I’m afraid that Yglesias is pounding a straw man when he says that conservatives think the schools would be great if only we demanded more of teachers. I don’t know anyone who thinks that teachers can do much to overcome educational neglect and indifference at home.
On the other hand, for the really poor in the U.S., we have a huge welfare system. I don’t know this for sure, but my guess is that in the U.S., government support for the poor is proportionally greater than in Denmark or Finland — the Nordic countries spend a vast amount on welfare, but it’s spread around to most of the population via socialized medical care and other big programs, rather than being targeted toward the poor.
Nevertheless, in the U.S., poverty remains and government education seems to make little headway against it. (Poor families where the parents care enough about education to put their children in private schools have far better results. Gee, I wonder why.) Is Yglesias saying that K-12 education would work if only the government spent more on welfare programs? Pretty hard to believe that.
Robert makes a good point: The U.S. is different from the Nordic countries in that it has a far more heterogeneous population, with a large segment that is mostly amenable to education and a smaller segment that mostly isn’t. More education won’t change that and neither will more welfare.