top of page
Pupils raising their hands during class at the elementary school.jpg

America's Educational Underperformance: Causes and Remedies

February 5, 2023

US Underperformance in Educational Attainment

Educational opportunities are essential to opening the door to economic freedom. Abundant data demonstrate that in the United States, income is highly correlated with educational attainment. 

The United States spends more to educate students than most other developed countries, yet educational outcomes have fallen behind.  The Guardian reported that in 2014, the U.S. spent an average of $16,268 annually to educate a student, some 50% higher than the $10,759 average in the 35 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), including Canada, Germany, Finland, South Korea, and others.[1]  Nonetheless, "children in countries as diverse as Canada, China, Estonia, Germany, Finland, Netherland, New Zealand and Singapore consistently outrank their US counterparts on the basics of education," with the average student in Singapore a whopping 3.5 years ahead of U.S. students in math, 2.5 years in science, and 1.5 years in English.  Nor has greater funding of U.S. education correlated with improved outcomes.

This underperformance is observed across many studies. Senator Mitch McConnell wrote to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona:

"A 2020 survey found that only 51% of Americans can name the three branches of our federal government. A 2019 study found that majorities of Americans in 49 states and the District of Columbia would earn an 'F' on the U.S. Citizenship Exam. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress found that just 15% of American eighth-graders are 'proficient' in U.S. history."[2]

These results are troubling, both for the future of students poorly served by the US system, and for the future of democracy when large segments of society lack basic civic and historical knowledge.

Correlates of Educational Success

Malcolm Gladwell summarized key correlates of educational outcomes in Outliers: The Story of Success. Noting dubious assumptions of early U.S. educational reformers, he observes that the average duration of the school year is 180 days in the United States, 220 days in South Korea, and 243 days in Japan.[3] In the U.S., students from economically successful families returned to school after summer vacation with increased reading scores due to summer reading, whereas students from poor families actually lost ground. He observed:

"Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind...When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session...Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school." [Gladwell 258, italics in original].


Gladwell continues to note:


"The way in which education has been discussed in the United States is backwards. An enormous amount of time is spent talking about reducing class size, rewriting curricula, buying every student a shiny new laptop, and increasing school funding -- all of which assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing. But [research shows] schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren't achieving, is that there isn't enough of it."[Gladwell 259]

Gladwell goes on to cite examples of the KIPP [Knowledge is Power Program] charter schools in the U.S. which have helped minority children in New York City increase their attainment above grade level through a longer school year and accountability to expectations.

Misleading Language, Wrong Conclusions

Yet this language of “poor” and “rich” US students having different educational outcomes is misleading. Its false underlying assumption implies that different educational outcomes are achieved as a result of systemic inequities arising from Western capitalism. This now-pervasive phrasing reflects neo-Marxist propaganda attempts to shape public discourse by controlling language.

In fact, the data demonstrate that differences primarily reflect the culture of the home environment in the setting of the short US school year. Children from households where education is valued and who engage in learning activities during time off demonstrate higher academic achievement than students from households in which no learning occurs outside of school.

Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean have consistently been found to outperform American-born blacks in income, as noted in a 2020 study by Chikanda and Morris,[4] and education. This has been the case for nearly 30 years and also applies to college students. Second-generation immigrants also do well educationally. This discrepancy has been acknowledged and analyzed in the Washington Post and other publications. Many immigrants come to the US with far less resources than the average American indigent household receives in annual government assistance. The discrepancy does not arise from multi-generational wealth transmission or home equity. While other issues warrant examination, they are not principally responsible for the educational achievement gap.


These data demonstrate that the educational discrepancies are not primarily racial or ethnic, but reflect values and effort regarding education. The question is not what new government spending is needed to boost education, but what pathologies limiting growth need to be removed.

Teachers Unions: Politicizing Education, Resisting Reforms

Whereas other countries have adopted common-sense outcome-based measures to improve performance, the US system has lagged due to becoming beholden to political interests.


U.S. teachers' unions are heavyweight political actors. while advocating against the interest of the children teachers are employed to serve.  Teachers' Unions are "are consistently among the organizations that contribute the most money to candidates and political groups."  Since at least 1990, over 94% of Teachers' Union political donations have gone to Democrats. While leftists have often claimed to represent the "party of education," actual conduct has demonstrated a political special interest agenda making education more costly and less effective. A survey in 2022 found that US voters "no longer trust Democrats over Republicans on issues related to education."

Government schools are increasingly "run by the [teachers'] unions and for the unions." Teachers' unions colluded to write public policy for school closures during the Covid-10 pandemic and blocked school reopenings, contributing to severely disrupted learning during the pandemic and a mental health crisis disproportionately affecting minority students.  eachers' unions have vociferously opposed school choice, opposing charter schools where minority and at-risk students excel while advocating for ever more funds for failing public schools. Teachers' unions "regularly fight to protect bad actors from accountability." They also handcuff schools and impede educational reform. For these reasons, teachers' unions have been called out as anti-democratic and corrupt special interests.

Rather than remediating lagging performance with long-term consequences for innovation and competitiveness, the U.S. Department of Education has increasingly facilitated indoctrination and propaganda. Biden's Department of Education has pushed the so-called "1619 Project," an elaborate false narrative of Neomarxist propaganda which McConnell noted "has become infamous for putting ill-informed advocacy ahead of historical accuracy. Actual, trained, credentialed historians with diverse political views have debunked the project’s many factual and historical errors." Teachers' unions, not parents, have politicized US schools. Teachers' unions have fought to prevent parents from finding out what their children are being taught.

Whereas teachers' unions and affiliated school boards have largely been unable to enact basic reforms to improve education, they have been quick to push political indoctrination while invoking draconian tactics against critics. In 2021, the National School Board Association colluded with the Biden administration, sending a letter asking the FBI to investigate parents as domestic terrorists for objections to the teachings Marxist Critical Race Theory. While the detriment of teachers' unions to student performance has been apparent for decades, it was also predictable that the collusion between hyperpartisan teachers' unions and corrupt, ideologically aligned government would lead to leading to tyranny.


Teachers' unions are anti-democratic and constitute part of the systemic oppression faced by minorities and underperforming students.  Research cited by Just Facts Daily found that academic under performance and other ills afflicting inner-city minorities correlate with leftist governance.[5]

What is Needed?

Initiatives such as funding students not systems, a longer school year (especially in underperforming areas), and de-politicization of the US educational system are needed to improve educational outcomes for all students. Teachers' unions should also be recognized as harming students and taxpayers and should not be eligible for taxpayer funding.


[1] Rushe, Dominic. "The US spends more on education than other countries. Why is it falling behind?" The Guardian (UK), September 7, 2018.  

[2] "McConnell Letter to Department of Education April 2021." United States Senate, April 2021.

[3] Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. p. 260.

[4] Chikanda, Abel and Julie Susanne Morris. "Assessing the integration outcomes of African immigrants in the United States." African Geographical Review 40/1 (March 29, 2020): 1-18.

[5] Agresti, James D. "Social Ills That Plague African Americans Coincide With Leftism, Not Racism." Just Facts Daily, November 2, 2020.

bottom of page