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How developed economies make schools worse and encourage home education

Instpundit gleefully links to an article entitled (my reaction to this sentence was to see if SQotD was already taken – it was):

America’s best educated kids don’t go to school

Why? Well, partly of course it’s all the usual public sector stuff, about a big old nationalised industry getting worse and worse, no matter how much other people’s money they throw at it. Unions won’t allow bad teachers to be fired. Politicians won’t allow bad kids to be disciplined. And so on. Public sector education in the USA is a like a great big Detroit, spreading out across the entire country. All true.

But I think there’s another big force at work here. Another key sentence in this piece, aside from its title, is a quote from Walter Russell Mead:

Many parents these days have just as much education as teachers if not more.

A few years back, I did a spell of education blogging, and one of the big conclusions I reached was that countries where teaching was a much coveted career were at a fundamentally different stage in their development to ones where teaching was what you did when you couldn’t get a better job. Basically, in develop-ing countries, teaching was and is a great job. Everyone knows education will separate you from the pack of the dirt poor, but the jobs you’ll then get offered will still be pretty terrible, so a very appealing job is to be a teacher. But in a develop-ed country, where the economy has worked out how to make seriously good use of educated people, teaching is strictly a second best, if that. The result is this odd flip-flop. The more developed the country, the crappier its schools tended to be, at least compared to what you might have expected. Lavishly funded, crammed with textbooks and computers, but still a horrible disappointment.

To put all this another way, what I am saying is that the familiar slogan saying that Those Who Can Do and Those Who Can’t Teach applies with unequal force, depending on what else there is to do.

I recall reading, long ago, in a book by the late Peter Drucker (he was one of the first people I ever read who told it like it was about the public sector), about how computers had, for the first time in human history, created an abundance of well paid jobs for mathematicians. Given that the world now cries out for maths geeks, to do things like programme computers, analyse share prices, stop bridges collapsing, streamline cars, predict market share, sort out logistics in warehouses, and so on and so on and so on, it’s no wonder that maths teachers are on the whole not what they used to be. The same principle applies to education generally.

A hundred years ago, the typical American kid’s best chance of learning good stuff about the world was to go to a school and pay attention to the teachers there, who tended to be far better educated than his own parents. Now, increasingly, the same kid would do better to skip school and spend time with his now far better educated parents. (The big question now being: can those parents spare the time? Suggestion: a developed economy that is in an economic slump is especially good at encouraging home education.)

As commenters will surely explain, there are plenty of other influences that explain the current inexorable rise of home education, the fact that computers are now to be found in every home – now, in just about every hand – being another obvious fact about this story. But I do believe that the tendency, now as opposed to a century ago, of well educated people in rich countries only to want to be teachers if they are too mediocre to do any better is a big part of this story.

40 comments to How developed economies make schools worse and encourage home education

  • Surellin

    I think you are onto something here. I have a hundred-year-old copy of Scott’s Lady of the Lake from a major publisher that belonged to my grandmother. It was edited and introduced by a high school teacher – said so right on the title page, rather proudly. I suspect that few high school teachers get such opportunities these days, or would be up to the task even if they did.

  • GaryP

    Many say college is the new high school. Really after dealing with recent college graduates, I’d say grad school is the new high school. Soon only post-docs will be able to read. Public schools are only good for creating members of the socialist equivalent of the Hitler Youth (didn’t they call them the Young Pioneers in that great land of opportunity to which our leaders wish to take us?)

  • pete

    Another factor in the rise of home education could be the increasing unemployment rate for middle class, educated people. Unemployment and underemployment are not just for the uneducated nowadays. Also many teachers now have difficulty re-entering the profession once they’ve finished a career break for child care reasons. No need to take someone back into the workforce if there are plenty of cheaper young entrants to be had.

    There are more educated people at home when they don’t want to be, and they are available to educate their children in their spare time.

    In the UK teaching is not a last resort for graduates. The economic conditions in the private sector for the last 10 years or so mean it is quite an attractive, secure proposition and for this reason the quality of recruits has risen and and teacher shortages are a thing of the past.

  • my reaction to this sentence was to see if SQotD was already taken – it was

    Tomorrow belongs to Brian

  • Sigivald

    Given that the world now cries out for maths geeks, to do things like programme computers, analyse share prices, stop bridges collapsing, streamline cars, predict market share, sort out logistics in warehouses, and so on and so on and so on, it’s no wonder that maths teachers are on the whole not what they used to be.

    Most of those aren’t really mathematician jobs.

    Oh, some of them require high-level math chops (civil engineering, aerodynamics to some extent), but the rest don’t, especially.

    Hell, I program computers for a living and have for well over a decade – and I never even took more than a half term of calculus. Programmers need math if they’re doing software that needs math. Otherwise, just logic – and very simple Boolean logic at that.

    (Predicting market stuff and analyzing share prices never seems to actually work, so I discount it. This may be unfair on my part, but … doesn’t seem so.)

  • Sorry to sound all Daily Mail, but another reason for the rise in home education and the decreasing attractiveness of teaching in developed countries (partly counteracted by what pete said about job security)is declining standards of discipline.

    It is, as you have blogged many times, often quite scary and intimidating to be a pupil. It is also often quite scary and intimidating to be a teacher. Even if you successfully project an image of unshakable authority, keeping that up is psychologically battering.

    Although at root this is because of the use of force in schools, force which is largely absent from home education, that does not explain why the nastiness has got worse in developed countries over the years. Schools in developed countries use less and softer force nowadays. It could be the Macchiavelli principle: if you are going to hurt people, hurt them so hard that they cannot hit back. And/or it could be to do with the sort of factors about the changing payoffs to being a teacher, and to being a pupil, that you describe.

  • Ellen

    In schools today, there does not seem to be a middle ground in discipline. Terrible behaviors are met with a shrug at best, and punishment of the victim at worst. At the same time, zero tolerance means kids occasionally get expelled for taking an aspirin, or biting a pop-tart into the shape of a gun. I’m glad I got out of school before it got that bad. These days, anybody with the sense to stay out of school may well have the intelligence to learn well at home.

  • Mike Giles

    I went to grade school over a half century ago. Then one of the few opportunities for women was teaching, another being nursing. These days the women who would have been my grade school teachers are doctors, lawyers, bank presidents, scientists, etc. etc.. My older sister went into nursing. She’s a retired nursing supervisor now, but I listened to her spend her last working years complaining about the idiots she was getting out of college these days. I’m not surprised; I spent my working years as an accountant for a university. The School of Nursing was under the aegis of the School of Education; and anyone who has ever been on a college campus will tell you that the School of Education is where you find the “dullest knives in the drawer”.

  • Tedd

    In the last decade or so I’ve had the pleasure of working with several engineers educated in the former Soviet Union, and I have been very impressed. Perhaps there’s a filter at work in which better-than-average engineers are more likely to arrive in the West. But, based on the sample I’ve experienced, Soviet-educated engineers are second to none. Perhaps that also fits Brian’s theory about education and the level of development in a country.

  • Paul Marks

    What is the evidence that average American is better educated now than the average American was 50 (or even a 100) years ago?

    I doubt this claim is true.

    Obviously in practical skills the average American (or the average British person) is wildly inferior now to the average person 50 or a 100 years ago (the practical things of actually making, or repairing, things with their own hands and so on) – but I am not talking about that.

    Even in pure “book learning” stuff, I am unconvinced that the average person now is better educated than they were say 50 years ago – indeed I suspect the opposite is true. Modern Americans often seem to have been taught little more than “self esteem” or P.C. attitudes and doctrines (ditto a lot of British people), certainly the sort of examinations that were the norm 50 or a 100 years ago would be wildly beyond them (and wildly beyond me – I am pig ignorant).

    As for the “Third World” – an education is (quite rightly) seen as a passport into the government bureaucracy (a way out from “Adam’s curse” i.e. having to work for a living).

    This is why such things as the making of education free and compulsory in Kenya (which happened after the fall of President Moi) is such a terrible thing.

    Even if the schools are a “success” (indeed especially if the schools are a success) there will be vast numbers of new people demanding government jobs – and holding that real work (the backbreaking nightmare that is real life) is beneath them. Thus putting an even bigger burden on those people who have to work.

    A way round this would be to ban people with an education from all government employment. If the claims of the education establishment were true (i.e. that their schools make people better market traders or whatever) people would still flock to the schools.

    As for education in the “developed world”.

    Well Bavaria is certainly more “developed” than Britain is – and teaching is not considered a low status job there (rather the reverse). Although German education, at least Bavarian education, is fundamentally different from what passes for education now in Britain and the United States (for example practical skills are not despised – and nor is intellectual rigour).

    That is not to say I support the German ban on Home Schooling – on the contrary I condemn it as a vile inheritance from the National Socialist regime.

  • Paul Marks

    It should also be remembered that many children in Britain and America (vastly more than 50 or a 100 years ago) have no stable family to stay home with.

    Civil society (at least among large sections of the population) has already been destroyed – the state has taken over. And that is not a system that is going to work in the long term (say the next few years – so not that long).

    The Germans can not boast – they hardly breed at all now.

    Some Western population groups buck the trend of decline (practical and demographic) – American Mormons and Orthodox (not nonorthodox) Jews spring to mind.

    But the West in general is unlikely to stay “developed”. We have few practical skills and our intellectual ones also tend to be radically misapplied (for example in creating ever more complex credit bubbles), and are not nearly as good as we are led to believe they are.

    Really want to go head-to-head (via time machine) with someone from 50 years ago in mathematics? Or in English literature? I suspect they would wipe the floor with us.

    As they would in their capacity to endure life. Their ability to work, their loyalty to family and local community (they found the time to actually do the things we just think of doing), and so on.

  • Richard Benson

    What is your evidence for the assertion that “in a develop-ed country, where the economy has worked out how to make seriously good use of educated people, teaching is strictly a second best, if that.”?

    I don’t see that it’s generally true.

    Also, is there evidence that how well someone does a job is necessarily linked to whether is is their ideal career? Any industry will have people working in it who would rather be somewhere else – notably, in my experience, financial services.

  • Eric Tavenner

    Current education is certainly not as good as it was in the past. Some time ago I came across an 8th grade graduation test from the 1880’s. While I have consistently placed in the top 25 percent of my classes I would have failed it badly.

  • AngryTory

    Teaching in the best private schod remains a well rewarded and high status profession – also at private liberal arts colleges and many of the ivies.

    Parents who love their children will either educate them at home, or send their children to a good private school (where the rest of the class will be in the right class). Patents who send their kids to state (public) schools – by definition don’t love their kids – and if patents don’t love their kids, the kid is basically stuffed from day one.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    No Worries, Paul- the Japanese are developing robots to replace humans! And good-looking robots at that!

  • In the last decade or so I’ve had the pleasure of working with several engineers educated in the former Soviet Union, and I have been very impressed.

    In the former Soviet Union, or at least Russia, having a good education is something to be proud of, and being an uneducated thicko is not. It is not uncommon in Russia for somebody to say proudly of a friend that he or she is very well educated.

    Contrast this with the UK, where being pig ignorant is no barrier to fame and monetary success (or high political office!), having a decent education is sneered at, and when engineering graduates are often told during their first weeks in a (now bankrupt) company: “Having a degree means fook-all, it’s only a bit of paper, doesn’t mean fook-all, I went to the university of life me, don’t know fook-all you.”

    When having an education is a requirement for a relatively nice life, like it was in the former Soviet Union, then people will value that education. If it makes little difference, as appears to be the case in the UK, then it won’t be valued – especially if you’ve not had to pay for it. True, it was free in the Soviet Union, if you disregard the favours and bribery that went on.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Nick (Nice Guy).

    I remember when Japanese television news was freely available in Britain there were lots of stories on robots (they did not appear to be very intelligent – but they were proudly announced as “the new children and grandchildren – and much better than messy flesh ones!”) – and “good news” stories about how people need no longer worry about family tombs (as there would be no children to visit the graves) so they could just have their ashes scattered in the forests “much more Green!” “this is good news!” said the smiling presenters.

    Then there would be a poem about the beauty of death (normally by some Japanese poet based in Paris).

    Clearly the Japanese are preparing the future. Although it may be a bit of self fulfilling prediction.

    However, the Europeans are also doing so – for example by getting rid of their nuclear power plants (as many in Japan also wish to do).

    After all, if civilisation is going to fall and we are going to die horribly (sorry die “wonderfully”) what is the point of having nuclear power plants?

    I am sure the Germans (and Italians and….) agree.

  • Then there would be a poem about the beauty of death (normally by some Japanese poet based in Paris).


  • Edward Henning

    There are also other factors at play. After nine years teaching maths and physics, I got out of teaching as a direct result of the government-enforced drop in standards. When GCSE was forced on us, I had students that went from being engaged and interested to being bored out of their minds. The difference was truly that great. I had another and completely different opportunity come up, and jumped at it. A shame. I enjoyed teaching. My first experience of political correctness had been a year or two earlier when sample GCSE papers had been distributed to us, and we were asked for feedback. I gave my feedback, and was told that it was not what was expected and would be ignored.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Paul Marks

    I was not comparing how educated regular people are now compared to regular people a hundred years ago. I was comparing how regular people now compare to teachers now, and how regular people a hundred years ago compared to teachers a hundred years ago. The quality ratio has changed. I stand by that. And the process I describe, far from being disproved by what you say, actually goes a long way to explaining what you say, about people now being generally less well educated. One reason is that teachers are not what they used to be, because now clever and better educated people (better educated compared to their contemporaries) have so much else they can be doing.

  • veryretired

    The problems with education are much deeper than whether some aspect of teaching, or teachers, is better or worse than in the past.

    The bankruptcy of educational theory and philosophy has led to a generations’ destroying collapse in coherence and efficacy.

    The current hodge-podge of PC, multi-culti, pop-science, feel good nonsense does a grave disservice to both the student and the teacher, and, by extension, the society which supports such a travesty, and which is relying on that travesty to somehow produce literate citizens who can operate a 21st century economy.

    Just as the criminal justice system has little to do with justice any longer, and is much more concerned with the well-being and convenience of lawyers, so too the educational system has long abandoned even the pretense of providing an effective educational experience for our youth, and exists now mainly to provide lucrative employment for those teachers who would not otherwise ever hope to have a decent career in some other field.

    On top of that is the ever-expanding and ever-voracious accumulation of administrators and educational theorists, who dance giddily from one fad to another, rarely, it seems, overly concerned with the actual effectiveness of this theory or that new approach, as long as it sounds good, and touches all the necessary PC bases.

    All children, by their very nature as developing humans, are curious, and interested in learning how the world works, and what they can do to secure a viable place in it for themselves. We, to our eternal shame, have provided them with the educational experience of the “young metallurgist”, and sent them into the world with heads full of pc mush and multi-culti, value-free nonsense.

    The book asks, “Who among you, if your son asked you for bread, would hand him a stone?”

    Well, our sons and daughters ask us for knowledge, and the skills to live in a dauntingly complex global culture and economy, and we have given them a handful of swamp muck instead of the loaf of mental nourishment they so desperately need and desire.

    Of all the big, ugly chickens that are circling overhead, that dereliction will be among the most painful to endure when it finally comes home to roost.

  • Mr Ed

    @ veryretired, I take it that the stone in question is not one used to mill grain into flour, and thus have the main ingredient of bread?

    There surely is, properly, no such thing as a ‘Professor of Education’. Educational Theory appear, in the main, to be an exploration of means of preventing it from happening.

  • WDO

    This is a bit more conjecture, but in the past it seems like the aphorism that a few bad apples rots the whole barrel was the rule, be it in behavior, ability or motivation. In the 70’s that changed to the idea that the bottom quintile would be significantly improved if surrounded by their betters. To avoid what would otherwise be mass embarrassment by those attempting it, the median curriculum had to be so drastically eviscerated that it’s now well below the median student’s capabilities.

    Additionally, you mentioned the ubiquitous nature of computers now, and I don’t think that can be understated. The difference in educational levels between teachers and the general population is certainly much less in developed countries, but not non-existent. Except outside of extreme functional illiteracy or the like, the internet (and related technologies) go a pretty long ways to making that difference inconsequential. There’s something of an inside joke about the angry homeschooler, as one advocate explains:

    Have you met the angry new home educator? They’re brand new and they’re mad. What’s the matter? “I’m teaching my children and I realize I know nothing. I didn’t learn anything! They didn’t teach me this stuff. By the time my kid’s like fifth grade he’ll know more than I knew through my whole education. What am I going to do?!? I’M ANGRY.”

    Not knowing what to do or where to start doesn’t matter much any more. If I go to YouTube and search “homeschool curriculum” I get “About 45,900” results (peppered with ads for online K-12 classes and tutoring, natch). Want to get involved in a co-op or organize a group field trip? Pick a forum. Need a Latin course for 5-9 year olds with teacher guide, workbook (and indispensable “My Pet Monkey® bilingual story animation,” of course)? Amazon. Credit card. $80. At your door the next day.

    It’s a bit of a game changer.

  • A related trend to the one that sees math whizzes leaving teaching for greener pastures in industry: the same process drained away what used to be something of a captive force of over-qualified teachers, secretaries, and nurses: women aren’t stuck in those three fields any more.

  • Paul Marks

    Brian – either call me Paul or call me Mr Marks.

    Still – I apologise for my error.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Mr Marks

    Sounds like I ought to be calling you Sir.

    I didn’t make my point as clearly as I would have liked. Thank you for prodding me into clarifying.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Paul Marks

    Actually, I think addressing you thus makes perfect sense, for the simple reason that this is how you identify yourself. And my answer is clearly identifiable, not just by you, by anyone else interested, as being in reply to … Paul Marks.

  • Paul Marks

    No need for “Sir” – God Emperor of the Universe (or “Your Imperial Majesty”) will do nicely.

  • Paul Marks

    Edward H.

    They were oddly honest with you.

    Normally they would either say nothing, or pretend to be pleased you have given feedback.

  • Julie near Chicago

    It may have been sometime back in the ’90’s when I read an article in which a young man, a Mexican, stated that (paraphrase) “The children in the U.S. don’t value school because they are forced to go, and they work at it when they’re lucky enough to get there. In Mexico, where many children can’t go to school, the kids all want to go.”

    I’m sure that’s not the whole story, but looking back in our own history, it seems a plausible explanation of part of it.

    . . .

    I also remember back in the 60’s, when there were the first faint stirrings of a return to home-schooling, the hue and cry against it. That did not particularly come from the left or libruls, or so it struck me at the time. I thought it was appalling, a parent’s not being allowed to teach his or her kids at home!

    Of course, even today I’ll bet an awful lot of kids learn to read before they set foot in School.

    And again, of course, there are ongoing efforts to commence Official (Compulsory, preferably Public) School six months before Mom and Dad get around to commencing the project aimed at producing an Infant. This is also appalling.

    And now we learn that the U.S. is dropping the teaching of cursive writing. Whereas any adult who’s paid attention to his own experience as he has Learned to Learn knows that there is a huge and intimate relationship between how the brain learns and what the fingers (and hands) do. (–Not just the fingers and hands. For instance, there have Studies Showing* a relationship between endogenous depression, i.e. depression occurring with little or no apparent relation to external circumstance, and abnormalities in the visual cortex. In general, the brain learns from the body. Yes, I know, the brain is part of the body.)

    Kids have been arguing for 20 or 25 years, “Why do I have to learn arithmetic? Just do it on the calculator.” Shut up, kid, and gimme that invention of the devil. You can have it back when you take your first college engineering course.

    *Dr. Sowell a few years back wrote a cautionary column entitled (IIRC), “Studies Prove….” He was right, of course.

  • there are ongoing efforts to commence Official (Compulsory, preferably Public) School six months before Mom and Dad get around to commencing the project aimed at producing an Infant.

    Genuinely funny.

    Foetus of the family Smith?

    Present Sir!

  • Veryretired

    Mr Ed, the reference is to a parable about the the benificence of the lord, with the example that, if we, as flawed humans, will always try to meet our children’s needs, how much more would the lord do.

    Regardless of the religious aspect, the question is always a valid one, I.e., if our children ask us for the means to live a decent life, and we fail as grotequely as we have with education, among other things, we must seriously wonder about the wisdom of our way of doing things.

    By the way, I always liked your movies, but Wilbur was really a dweeb. You could do better.

  • PaulH

    “Many parents these days have just as much education as teachers if not more.”

    While I think the relative shift is important, this quote appears misleading. Around 11% of working-age adults have a post-grad qualification. That category includes almost all teachers, so something like 1 in 10 parents have just as much (or more) education as teachers. And around 23% have no formal qualifications.

    Basing education policy on what any 10% of the population would do seems a poor decision. For example, based on my very limited anecdotal experience I’d guess that 10% of parents would be fine with their kids getting no education if it required the parent to make an effort, therefore (one might erroneously argue) we should make the current education system even more invasive and encompassing.

  • Richard Benson


    I think you make a good point. I’m new here so didn’t want to wade in too argumentatively, but to me one flaw with Brian’s theory is that it applies almost exclusively to the educated and affluent, who are, sadly, a minority. The majority of parents in Britain are not better-educated than their children’s teachers.

    In my opinion there’s a similar flaw with the historical view. It may well be that the teachers in, say, a good urban grammar in the 1950s were on average more able than those in some comprehensives now. But schools differed. It would be hard to find evidence to show that teachers at bog-standard secondary moderns or, before that, elementary schools, were better than their modern counterparts. I’ve read quite a bit of oral history in this area, and have never come across anyone saying the education in these schools was better – only that the discipline was more strongly enforced.

    These doom-mongering concerns about education have always been with us – see for example TS Eliot’s famous 1940s quotes about the mistake of educating the masses.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Even in Libertopia, the best educated children might still not go to school.

    Perhaps homeschooling just tends to yield the best outcomes regardless of the competition?

    The relative shitness of state provision has no bearing on that.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh, if a critical mass of people in any given area (large or small) value some sort of education (informal, semi-formal, or formal — that’s a question of form, not content), then most children will be educated to some degree or another beyond basic literacy and numeracy. Wasn’t it de Tocqueville who wrote of being impressed with the degree of literacy in America? That, of course, does assume that the “State” with its gun-wielding goons is not involved.

    What are the relevant dates?

    De Tocqueville visited here in 1831; Democracy in America was published in 1835. (The Wikipedia article on the book suggests, but does not state in so many words, that in fact de Tocqueville disparaged the state of education he found here. Further deponent saith not.)

    In its article on Horace Mann, Wikipedia writes: ‘In 1843, Mann traveled to Germany to investigate how the educational process worked. Upon his return to the United States, he lobbied heavily to have the “Prussian model” adopted.’ –The whole article is fascinating actually. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Mann.

    . . .

    In 2002, Praeger published a book entitled Literacy in America: Historic Journey and Contemporary Solutions, by Edward E. And Elaine H. Gordon. This looks fascinating. The Amazon description, almost in full (my boldface):

    ISBN-10: 0275978648 | ISBN-13: 978-0275978648

    This book is the first comprehensive history of how the American people achieved varying degrees of literacy from early colonial times to the modern era. The authors demonstrate that literacy education is not synonymous with schooling. By focusing on people rather than statistics, including literacy among women and minority groups, they explore the literacy agents, methods, and materials used at different times and places throughout the history of the country.

    The authors define literacy as the degree of interaction with written text that enables individuals to be productive members of their societies. Family literacy is essential to awakening the personal responsibility and motivation necessary for children to develop a love of reading. This effort requires more intensive collaboration procedures between the home and the school, some of which are detailed here. Based largely on primary materials, this historical survey reveals important lessons from the past that can be applied to achieve higher levels of 21st- century literacy.


  • Julie near Chicago

    At this late date, correction to my comment of 7/24 and 10:16 p.m., on the young Mexican man’s observation:

    “….The children in the U.S. don’t value school because they are forced to go. In Mexico, where many children can’t go to school, the kids all want to go, and they work at it when they’re lucky enough to get there.”