Crisis in American Public Education

By Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D.

carol-hayneAmerican schools are in serious trouble.  Liberals, intellectual elitists, and teachers’ unions strongly resist any change from this dinosaur system to a free market driven system.  

In spite of billions of taxpayer dollars being spent each year on education, our public schools are graduating illiterates.

Our public school system was initiated by Progressive Era reformers who believed that a bureaucratic system should establish and maintain national standards. Today that centralized, bureaucratic, monopolistic education model is failing for the same reason that socialist economies around the world have always failed.

Even Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, acknowledged, “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity.  It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.” 1

Of course, not all American schools are failing.  Many are very successful…but they are independent of the government.  That private, parochial, and home schooled students achieve higher test scores than public school students is a well-known documented fact.  These illustrate the benefits to students from competition in the education market place.

“America’s public schools were once the best in the world.”  Although many parents believe their children are receiving a quality education, the reality is that elementary and secondary school curricula have been vastly dumbed down.  Now even our best students rank below those in other countries. 

  • American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science compared to students in 30 industrialized countries.
  • America’s top math students rank 25th out of 30 countries when compared with top students elsewhere in the world.
  • By the end of 8th grade, U.S. students are two years behind in the math being studied by peers in other countries.
  • Seventy percent of 8th graders can’t read at their grade level, and most will never catch up.2

The consequences for the dropouts and for our country are devastating. The red flags are all there:

  • The poverty rate for families headed by dropouts is more than twice that of families headed by high school graduates.
  • Nearly 44 percent of dropouts under age 24 are jobless, and the unemployment rate of high school dropouts older than 25 is more than three times that of college graduates.
  • Dropouts from the class of 2007 will cost our nation more than $300 billion in lost wages, lost taxes and lost productivity.
  • Dropouts contribute about $60,000 less in federal and state income taxes. Each cohort of dropouts costs the U.S. $192 billion in lost income and taxes.
  • Sixty five percent of U.S. convicts are dropouts and lack of education is one of the strongest predictors of criminal activity.
  • A dropout is more than eight times as likely to be in jail or prison as a high school graduate and nearly 20 times as likely as a college graduate. 3

Thousands of Baby-boomer teachers, born after 1945, are retiring.  Young teachers come and go through a revolving door, creating a labor shortage.  Federal standards for teachers are higher.  Curriculum standards are mediocre at best.  Voters, dissatisfied with public schools, are unwilling to increase educational budgets. 

“Prospective teachers who took state teacher licensing exams from 2002 to 2005 scored higher on SATs in high school and earned higher grades in college than their counterparts who took the exams in the mid-1990s, the report said.” 4

“About a third of new teachers leave the profession after three years. After five years, the number is closer to 50 percent, the District-based Center on Education Policy reported in 2006. Recruiting and training new teachers costs the country $7 billion a year, according to an estimate by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, also based in Washington.” 5

Though teachers hired more recently have stronger academic credentials than those who became teachers in the mid-1990s, over the long term fewer of those in the top of their classes have been entering the teaching profession.6

 “Three quarters of the nation’s …public school teachers are women, a figure that has changed little over four decades.” As women have become better educated, they have more career options that also include higher pay and safer, better working conditions.7

The current American Public Education system is not unlike the U.S. Post Office, which is highly inefficient and unable to sustain itself without massive monetary infusion from the government.  Its employees have permanent jobs even if the USPS is unprofitable.  This attitude of entitlement is evident in their treatment of the customers who must use their services.

Federal Express has outperformed the USPS in terms of profit, efficiency, and customer service because they are market driven.  In spite of naysayers, FED EX has become a major competitor to the Post Office.

Now with the economic downturn and massive government debt, the USPS has begun closing some of its locations and making other changes to cut costs.

So, too, must our public schools make major changes or face their own demise!

What can be done to improve the quality of education and the education experience in the public schools?

Schools must raise their academic standards and get back to basics. Schools must remember who their customers are—parents and students—and treat them as customers instead of adversaries.

The attitudes of the teachers’ unions must change also.  Albert Shanker stated “when school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interest of school children.” 8

Local school districts must find a way to compete in the market place to attract and retain the very best people to teach our children or they will soon be unable to staff their classrooms.

Teacher pay currently is based upon seniority rather than measurable changes in student performance. The teachers’ union opposes merit pay based upon student performance because they think it has “serious, potential pitfalls”. 9   The union demands that any pay increase be across the board, rather than rewarding only good teachers and not the bad ones.  This insane union policy is one of the reasons that bright young teachers are leaving in droves.

In other fields, employers who want to retain their best employees use a variety of strategies, including pay increases, alternate choice of duties, and the rewarding of good performance.  No rational employer would ever give pay increases to those who do not produce, just to be able to reward the best employees.

Tenure policies also must be revised so administrators can get rid of incompetent or burned-out teachers.

Tuition vouchers for private and parochial schools and home schooling must be made available to parents who wish to have choices. Here also the teachers’ union opposes any competition: “NEA opposes school vouchers because they divert essential resources from public schools to private and religious schools, while offering no real ‘choice’ for the overwhelming majority of students.” 10

What are they afraid of?  That public schools cannot compete?  That they will lose members?  Is the real issue that they fear losing union dues and their control over education and politicians?

Until education is free of union control and local school administrators can hire, fire, promote, and demote teachers, there is little hope that student performance is going to improve.

If socialistic economies have always failed, why do we persist in using a failed centrist, bureaucratic model for an institution as important as our American education?  

When public schools become the best in educational choices, they won’t have to worry about their competition.

3  Ibid.
4  Sam Dillon, “Report Finds Better Scores in New Crop of Teachers”, in New York Times, December 12,      2007.
5   Michael Alison Chandler, “Schools Pinched In Hiring”, in Washington Post, June 24, 2007.
6   Ibid.          
7   Idem.          
10  http://

Dr. Carol Haynes earned her doctorate in Professional Education from The University of Memphis with a major in curriculum/instruction & a minor in administration/supervision with a collateral teaching area in social studies. She taught choral music, social studies and English in the Memphis City School system.   She later taught teacher education at The University of Memphis and history at the Community College where she also served as Chairman of the Social Sciences Department. She welcomes comments at


  1. I would be the first to agree that unions have killed our educational system by driving out the new innovative and dedicated young workers, while demanding ever higher pay for their own mediocre efforts. Another major piece of the equation is parental involvement. In the years of the one room schoolhouse, the family made every effort to assure the children had an education because they believed that was the key to success in American life. That is not true today. Schools are babysitters, restaurantuers, police, drug busters and paper pushers – leaving little time for teaching. Children from poor quality homes where parents are not interested (or not present) even though moved via busing to quality schools do poorly. I think Charter schools are the only answer. Dedicated teachers will have motivated students. Parental involvement should be made mandatory to attend. The Government has screwed up everything they touched – Social Security, Medicare, Postal System, Border Control, our Economy and most detrimental, our education system. Get the Unions and the Government out of Education or we will continue to produce uneducated college graduates who will spend their lives working for supervisors from other nations who value their education.

  2. For some reason What I thought I typed and read became:
    Female teacher with little more than an 8th grade education taught school in one room all grade school houses in townships across rural America without administrators and government curriculum may seem millions learned to read,write and “figure”.

    Should have read:
    Female teacher with little more than an 8th grade education taught school in one room all grade school houses in townships across rural America without administrators and government curriculum AND AS STRANGE AS IT may seem millions learned to read,write and “figure”.

  3. Carole
    Public schools will never be the best educational choice. They have had over 200 years to get it CORRECT.
    Female teacher with little more than an 8th grade education taught school in one room all grade school houses in townships across rural America without administrators and government curriculum may seem millions learned to read,write and “figure”.

    Today education is the goose that laid the golden egg at the expense of our children.

    I have been convinced now for over 5 years that PRIVATIZATION is the only solution.
    If the state and federal government took 50% of the revenue now spent and distributed it equal in vouchers to parents to spend for education.
    Competitive Quality Schools would be turning out EDUCATED children which would be the ENVY of the world.
    Competition and Ingenuity made this the GREATEST COUNTRY ON EARTH.
    A monopolistic socialist educational system is turning this country into the laughing stock of the world.

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