American Education: Good, Bad, or Complicated?

Publish Date
Mar 11, 2017
Last Edit
Mar 23, 2022 12:50 AM
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This is the first part of a series on the education system in the U.S. going beyond the political talking points to take an in-depth look at the system and what we can do to improve it. Today, we’ll dispel a few of the misconceptions about it and get an even-handed look at its current state.
Education is one of the subjects that I care the most about. While we can all agree to the importance of its role in the world, it becomes more critical the longer the time horizon you consider. While education does matter for where we end up ten years from now, it is the defining factor controlling where society will end up in fifty years.
Education is such a driver of societal change because it touches every aspect of life. A better educational system won’t “cure” poverty, disease, climate change, or war. Yet a more educated populace will help us progress against these challenges (and many others). In a way, education acts to set the interest rate at which society generates returns. While taking our annual progress from 2% to 3% may not seem like an important thing to do right now, a society growing at 3% vs. 2% will have advanced twice as far after 70 years, and it will take the 2% society another 35 years to catch up.
Given it’s obvious importance to society, education is currently underplayed in political discourse. While certain issues “flare up” from time to time, most recently with the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, it is easy for minds and the media to deflect to flashier subjects and current events.
If our education system was in good shape, this lack of attention would make sense. Yet most don’t feel that this is the case, and indeed, many feel that our education system is in critically poor condition. So what is stopping us from improving from a state where so many obvious opportunities exist? Predictably, it’s politics.
So I’m diving into the world of education: where it stands today, how it is currently viewed, and what ideas exist for improvement. Admittedly, I do have existing biases on this subject: anyone who’s been through the system will certainly have a view that’s shaped by their own unique experiences. Yet my goal throughout will be to uncover as accurate and detailed a picture as I can of education today, and provide fair-minded analysis of potential solutions out there with a true desire to figure out what will improve our educational system the most in coming years.
Today, we’ll start with taking a holistic look at education in the US before subsequent entries will dive into the main issues with greater detail before wrapping it all up in a conclusion at some point down the road.

A High-Level View

First off, the very basic: education in the US consists of early childhood (Pre-K and Kindergarten), elementary (1st through 8th grade), secondary (high school), collegiate and beyond. To improve education, one could rightly point to opportunities within any of these. Yet undeniably they all build on each other, so if elementary education is failing us then it is a good bet that high school will as well. Beyond that, education in the US is largely funded at a state-level, most typically through property taxes. This means that school funding is highly variant, and does correlate with the relative wealth of an area (higher property values). While this is needed to some degree since teachers and staff in a higher income and cost area will demand a higher salary, this is obviously controversial as one potential cause of performance gaps between the affluent and lower income students.

The Costs

In the US, we have guaranteed a free education through high school for all children in the country since 1965. This includes kindergarten, but not any Pre-K education – yet one topic of current debate that can be looked at in much greater detail later in this series.
While the education is free for the student, this obviously does not mean that it is free for the country. In fact, the US does spend more money per student than almost any country: about $12,000 per student, per year as of 2012. Yet some of this money is due to the higher cost of living in the US relative to other countries. A better measure is the percentage of GDP, where the US spends 6.4% of our annual GDP which is slightly higher than a 5.3% average for developed countries. Notably, the spend in the US is shifted more toward higher education than other countries: our spending on just elementary and secondary education is actually slightly below the average for developed countries (3.6% vs. 3.7%).
Spend by country as a percent of GDP. The US is just below average for elementary and secondary education, but spends almost twice the average on higher education. Source: National Center for Education Statistics
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If you are reading this, you are likely among the ~80% of the population who has graduated high school. That number varies based on the source, but all sources place it within that range, show an increasing trend since 2000 after decades of remaining fairly steady in the mid-to-high 70’s. Sources also confirm that this varies by gender (women graduate more frequently than men), race (White graduate more frequently than Black or Hispanic students), and income (higher income students are more likely to graduate).
Most of you reading this have also received a Bachelor’s degree: this places you in even more rare territory. For the general population, this is about 28% of the population. For those in a recent cohort – those currently 25 to 29 years old – the number is about 33%. This rate has increased at about 3% per decade over the past 40 years. Not surprisingly, these numbers are stratified even further by the factors that impact high school graduation rates.
Census data shows the steady increase in Bachelor’s degree attainment for the general population (blue line) driven by quicker increases in recent graduate populations (orange line). Note the High School graduation rates include GED attainment and are thus higher than the numbers quoted above, though they show a similar trend.
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But graduation rates are just one measure of quality, and a relatively poor one. While graduation is obviously a good target, it does not necessarily translate to a higher quality education. Standardized testing also dates back to the early 1970’s. While there have been changes to the tests and measurement techniques, most sources also confirm that there has been minimal improvement overall. Black and Hispanic students have improved over time, closing a gap with the scores of White students whose scores have stayed fairly stagnant.
US student performance over time, broken out by ethnicity at age 9 (light gray), 13 (gray), and 17 (black). Note that White student performance is stagnant, but at a higher level than the increasing performance of Hispanic and Black students. Source: NAEP via Wikipedia
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Comparisons to the International Community

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data places the US below average for developed countries in math, and slightly above average for reading skills. But the variance in the US (as highlighted above) also means that this picture is muddied. Just segmenting by race, White and Asian Americans perform above average on Math and in the top several slots for reading. Other sources have done further looks, and within certain states or particularly wealth and better education regions, US student performance is well beyond the average of any country. For this reason, the US is still the main powerhouse for producing high achieving students. Each year, the US produces more high achievers in both Mathematics and Reading than Japan and Korea (the next two highest countries by absolute count) combined.
Yet mentioning the upside of the variance in our system demands mentioning of the downside. We produce more under-performing students than any other country as well. Hispanic and Black students end up underachieving at a rate higher than almost any developed country – most similar to the educational systems of Mexico, Chile, and Turkey. Needless to say, this is as much a problem as the upside to the variance, although it too cannot be our sole focus in a quest for a better educational system.
White and Asian Americans achieve high performance at better rates than the international average, while Black and Hispanic students are much less likely to achieve high performance. Source: PISA summary of OECD data
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  • The US spending on education is often quoted as being exorbitant, but it is actually right in line with what we’d expect a developed country to pay.
  • Graduation rates are slowly improving, but overall performance has been fairly stagnant since the 1970’s.
  • Only a third of the population ends up with a Bachelor’s degree, which is a lot lower than most people would suspect.
  • The system has improved for Black and Hispanic students over the past 40 years, but along with other lower-income communities a kid born there will be less likely to graduate both high school and college.
  • While we do stand behind other countries in terms of performance, the variance that we have masks truly strong parts of the system as well as terrible parts of the system.

Sources for content and above graphics: