Two reports - by the McKinsey and the annual survey of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the OECD countries - highlight the poor quality of schools and student achievement in the US and its impact on economic outcomes. It also finds that achievement gaps get bigger the longer children have been in school; socio-economic standing is a strong predictor of educational attainment, much more than in many other countries; and it aggravates economic inequality. The McKinsey report also finds that this education achievement gap imposed a cost amounting to 9-16% of GDP in the 1983-98 period, equivalent to a permanent depression in the US.
There are many reasons for failing schools. As Clive Crook writes, "Local financing of schools means that students in rich areas are lavished with resources, whereas schools in poor areas are often starved... Teachers’ unions have a death grip on the system and are having none of it. In many parts of the country, sacking a teacher, however incompetent, is next to impossible." He feels that the way forward is to bring in accountability and competition by offering alternatives to failing schools through the likes of self-governing charter schools and school vouchers.
On a different note, Lane Kenworthy feels that "schools don’t increase inequality; they just don’t do enough to overcome the inequality produced throughout childhood by differences in families, neighborhoods, peers, and other influences" (genetics and environmental differences). He draws attention to the studies by cognitive psychologist Richard Nisbett who writes that "much, if not most, of the gap in academic achievement between lower- and higher-SES children, in fact, is due to the greater summer slump for lower-SES children". In other words, the cognitive skills of children in lower socioeconomic status (SES) households tend to stall or actually regress, whereas those of children from high-SES households, who are more likely to engage in stimulating activities, fare much better during the summer.
In any case, the importance of schools and its quality is clearly established as the vital determinant in determining school achievement and economic outcomes.