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Education and Freedom

February 5, 2022.

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.

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.[1, p. 260]  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." [p. 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. As Gladwell himself acknowledges, educational attainment has little if any correlation to school funding. The labeling of scholastically achieving children as "rich kids" and underachieving children as "poor kids" also inverts causality.  "Poor kids" can achieve exceptional results at scale in a good system.  Countries including China where students far outperform their U.S. counterparts are very poor countries by comparison with far less average household income than in U.S. inner cities.

These data show that educational underperformance in the U.S. is not primarily a wealth problem, either in terms of household income or educational funding. It is rather a cultural issue.  Societies with longer school years and households in which children are encouraged to read and learn at home have better outcomes.  Unsurprisingly, the combination of the shorter U.S. school year and households in which no learning occurs when school is not in session are correlated with poor academic results.


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

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

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