The Solution to the Poor Performance of America’s K-12 Schools

(Courtesy of Gary North,

Reality Check (Dec. 14, 2012)

There is a flurry of stories about recent published results of international testing of students. Whenever one of these reports appears, the news media are filled with summaries of the results and statements from educational officials about the meaning of the results. It all adds up to nothing. Nothing ever changes in terms of educational policy. The scores do not change very much. Everybody continues as before. But it makes for good news copy. Here is one such report:

I will explain very simply what the problems are. I doubt that many of my readers will doubt me.

First, the main problem is social. It has to do with parental attitudes towards learning. Where parents read to children early, have books in the home, and pay attention to how their children do in school, the children score well.


We have known this for at least a generation. In the famous “Coleman Report,” published in 1966, the results were statistically conclusive: parental concern about their children’s education was the most significant single factor in the performance of children academically. This did not matter what the racial background was, what the economic background was, or how much money was going in the local schools. Where parental interest in education was high, students performed at above-average rates.

Let’s review this. This is on the Wikipedia entry on Prof. Coleman. It is a good summary.

The report was commonly presented as evidence, or an argument, that school funding has little effect on student achievement. A more precise reading of the Coleman Report is that student background and socioeconomic status are much more important in determining educational outcomes than are measured differences in school resources (i.e. per pupil spending). At the same time, differences in schools, and particularly teachers, have a very significant impact on student outcomes.

Here was the bombshell: “Coleman found that, on average, black schools were funded on a nearly equal basis by the 1960s.” Almost nobody had understood this before 1966. The cry was always this: “More money for ghetto schools.” Coleman blew that mantra away. The cry goes on, but it’s irrelevant.

This research also suggested that socially disadvantaged black students profited from schooling in racially-mixed classrooms (a finding subsequently confirmed by other research). This was a catalyst for the implementation of desegregation busing systems, ferrying black students to integrated schools. Following up on this, in 1975 Coleman published the results of further research, this time into the effects of school busing systems intended to bring lower-class black students into higher-class mixed race schools. His conclusion was that white parents moved their children out of such schools in large numbers; this is known as “white flight”. His 1966 article had explained that black students would only benefit from integrated schooling if there was a majority of white students in the classroom; the mass busing system had failed.

Coleman’s findings regarding “white flight” were not well received in some quarters, particularly among some members of the American Sociological Association. In response, efforts sprang up during the mid 70s to revoke his ASA membership. Coleman remained a member and ironically twenty years later became the ASA’s president.

The problem is simple to state: educational institutions are not capable of changing parental attitudes towards education, and the bureaucratic monstrosity that is American tax-funded education is incapable of changing anyway. It gets worse. It never gets better.

I wrote a book review on all this back in 1971 for the Wall Street Journal. This is not news. The educational world has known this for a generation, bit it rarely talks about it. The reason is clear: the bureaucrats in the educational systems, no less than the politicians, are helpless in changing parental attitudes. Parental attitudes are outside the realm of politics, and they are also outside the realm of educational reform by massive, tax-funded bureaucratic schools.

This is the second problem: The tax-funded schools cannot change demographic reality. There really is white flight. Ghetto families are going to live in ghetto areas. “Get used to it!”

Ghetto families got used to it a long time ago, when the fled from the South. Black comedian Dick Gregory put it well a generation ago. “In the South, whites don’t care how close I get, as long as I don’t get too high. In the North, they don’t care how high I get, as long as I don’t get too close.”

The people who refuse to face this (at least in public) are mostly white sociologists and educators.

The worst teachers are assigned to ghetto schools. The good ones (young) get out. They get reassigned to upscale schools. That is their reward for good performance. Ghetto residents know this. Ghetto teenagers know this. School boards know this. School superintendents know this. It’s not going to change.


What can ghetto families do about this? One word: homeshoool. This is the solution. Student flight: student flight out of the substandard, hopeless, socially lower class (present-oriented), irredeemable, tax-funded, ghetto schools. Simple. “Pull your kid out!”

But wait! That’s the solution for whites, too. Also Hispanics. Also Asian-Americans.

Always, the published reports on the failure of American education focus on this or that possible reform of the educational system. There is one reform that would work: the complete de-funding by tax money of all education. That would dramatically increase the performance of students whose parents favor education.

Whether the children of crackhead parents in the ghetto will do better or worse under these conditions of 100% de-funding is an interesting question, one which I hope someday will be tested, across-the-board, universally, in the United States. This much I do know: the performance of ghetto schools and ghetto students continues to decline, compared to what was available in the late 1930s in a place like Dunbar High School in Washington DC. Thomas Sowell has been writing about Dunbar for 40 years. It had very high academic standards. It was an all-black school. But nothing like it exists today for any race, except for a handful of students who have been carefully screened to get into magnet schools. These magnet schools are only for an educational elite. They have no effect on the average performance of a school district.


The United States is never going to catch up with Asia. When I say Asia, I mean those students who are actually tested by Asian governments. Schools in rural areas are not tested. When we hear about how students in China are doing, this means students in Shanghai. This is the educational elite. Every bureaucracy plays the same game: try to get the poorest performers out of the statistical sample.

What makes a difference, the biggest difference, on the input side is parental attitudes. What makes the difference, the biggest difference, in economic output is entrepreneurship. What the schools do, one way or another, is pretty much irrelevant.

Back in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, there was a great hue and cry in the United States about the need for more money being put into public education. But the Soviet Union never was able to compete against the United States in economics. It was never able to compete against the United States in terms of the quality of its military hardware. It could compete in terms of ICBM missiles, but it never could compete in terms of planes, trains, and naval vessels. That was proven in 1991 in the skies over Iraq. It was also proven in tank warfare in Iraq. In December 1991, the Soviet Union shut down. The generals knew they couldn’t win, and when that realization finally went through the entire Soviet society, that military empire collapsed in a bloodless revolution from the top. They lost faith in their own system. They had put their trust in chariots, and our chariots completely smashed their chariots. That’s what happens to societies that put their trust in chariots.

It’s not about money. It’s about bureaucracy. If you want to hamstring the economy, turn it into a bureaucratic monstrosity comparable to the American public schools. What saves America is this: students finally get out of the American public school system and into a free-market economy. It is the free-market system in this country, coupled with attitudes favorable towards entrepreneurship and wealth, that are the basis of this country’s enormous success. This is in spite of the fact that the educational system is envy-driven, bureaucratic, and generally hostile to entrepreneurship.

The public school system, if the educators had their way, would train a nation of postal clerks. Bureaucrats train bureaucrats. That is true in every tax-funded educational system in the world.

The goal ought to be to get our kids away from those people as early as possible, or even better, never put our kids into the classrooms they run.


The revolution is coming. The cost of educating our children at home is down to virtually nothing, of you shop carefully, other than the time required by mothers. This time input should decline after grade three. The technology is here. There are competing curriculum programs, competing theories of education, and widespread access to the Internet.

The tax-funded, self-certified educational bureaucrats are really on the run. As Joe Louis said, approximately: “They can run, but they can’t hide.”

This is why I am optimistic about the future of the United States. I’m also optimistic about the future of any country whose parents rely heavily on the Internet to educate their children. Parental attitudes of the key, not tax funding. We should never forget this.

Parental attitudes towards education are generally high in the United States, and I think the Internet will enable those families that are really committed to educate their children to provide far better educational opportunities for their children than are available today. So, I am not a pessimist.

The public schools will be used to warehouse ghetto children, the way that Indian reservations have been used since the 1870s by the federal government to warehouse Indians. Nothing is going to stop this, other than the de-funding of American K-12 education. But when enough parents will pull their kids out of the tax-funded schools, they will cease voting for bond issues to keep those warehousing schools open. The voters will finally strangle the tax-funded schools when most of the nation’s children have been educated at home. This may two generations, but we have plenty of time. The public schools do not.