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The U.S. Education System: What Went Wrong? Part I

Something is seriously wrong with our education system. But before we can prescribe any cures we must understand the ailment. Our education problems are too big for sound bites. The system’s faults are too complex for mere political rhetoric.

As such, I will be writing a few different blog posts to explain what exactly went wrong with our education system.

In the conventional sense, the American Colonists were far less educated than their countrymen across the Atlantic. This doesn’t mean they lacked wisdom or intelligence, simply that they had not yet developed a school system like Britain. 

Still, without any sort of centralized education structure, the colonists still learned to read, write, other basic skills, and mastered them to a degree that helped unite the colonies and found a nation. 

Thomas Paine circulated pamphlets like “Common Sense” that strengthened the cause for American independence. Patrick Henry’s oratory skills brought Virginia into the revolution. General George Washington led the American armies to victory in the most dire of circumstances.

These men, who history will remember for their exceptional intellect, would be considered “uneducated” by today’s standards. If today’s students were capable of achievement similar to these men, we wouldn’t have reason to worry. 

And yet, as former New York Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto iterates, “No public school in the United States is set up to allow a George Washington to happen.” 

Which leaves one to wonder—what in the world went wrong with the U.S. education system?


Thomas Paine's Common Sense requires a high level of reading ability, yet sold in very great numbers, which suggests that the level of literacy in America was not inconsiderable at that time. People tend to look too much to the quantity of formal education, and fail to recognize the virtue of informal education.

Today, home-educated children have far less formal education than their government-schooled peers, yet score at the 85th percentile on standardized tests, on average. Might we draw parallels between now and then, with regard to the quality of the informal education in those days?