Restructuring Public Education for the 21st Century

America is losing its edge in producing highly intelligent, creative young adults equal to the tasks presenting themselves worldwide. American public education needs a complete restructuring in order to support the development of critical thinkers ready to assume their positions as productive citizens of a free society.

Neglecting to change the system will only contribute to America losing its position as the leader of the free world. America has been number one in the development of innovations that have improved the quality of life throughout the world for the past 100 years. But because of our deteriorating system of public education, other nations are assuming leadership roles in education, innovation, skilled labor and productivity.

The State of Public Education

Students in dozens of other countries, including China, South Korea, Germany and Finland, outperformed American students in reading, math and science, according to the Program for International Student Assessment results released in December 2010. The United States ranked 23rd in science, 17th in reading and — worst of all — 31st in math.1 It is difficult, of course, to compare countries of vastly different size, culture and composition, but many commentators said the results pointed to other countries’ emphasis on academics, high prestige and pay for the teaching profession, and a parental culture of high expectations.2

These results suggest that the United States is in need of a public education makeover. Indeed, students are inadequately prepared in elementary and middle school for academic success in high school. Consider, 75 percent to 80 percent of urban children begin kindergarten with an inadequate vocabulary.3 Over time, many become discouraged and drop out, leaving the United States in the unenviable position of having one of the highest dropout rates in the world:

  • The average dropout rate nationwide is 30 percent to 40 percent.4
  • Urban centers report dropout rates as high as 80 percent.5
  • The United States’ secondary education graduation rate was 76 percent in 2009, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); 6 percentage points behind the OECD average of 82 percent.6 [See the figure.]

High dropout rates are costly to taxpayers. Consider, the annual public cost of dropouts in the state of Texas is $377 million, with an expected lifetime cost of $19 billion coming from three sources: lost revenue from taxes and fees, increased Medicaid costs and increased incarceration costs.7

Need for Restructuring Public Education

In 1900, a majority of the U.S. population lived on farms. Children were needed to assist with chores after school and with harvesting crops during the summer months; therefore, school days and school years were short. Now, in 2011, most of that rural population has moved to the cities, and children are no longer needed for farm labor.8

Secondary Education Completion Rates for Select OECD CountriesAmerica must move away from this antiquated agrarian system of education. A six-hour school day and a 180 day school year will not and cannot compete with other industrialized nations whose students meet higher academic standards, have better prepared teachers, spend 30 percent to 50 percent more time in class, and are supported by a parental culture that expects and requires more from their children.9 Other students around the world are no more intelligent than American students — they just work longer and harder, and thus achieve at a higher level.

Successful Students, Responsible Adults and Stronger CommunitiesIn addition, the United States needs to seriously consider how to improve academic achievement for low-income and non-English speaking students. Many students from these backgrounds arrive at public schools at age five or six with a minimal speaking vocabulary of perhaps 400 words, while children of more affluent, English-speaking parents come with a vocabulary of 2,000 to 4,000 words. It is difficult, if not impossible, to learn to read in 1st grade with such limitations, and that gap increases with every passing year.10

Early Childhood Education. Research demonstrates that the most economical and effective way to improve academic achievement is to begin with three and four year olds, especially non-English speaking students and children from backgrounds of poverty.11 It has been argued that those years belong to the family, and indeed they do, but with more mothers working outside the home, the need is for child care that is not only safe but also instructional. That time away from the home can be used to build vocabulary and prepare children for success in school.

Nondegreed teachers with strong child development training have proven to be very effective with three- and four-year-old children. Indeed, the only educational measure that has been shown to consistently matter for quality care is that the caregiver has taken a college course in early childhood education in the past year.12 Research shows that students taught full-day by these teachers demonstrate greater academic progress (and at considerably less cost per student) than students taught half-day by degreed teachers. Educational First Steps, a nonprofit agency in Dallas, Texas, provides a replicable model of what can be done and how to do it.

Educational First Steps provides training for teachers, parents and child care directors in low-income areas. Additionally, the program provides age-appropriate materials, furnishings and learning opportunities outside of the child care centers.13 The program serves 4,500 three and four-year-olds in 95 different preschools at a cost of approximately $500 per student. This is considerably less expensive than the $8,800 average cost per child in pre-kindergarten.14 First Steps-affiliated students have shown noticeable improvement academically, scoring 1.96 to 2.50 percentile points higher in math and 1.34 to 2.90 percentile points higher in reading than non-First Steps students.15Additional Recommendations for Restructuring

Early childhood education will greatly reduce the later expense associated with remedial classes, high school dropouts and other costs resulting from insufficient academic preparation. In addition, children who are given the tools to be successful in the school environment acquire the self-confidence that enables them to make good choices and follow a productive path in later years. [See the sidebar, “Successful Students, Responsible Adults and Strong Communities.”]

Eliminate the 12th Grade. The 12th grade is the least productive and the most expensive grade. Texas added the 12th grade requirement in 1940 at the end of the Depression, not for educational purposes but to solve an unemployment problem of young people on the streets with nothing to occupy them. By eliminating 12th grade from high school, those funds could be used for full-day schooling for three and four year olds in public schools, charter schools, day cares and other child care facilities.

Additionally, eliminating the 12th grade would allow high school seniors time to earn college credit early through advanced placement courses, attend a vocational program and receive workforce training. Many students would be better served by gaining skills at a two year technical institute or through advanced-certification programs. Community colleges and job training organizations could also provide students with necessary certification. Highly technological areas such as nuclear energy, refinery operation and computer science require basic skills, as well as appropriate training.16

Move Vocational Education to Community Colleges. High school vocational courses should be transferred to the community college, which can provide more comprehensive courses at much lower cost. In addition, the cost of using adjunct instructors at community colleges is approximately one-fifth the cost for the same instruction in public high schools. Adjuncts cost an institution approximately $2,000 to $3,000 per semester per course, as opposed to approximately $40,000 to $50,000 per year for a full-time certified high school teacher.

The excessive cost for vocational course in high school is the result of (a) using full-time certified teachers, (b) necessary lab and shop equipment, and (c) the necessity of smaller classes for this type of instruction. Community colleges could also be used to teach vocational courses in the existing high school facilities for college credit. [See sidebar, “Additional Recommendations for Restructuring.”]


President Lyndon Johnson said that public education is the engine that powers all economic growth in our nation. Considering the current state of America’s public education system, is it any wonder the United States is facing its deepest recession since the Great Depression?

No one can predict how long it will take America to overcome the deficits we face in this Great Recession era. However, if public education is indeed the engine that drives economic growth, a drastic restructuring of the system must occur immediately.

Linus Wright was an undersecretary of education during the Reagan administration and a superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, and is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.


1 Sam Dillon, “Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators,” New York Times, December 7, 2010.

2 Carolyn Gilbert, “Restructuring Public Education is Urgent,” Times Record News, February 22, 2011.  Available at—carolyn_gilbert_/.

3 “The Crisis of Public Education in Texas and America,” The Legacy Center for Public Policy, June 2008.

4 Brian J.  Gottlob, “The High Cost of Failing to Reform Public Education in Texas,” Milton and Rose D.  Friedman Foundation, February 2007.  Available at

5 Brian J.  Gottlob, “The High Cost of Failing to Reform Public Education in Texas.”

6 OECD’s Education at a Glance, “How Many Students Finish Secondary Education?” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Table A2.1, September 2011.  Available at

7 Brian J.  Gottlob, “The High Cost of Failing to Reform Public Education in Texas.”

8 Jonathon Kozol, Illiterate America (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985).

9 Carolyn Gilbert, “Restructuring Public Education is Urgent,” Times Record News, February 22, 2011.  Available at—carolyn_gilbert_/.

10 Ibid.

11 W.S. Barnett, “Effectiveness of Early Educational Intervention,” Science, August 19, 2011.

12 David M. Blau, “The Production of Quality in Child Care Centers,” Journal of Human Resources, Vol. 32,  No. 2, 1997, October 1996, pages 354-387.  Available at  See also, David M. Blau, “The Production of Quality in Child-Care Centers: Another Look,” Applied Development Science, Vol. 4, No. 3, June 2000, pages 136-148.  Available at

13 Educational First Steps, “EFS Program.”  Available at

14 National Institute for Early Education Research, “Facts and Figures.”  Available at

15 Educational First Steps, “Fast Facts,” July 6, 2009.  Available at

16 Pre-K Now, “Fact Sheets: The Benefits of High-Quality Pre-K.”  Available at

17 Tom Pauken, Bringing America Home: How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back (Rockford, Ill,: Chronicles Press, 2010).