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants.  All of the rights expressed in these documents have their basis in Divine and Natural Law.


Now let us look at some of the more recent freedoms and rights created by our government.  Roosevelt declared the rights to freedom from fear and want and Johnson a right to freedom from poverty.  More recently we have the rights to education (Carter), home ownership (Clinton), equitable income and healthcare (Obama).  These do not have their basis in Divine or Natural law, but merely in human law as they are government creations.  In the words of F.A. Hayek, these are promises of security offered in exchange for some of your liberty.  Aren’t these the same promises made by the serpent in the Garden of Eden?  Go ahead and take a bite, it won’t cost you a thing and think of all you will gain.  However, taking that bite cost Adam and Eve their relationship with God and brought death to themselves – a pretty high price, don’t you think?  It is no different with these later promises.  Give us control over these things, we can protect you better than you can protect yourselves.  We will help you; it won’t cost you anything.  However, in the end it costs you the ability to fulfill your purpose as you are no longer able to make your own choices.  No matter how well intentioned, at its heart the elitism underlying all such collectivist promises represents a type of bigotry, an assertion you are incapable of caring for yourself.  Do you believe that?


The two views above are contradictory – they cannot co-exist.  In the end each of us must choose one or the other, no one can serve two masters.  Which one will you choose?


Some of you reading this probably will not accept the above argument.  That is fine.  We can also look at things from a purely economic viewpoint, from the view of stewardship.  From a big picture perspective, we only need to look at three things:  (1) the population to be served, (2) the resources being consumed, and (3) the results obtained from expending those resources on education.  We will next look at each of these in turn.


The U.S. Dept. of Education was created in October, 1979 under the Carter administration.  Its purpose was to improve education.  Improvement can come about in a number of ways.  These include:  (1) increased output in terms of numbers or improved quality with the same amount of resources, (2) fewer resources being consumed to produce the same output, or (3) shortening the timeframe to achieve the same output while maintaining quality.  To put this within the perspective of education, if improvement has occurred, we should see at least one of the following:  (1) improvement in outputs such as test scores indicating subject proficiency (say math or reading), (2) improvement in the graduation rate, (3) a reduction in the number of personnel necessary to educate the same number of students (or at least a reduction in the overall amount of resources necessary), or (4) reaching a specific degree within a shorter period of time.


We will look at the last 40 or 50 years in our analysis.  This will serve to both create a pre-Dept. of Education baseline and compare the subsequent results that have been achieved under their watch.  Let’s first start by looking at the population to be served, the number of enrolled students.  From 1970 through 2010, this population only grew by about 7.8%.  In comparison, the entire U.S. population during this same time grew by just over 51%.  Based upon the modest student growth, we should expect to see a growth in the number of teachers by about 8% - less if there have been efficiency increases through the implementation of technology or improved teaching methodology.


However, during this same time period the number of teachers has grown not by about 8%, but by 60% and the number of non-teaching staff by an astounding 138%.  The percentage of teachers as a total of school staff has dropped from 59.9% in 1970 to only 50% in 2010, so now only 1 in 2 public school employees teach in a classroom.  Instead of the expected modest growth in the number of teachers, the growth in the number of teachers is 7 times that of the growth in the number of students and it is 17 times greater for non-teaching staff.  This dramatic increase in personnel is reflected in the spending per student, where the U.S now ranks second only to Switzerland, spending more than $90,000 per student between the ages of six and fifteen.  Further, the 13-year cost of public education for a high-school graduate in 2009 rose to about $149,000.  This represents an increase of almost 200% from the $50,000 figure for the same education back in 1970.  The above figures are also shown in the graphics below.  The first two graphs come from the Heritage Foundation’s paper entitled ‘How Escalating Education Spending Is Killing Crucial Reform’, and the final graph comes from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.








So we have had a much more rapid growth in resources, and corresponding costs, to deliver the education necessary for a high school diploma over the last forty years.  No process efficiency gains have occurred, which have not been more than off-set by cost increases.  So what about through-put in terms of the number of students graduating, or outputs in terms of the subject matter proficiency of high school graduates?


The usual graduation statistics include the receipt of GEDs, in addition to high-school diplomas, which overstates the number of actual diplomas given each year.  Work by Nobel laureate Jim Heckman and Paul LaFontaine developed a better measure based upon the actual number of high-school diplomas awarded.  The web-site The Profit of Education has updated the figures from their study.  That information is presented in the graph below.




The year 1969 represented a record in terms of the percentage of high-school students receiving a diploma.  We can see that the number of diplomas awarded actually declined for the next twenty seven years.  It is only in the last ten years that the graduation rate has improved, and it has only managed to get back to where it was forty years ago.


Math and reading are two basic building blocks of education on which all other areas rely.  I had thought to include the US Dept. of Education’s math and reading proficiency scores in examining how those scores have changed over the last forty years.  However, with the government slow-down those scores are not available from their web-site.  However, the materials I have read indicate that these scores have remained flat since 1970.  As those scores become available again, I will update this post with that information.


In the meantime, I have looked at the most recent International Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores for the U.S.  Remember we spend more per student than every other country except Switzerland.  What we’ve achieved is a ranking for reading of 17th out of the 65 countries participating in the program, and a ranking of 32nd in math.  Massachusetts ranks first among the states in both test results, and is the only state which scored above the proficiency mark within math.  Only four additional states had a math proficiency score over 40 percent.  Some of our most populated states, with some of the largest economies, scored below the U.S. average on both tests.  These included:  Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Florida, and California.  Both New York and Texas were above average on one test score, but below average on the other.


So we have almost doubled our per student expenditures for education over the last forty years.  What have we obtained in return?  We have gotten a decrease in students receiving diplomas for a large part of that time, and stagnant scores in math and reading proficiency.  The Dept. of Education has clearly failed its mission.


So, what recommendations should be made around education?  I believe truly improving our education will require the following:


First, there should be no public funding of education, at least as we currently know it.  Government’s involvement in education is incompatible with the type of education a student must receive (see below).  Education today is largely funded by state and local property taxes, with some block grants and other forms of assistance thrown into the mix.  So there already exists a means to collect revenue to support schools.  This is merely the primary means used today.  Our Founders identified several methods of taxation, which included:  income, consumption, assets, and wealth.  Each basis has its pluses and minuses.  What really matters is that a single basis is chosen and used.


One of the main problems is that these monies go from private individuals to the state or federal governments.  They become ‘state’ or ‘federal’ funds.  Instead they should be held by the local government (county or municipality) in trust for the student’s parents, who will decide which school should receive those funds based upon where they choose to send their child to school.  As they would be held in trust, these funds would not become the governments.  They would remain in the hands of individuals.


One way this would work is as follows:

·       Schools would continue to create their budgets, and at the same time would maintain performance results for their students.  This provides cost and quality information to the parents, and the measures a particular school chooses would offer further information on its particular area(s) of educational expertise.

·       A parent would apply for entry into a particular school when their child reached the age to begin attending.  As the funds used would not be government funding, but only funds held in trust for the parents, both public and private schools could be applied to and paid with these funds.

·       Property assessments, if property were to be used as the basis, would be collected at the local level based upon the stated funding needs of the schools within their jurisdiction.  The sum total of these monies would be divided equally among all of the students within the jurisdiction.  It would then be up to the parent to choose which school received those funds after their student had been accepted.  Once a student is enrolled at a school, they would continue to attend that school unless the parent/student decided another school would better meet their needs – at which time they would need to apply to that other school.

·       There would be differences between the funds received by the parents for their child’s education, based upon the assessments, and the amount required by the school.  In cases where the school’s tuition is more, it would be the parent’s responsibility to make up the difference.  In cases where a school’s tuition is less than the average provided to the student, those excess funds would be retained by the local government unit. At the end of the year, any remaining funds would be used as an adjustment in determining the amount of funding needs received from the schools in the following year, and used in calculating the new assessments.

·       This approach has the following advantages:

o   It removes the government from education, which allows curriculums to be based upon what student’s need to be taught – both the languages of reason and faith.

o   It removes the strings and regulatory requirements associated with government funding, reducing the regulatory burden attached to those funds, which in turn would result in the need for fewer overall headcount and more of a focus on teaching headcount within the schools.

o   Makes schools accountable directly to the student’s parents for education.  If a school does a good job their enrollment will expand.  If it does a poor job, enrollment will contract.

o   Schools would need to actively plan accordingly for the number of students they wish to serve, capacity planning, and take action accordingly.

o   This approach to a large extent removes the problem of geography associated with our current public education structure, by allowing parents more freedom in choosing a school for their child, regardless of where they live.

o   It allows teachers to decide if they want to belong to a union or not.  If unionized teachers deliver a higher quality education, then the various costs associated with union membership will be acceptable to parents through the school selection they make for their child.

o   There would be an incentive for school’s to provide efficiencies in educating students, which over time would lower the cost of education as schools would be competing in a marketplace.  In turn, parents would pay less in tuition, and the community would benefit as it would see less collected from property assessments to meet school funding needs.  Instead the primary driver of overall funding needs would be the increase or decrease in the number of students within a county or municipality.

Second, as noted above, there must be a curriculum which teaches both the languages of reason and faith.  It is only when an education in both of these areas is received that virtue and morality can exist over the long-term within a society.  Without virtue and morality; justice cannot exist – and this is the primary reason for the existence of government.  As the language of faith must be taught, and religion is to be protected from the influence of government, the only logical alternative is that government have no role in education.  There is simply no other way.  Any compromise would put us on a path that would bring us back to where we are today, and I would suggest that maybe this is one reason why performance indicators have not improved as government has become more involved in education.  Maybe it is because the students realize that much of the education they currently receive is really not education at all but propaganda.  I’ll admit that I have no hard evidence for this, but I do have one piece of anecdotal evidence.  When our daughter was studying political policy at a very left-leaning college on the east coast, she decided to switch majors late in her sophomore year.  The reason, in her own words, was that she knew there was more than one view to the subjects being taught, but there was only a single view being presented and declared to be truth.  She saw this education as not being valuable, and changed her major.  I am proud of her and her decision.  I would suggest that my daughter is far from alone in her realization.


Third, students are responsible for their own education.  A society can only present a student with the opportunity to learn, but make no mistake, an education is a privilege and not a right.  No one can make another learn, or do much of anything else they do not want to do for that matter.  Society does have a responsibility to offer its youth the opportunity to obtain a good education.  Beyond that it is up to the student to take advantage of that opportunity with whatever skills, aptitudes, and talents with which they have been blessed.  The consequences of failing to apply oneself in education should rest on the student alone.  Two quotes from the Bible in support of this position.  First from Luke, ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be required.’  With talent and opportunity comes the need to work in order to succeed.  And second from 1 Thessalonians, ‘For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.’  With the ability to choose comes the responsibility for the choices one makes.  To improve one’s lot, one needs to learn to make good choices.  That responsibility rests with the individual alone.


Fourth, we should eliminate both the Department of Education and all federal funding from our education system.  The inculcation of morality and virtue are one of the primary goals of education.  These require teaching the underpinnings of religion, such as philosophy, rhetoric, logic, history, ethics, and morality from the New and Old Testaments.  Our Creator alone provides a basis for existence, morality, and knowledge.  This purpose and the content required to fulfill it are therefore incompatible with a role for government.  In addition, in terms of stewardship, the Department of Education after more than thirty years has simply failed in its mission.


Fifth, the States are free to make their own choices as to whether or not to fund education within their state.  It is the right of their people under their individual state constitutions, and the concept of government within government, for them to grant those powers to their state government.  However, the federal government does not have such a right.  The rights exist within the people themselves, and have been granted to their states by the agreements embodied within those individual state constitutions.  The powers granted to the federal government were few and enumerated in areas where the individual states simply were not the best vehicle to protect certain rights.  The federal government cannot take from the states what is not the states to give.  It is up to the people to directly determine when and how rights should change, and that is accomplished only by amending the constitution in the ways outlined within that document; it cannot be done by a group of people wearing black robes pretending to be God – that is simply human arrogance.


In the end the marketplace will decide, and people will vote with their feet if education is important to them and a state is unable to deliver it.  We have mentioned stewardship several times during this discussion, and that is the next topic that we will explore.

Posted in: Education


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About Dan Wolf

Dan WolfMy goal is that my writing will help you to get started on your own journey of discovery, or help you along the way on a journey you may have already begun. Our Founders considered education, religion, morality, and virtue to be the cornerstones for any successful society. Being successful requires understanding both the languages of reason and faith; reason alone is insufficient.