The Flaws of the US Education System and How They Can Be Fixed


The year 1975 brought what can be termed as ‘education shock’ in the American society when it was discovered that scores on the nation’s most widely used college entrance examination system (Scholastic Test-SAT) were on decline for more than a decade. This discovery resulted into many studies being established to find out the state of the American education position. One of the widely revered reports into this task was ‘A Nation at Risk’ which was released by the commission on Excellence in Education. The report found out that American education was characterized by poor performance, low expectations and complacency (Ravitch & Brookings Institution, 1995, p.1). As a result, many people started to question the functionality of the elementary and secondary education. Largely, the public confidence in the public education system drastically went down as declining test scores increased (Goertz, Mitchell and Politics of Education Association, 1990, p.119). What can be said today is that, although the school-aged population has increased, it is still characterized by poverty and racism, but is more ethnically diverse. The general picture of the American education system continues to be poor and exhibit signs of darkness, for instance, high dropout continues to be realized, education accessibility continues to be dictated by social backgrounds of students and largely, the systems appear to advantage students from the affluent families (Lasley II, Hunt & Raisch, 2010, p.652).

Therefore, the question that is being widely asked is whether the American education system is flawed, and in its broad context it appears to fall below the expectations. If these flaws are in existence and are recognizable, does it become possible to find solutions (fix) for them? This paper will largely explore these concepts.


Criticism of the public education in USA has increased, with some sections of the society mimicking it with Charles Dickens’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ “it is the worst of times” (Marzano, 2003, p.1). The education system is seen to be one of the worst in times for it fails to live up to the expectations of the society. The criticism viewed from historical point has largely centered on the K-12 schooling system with much of criticisms taking place for the last five decades. In 1957, the USA citizens were concerned with the relevance of the education to the students whereby questions about the thoroughness and viability of schools were put in perspective (Marzano, 2003, p.2).

In 1959, Admiral Hyman observed that public education was responsible in weakening the intellectual capacity of the students and the security of the nation was therefore fragile (Marzano, 2003, p.2). The 1960s saw other research being done which again attacked the education system by producing evidence that supported the notion that public education was characterized by failures and inadequacies. The Equality in Education Opportunity published in 1966 famously known as ‘Coleman Report’ found out that schools in USA had little impact on the achievement of student and that student’s background and general social context dictated his or her school achievement (Marzano, 2003, p.2). In 1972, Christopher Jencks and his colleagues carried out a study that was aimed at evaluating the findings by the Coleman Report, and in their published document; Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effects of Family and Schooling in America, they found out that: 1) schools had little role in filling the gap between rich students and poor students; 2) schools had less programs that can help to fill the gap between the more and less able students; 3) students achievement is dictated by one paramount factor-the background of the student; and lastly 4) there is less evidence that reforms in education have the ability to improve school’s influence on student achievement (Marzano, 2003, p.2). The 1980s and 90s were no different periods of education criticism in USA. For instance in 1991, Peter Dow published a book, Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons from the Sputnik. Era (cited in Marzano, 2003, p.3) describes the general state of the American education system as “one being troubled, having fragmented school curriculum, inability to define any coherent, accepted body of learning, it excessively emphasize teaching isolated facts and it does not pay attention to higher order skills and concepts” (Marzano, 2003, p.3).

The major and alarming criticism to education system in USA came from the findings in the report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, ‘A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform’ which described the K-12 education to be in a state of “irreversible disrepair” (Marzano, 2003, p.3). The report further indicated that the foundations of the American education system had been washed away by a rising tide of poorness and which had posed a threat to the future of the nation and its people. Quoting the summary of the report, Marzano expressed that “we have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinkable, unilateral disarmament” (Marzano, 2003, p.3). This report was credited as being one of the profound sources of evidence for the declining education standards in the USA public schools. As if this evidence of education doldrums in USA were not enough, a new study was initiated in 1995 which culminated into publication of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report which again outlined the ineffectiveness of USA education system. The report found that 12th grade students performed poorly when compared to other students from 41 countries (Marzano, 2003, p.4). Such profound and exhaustive reports’ findings just accelerate and enrich the fact that USA education system is flawed.

Poverty and education

Education has been seen as an opportunity to break the cycles of poverty and increase chances of success to many people. Education in USA for sometime has been regarded to be ‘a great equalizer’ supposed to level the playing field and ensure every child regardless of his or background achieves the values of the American dream (Johnson, 2006). But today the USA education system is participating in magnifying the effects of poverty that in turn is promoting poverty and social advantage (Watkins, 2000, p.51). Moisio and Suoranta (2006, p.) asserts that, “…The poor have less access to preschool, secondary and tertiary education; they also attend schools of lower quality where they are socially segregated, at the same time poor parents have fewer resources to support the education of their children and have less financial, cultural and social capital to transmit.” After Second World War, USA put in place a financed education system that was aimed to give equal school access opportunities to all students but surprisingly today the initiative has turned out to be at forefront in reinforcing the disadvantages linked with poverty. Report by the Department of Education, titled Conditions of Education, which was initiated in 1997 established that schools with highest rate of poor children were under-financed while those schools with children from affluent families were spending almost 34 per cent more per pupil than the poorest schools (Watkins, 2000, p.51). At the same time schools serving the poor have the highest number of least-trained teachers whereby the students from the schools have high chances of being taught mathematics and other science subjects by teachers who have almost little or no specialized knowledge of the subject. Most of the schools for the poor continue to experience shortage of necessary equipment and other essential teaching materials (Watkins, 2000, p.51). The secondary schools available for the poor students continue to provide students with low and inefficient quality education.

Poverty reflected in poor performance

Poverty influences are cited to be contributing to dysfunctional system of education in USA. One observation is the increasing levels of poverty among the children which is resulting from low pay and the changes in the welfare system that in turn are accelerating this problem (Watkins, 2000, p.51). For example, statistics shows that more than 14 million American children, one in every five children is living below the poverty line and as such the children are highly vulnerable to illness, family stress, inadequate parental support and nutritional problems and in turn these is likely to be reflected in their education where they perform poorly (Watkins, 2000, p.51). On wider view, the poverty menace has affected and reduced the initiatives of equity in education and today racial, social and ethnic gaps are at high speed widening. When the attainment of college or university education is seen as the safe escape from poverty today it is sad that the gap between children from wealthy and poor households is widening and which again is being reflected in the education system of America. For instance, statistics shows that young people from poor backgrounds record the lowest marks in national tests of reading, mathematics and vocabulary while at the same time being twice as likely as other pupils to repeat a grade and three times likely to be expelled from school (Watkins, 2000, p.51). More so, students from poverty-stricken homes are likely to drop out of high school and hence remain poor themselves (Smink & Schargel, 2004, p.34), take case of 1996 statistics which indicated that young people who were from the poorest 20per cent homes were 11 times more likely than their peers from the richest 20 per cent to discontinue with high school education, this in turn make them to have lower earnings, experience more unemployment and are likely to end up on welfare and in prison than their peers who complete high school studies (Smink & Schargel, 2004, p.34). Importantly social class in USA has influenced schooling particularly it has affected test scores, dropout rates and college attention (Alexander & Gosa, 2003; cited in Romero & Margolis, 2005, p.220).

Education system in favor of rich students

Further, the statistics are bold in showing that students from affluent backgrounds were far disadvantageous at accessing and continuing with college education (Romero & Margolis, 2005, p.220) where 80 per cent of such students join colleges compared to 34 per cent of students from poor families. Racially, the statistics showed that the white high-school graduates are four times more likely to complete college than their African-American or Hispanic counterparts (Watkins, 2000, p.51).

Citing more evidence of educational disparity in the American society, data indicate that almost half of all food-stamp recipients in the year 1997 had failed to graduate in high school which showed the link between education deprivation and future adult poverty. On equal measure is the fact that unequal distribution of opportunities for education has a big and increasing impact on the trend towards increasing income inequality. Lack of necessary skills that education impact in individuals will generally results into income inequalities. For example, wages for students who only have high school qualification has been dropping by almost 15 per cent for the last 20 years.

Reforming education system in USA

The enormous literature analyzed has indicated that the American system of education can be seen to be flaw whereby it works to the dissatisfaction of the majority of citizens of the nation and other stakeholders with keen interest in education of the nation. Chubb & Moe, 1990 (cited in Marzano, 2003, p.9) stated that reforms in America’s education system was necessary if quality performance was to be realized. Marzano on the other hand was convinced that public education officers are to accept the challenge of implementing effective schooling (Marzano, 2003, p.9). Major and commendable efforts have been spearheaded in an effort to improve the education system with aim of closing the achievement gap. From 1989, enactment of Goals 2000: Educate America Act has been paramount in addressing the issues in America’s education. The Act gave the state the responsibility of initiating a program to develop content and performance standards in order to eliminate the gap in high school graduation rates between the minority and non-minority students (United States Commission on Civil Rights, 2004, p.11). Although the initiative was welcome it did not specify or give guidance on how goals were to be carried out. In 1994, Improvement America’s Act was enacted which required states receiving education funding to put in place standards and performance requirements for poor and underachieving students specifically in language reading and mathematics. The Act sought to empower high-poverty schools, students with disabilities, Native American children and students with limited English Proficiency. In 2001, No Child Left Behind Act was adopted which recognized the role of students, teachers, parents and school administration in improving performance to meet or exceed national standards. The Act laid much emphasis on school system with aim of reducing achievement gap by promoting accountability, flexibility and choice (United States Commission on Civil Rights, 2004, p.15).

What need to be remembered is that these efforts continue to be inadequate in addressing the situation of education standards in the country. What is needed is a comprehensive, effective, flexible and functional educational system that has capacity to address the needs of the nation’s students and other key stakeholders. Marzano presenting a research conducted in over 40 years is content that student academic achievement is influenced by three broad factors which are; school-level factors, teacher-level factors and student-level factors and that any meaningful reform strategy in education needs to incorporate these factors (Marzano, 2003, p.9). To this end there is need of a perennial quest for the improvement of the America’s education system that inculcates the desires of the citizens and changing nature of knowledge demand.


Literature analysis on the education system of USA confirmed the research statement that, the education system is largely flawed and it is highly unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, past efforts by the federal and states governments have been fruitful and commendable. To an extent, they have addressed the education problem from an action-point of view though sometimes it has not given absolute success. What is real is the fact that, education problem in USA will persist as long as the major stakeholders burry their heads and fear to confront it. Bravery will be needed and cooperation from key institutions will be necessary. Policies to address inequality, poverty, race, gender, curriculum content, teacher-student ratio, quality of teachers and facilities and their intertwined role in education and schooling of students, are needed. At the same time the policies need to be pragmatic in addressing root issues that today threatens the education standards of America.


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  4. Moisio, O. P. and Suoranta, J. (2006). Education and the Spirit of Time. Rotterdam, Sense Publishers. Web.
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  6. Smink, J. and Schargel, F. P. (2004). Helping students graduate: a strategic approach to dropout prevention. NY, Eye on Education. Web.
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