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The K-12 Implosion: Review

A national implosion is coming, one which will take down the American public school system in its current form. So argues Glenn Reynolds, a well known law professor and the creator of the blog Instapundit, in his new book The K-12 Implosion. That the lower education system has problems is no secret, but for those who would like to understand why—beyond the often-shallow partisan debate—Reynolds provides a gripping guide.

To some extent, the slow collapse of the public school system has already begun. Teachers’ unions, the stalwarts of the existing model, are quickly losing favor in public opinion. And states and the federal government, driven by the soaring costs of Medicare and pensions, are clamping down on their funding for schools. Public schools are closing, charters are opening at a faster rate, and other innovative approaches are gaining popularity.

Two main factors explain these changes, according to Reynolds. First, a drastic increase in K-12 spending has failed to improve student performance. The US now outspends nearly every OECD country, but reading, math, and science scores have remained constant since the 1970s.

Much of this is due to where the money is going. Since the 1950s, the number of administrators and other staff grew 7 times more than the increase in students—and nearly 3 times as much as the number of teachers. Why public schools are bloating themselves with layers of unnecessary bureaucracy is anyone’s guess. But as Reynolds points out, the situation is unsustainable.

“The current system isn’t working. And, alas, neither are too many of its graduates. There may be a connection.”

The public school system as we know it, Reynolds explains, was initially created for the industrial revolution—to produce workers fit for the tedious and repetitive jobs of factories. But today’s job market has left factory work behind. It requires a vast variety of skill-sets. And not only are students left unprepared to fit these roles, they barely learn the basics.

So, what’s next? An unaffordable system, resting on a foundation of repeated failures, will eventually crumble. What will rise from the debris is still unclear. But Reynolds thinks it might be a diverse system of innovative approaches—each suited to a family’s needs and spending potential.

The deepening crisis of the public school system is one of the most striking and consequential examples of the broad social phenomenon this blog tracks under the heading of the “decline of the blue social model.” The purpose of the public school system—providing education for citizenship and economic self sufficiency to the next generation of Americans—is more important than ever. But the means by which our society seeks to accomplish this goal are less and less well adapted to the conditions of the times.

The modern American public school system is a product of the late 19th and early 20th century transformations of American society. An agricultural society based on small farmers became a manufacturing society in which most people lived in cities. And the great flood of immigration between 1880 and 1923 filled America’s burgeoning cities with tens of millions of people who didn’t speak English and didn’t know much about the country to which they had moved.

The educational system was a way of helping kids adjust to a world that was radically different than the world many parents understood or could prepare them for. Teachers were professionals with knowledge not available to the average person—and they were considerably better educated than the parents of most of their pupils.

That is no longer true; many parents these days have just as much education as teachers if not more. The progressive era model of a bureaucratic school organization staff by life-tenured employees is no longer a good fit for our increasingly entrepreneurial and job-hopping society; it prepares kids (badly) at great expense for a world that no longer exists.

Our society is becoming more diverse, and different families need very different things when it comes to educating the kids. Uneducated single moms in crime ridden inner city neighborhoods need one kind of help when it comes to helping their kids get a good start in life; families where both parents have been to college want something quite different.

American education is going to change far more than most of us expect; Glenn Reynolds has done a magnificent job of showing just how urgently change is needed and how sweeping it is likely to be.

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