Reforming Public Education: Against Compulsory Schooling

A couple weeks ago, the Quilette post Public Education’s Dirty Secret went hugely viral. It’s evident America’s education system is not just failing students, but also teachers:

As the weeks dragged painfully into months, it became apparent that the students wouldn’t learn anything. It was dumbfounding. It was all I could do to keep them quiet; that is, seated and talking among themselves. Sometimes I had to stop girls from grooming themselves or each other. A few brave souls tried to keep up with instruction. A particularly good history teacher once told me that she interrupted a conversation between two girls, asking them to pay attention to the lesson. One of them looked up at her scornfully and sneered, “I don’t talk to teachers,” turning her back to resume their chat. She told me that the best school she ever worked at was in Texas, where her principal managed not only to suspend the most disruptive students for long periods, he also made sure they were not admitted during that time to any other school in the district. It worked; they got good results.


This was unthinkable in New York, where “in-house suspension” was the only punitive measure. It would be “discriminatory” to keep the students at home. The appropriate paperwork being filed, the most outrageously disruptive students went for a day or two to a room with other serious offenders. The anti-discrimination laws under which we worked took all power away from the teachers and put it in the hands of the students.

As the author can attest, a sizable percentage of students, possibly as high as 30-50%, do not stand to benefit from education beyond certain number of years of schooling, perhaps beyond the 7th grade. People talk about the need for “better schools,” but the best way to achieve better schools is to have better students. If students with IQs below 100 were replaced with students with IQs above 110, all sorts of metrics such as test scores and graduation rates would surge…hence…better schools. But student with below-average IQs, who stand to benefit the least from continued education, are forced to stay against their will, dragging down the quality of education for everyone else. Much of the knowledge people will need to know in order to be productive citizens is acquired by the 7th grade, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Further education is is only necessary to pursue college and more advanced work.

But don’t high school grads earn more? Yes, high school grads earn more than dropouts, but that is not because of the coursework, but rather high school completion, much like college completion, is correlated with higher IQ and other attributes employers find attractive. I think a lot of students, boys especially, find the subjects boring and do poorly, and are drugged into compliance. They should be learning skills that are more applicable for a job setting, such as how to manipulate spreadsheets or how to modify html code, rather than world history, civics, biology, or constructing geometric proofs. Those are nice things to know, but are not directly applicable for a job setting.

The returns to education are diminishing, meaning that the most substantial progress is made in the first few grades, and then quickly tapers off:

A second objection is that education is an “unalienable right” and that an informed, educated citizenry is necessary to stave of tyranny, and so on. But just because someone has a 7th grade education does not mean it stays that way. No one is stopping people from obtaining further knowledge, and the internet makes this easier than ever. But look how poorly Americans perform on general knowledge tests. From NRO, “…only a quarter of Americans can even name the three branches of government; nearly a third can’t name even a single one.” It’s obvious that for the majority of students, the material is going in one ear and out the other.

So what do we do with these underachievers? The default answer is ‘vocational schools’ as if that is some sort of panacea/fix , overlooking the reality that the economic landscape is much more competitive and automated than it was decades ago, and that in spite of the low unemployment rate, many of these low-skilled jobs have more applicants than spots open; and furthermore, what do we do with these kids until they are of working age? If they cannot comply in a classroom setting, what makes one think they will suddenly comply in a vocational setting, or be good workers as adults. As I discuss here, there’s a dearth of solutions for these boys. Doing less of what does not work is a good start, but that does not tell us what to do instead. The days of able-bodied men of good character being able to “show up and work” are mostly over. Nowadays, there are drug tests, medical tests, personality tests, criminal background checks, extensive interviews, etc., in addition to often long and difficult commutes and high living expenses. And supply of labor for most jobs still vastly exceeds demand. Employers cannot fill the jobs, either because the jobs don’t pay enough or employees don’t meet the requirements (because of all the screening, credentialization, certification, and tests required).

As recently as 3 or so years ago, my response would have been much more dismissive along the lines of “the unemployed and poor need to pull themselves up and stop complaining,” but even though I’m of the “right,” factors out of one’s control such as IQ and family wealth are crucial to one’s outcome in life. The phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is so cliche and that it is now only used in a mocking or ironic tone, and even people on the right know that it is unhelpful. There has been a shift in recent year in that many conservatives understand that one’s ability to pull his or herself up is affected by various biological and social factors. Jordan Person, in his lectures about how having a low IQ is a major impediment to employment, acknowledges such; same for Charles Murray.

Privilege will always exist in some form. 100 years ago, to be privileged maybe meant being physically strong (to perform physical labor) or having a certain sir name. The vast majority of heirs to the Vanderbilt fortune amounted to little in life and are only noteworthy because of their wealth and lineage. Nowadays to be privileged is to be smart enough to learn how to code. The difference is, right-wing determinism don’t seek to tear down these structures down or make people feel guilty for their success or privilege. They accept there will be inequality due factors outside of one’s control, so the question is how to deal with it. That is what Dr. Peterson is getting at in reconciling biological and social determinism with individual free will, and to not be bitter and to resent other’s success.

To bring this back to education, we (as in policy makers) need to set realistic expectations about what is possible and what is not. Kids who cannot hack it in school, either due low IQs or other factors, should be transitioned to areas where they can make progress at learning the necessary skills to be productive citizens in whatever capacity that is.