On Education

Every couple of years we are caught in the middle of a debate on education. Typically, the Democrats chide us for not spending enough on public schools and universities. Republicans counter with demands of more accountability for teachers to increase student performance. But no one seriously questions validity of our education system as currently constructed. The debate is over how much to spend and on whom to spend it.

This is a rather curious fact in light of the historical reality that the public school system as we now know it is a relatively recent phenomenon. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the re-run episodes of Little House on the Prairie that I watched growing up presented a much more typical educational system. On the frontier, a community constructed a single building that would be used by whichever itinerant preacher was in town that Sunday, by the village teacher who would instruct all of the communities students through the eighth grade, and by the community itself for public meetings and celebrations. The preacher would be compensated by passing the hat at the worship service, but the teacher’s pay came from whatever money or goods the families could offer in exchange for teaching their children to read and do their sums.

To be sure, the effect of the Industrial Revolution and the onset of the Information Age have made education at much higher levels more important than ever before. But the same technological and social change that has transformed the American economy from agrarian to technological has also made alternative means and methods of education more available than ever. As for content, ask anyone that has used Rosetta Stone software how computer technology has changed the learning of other languages. As for delivery, you need no look far to see the vast changes taking place in colleges and universities as on-line coursework and off-site classes are becoming more and more mainstream.

With this introduction as context, let me address three key problems that we MUST face when it comes to education:

Measuring Success

Student and teachers alike hate to hear the dreaded acronym “ISTEP”. The ISTEP tests are just one example of the standardized testing epidemic that is sweeping the nation. And it’s nothing new. Long before there was a No Child Left Behind program, students spend hours and dollars preparing for their ACT and SAT test (…and they still do).

Proponents of standardized testing claim that these tests will help to hold teachers accountable and prevent “tenure” from protecting under-performing teachers. The argument proposes that poor student performance on standardized tests is an indication of poor teacher performance in the classroom. Sounds OK at first blush, but when you begin to consider student:teacher ratios, mandatory attendance laws, geographic issues combined with socio-economic demographics, and a host of other factors that are the daily reality of teacher across this state, this theory dissipates like so much water vapor. Let’s face it…homeschool mothers with no formal training in pedagogy have been outperforming public schools of all types on nearly every standardized test devised for years now. That can’t mean that none of our public school teachers are competent at their jobs, can it?

The problem of measuring success is really two-fold: First, there is the problem of defining “success” in the first place. Who’s to say that a young man who absolutely loves fusing metal with his welder and makes $40,000 a year is less “successful” than the lawyer or doctor making six-figures and miserable. Why is a high school senior who is gifted in the arts but abysmal in algebra any less successful than a straight-A student who is doomed to run with the herd for failure of any uniquely marketable talent? And who gets to decide what “success” in education should be, anyway?

Second, tests are only as good as the assumptions and methodologies used to write them. Samuel Bloom led a project some years ago to evaluate testing in American education. The conclusions drawn in the Cognitive Domain are now often referred to as Bloom’s Taxonomy (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation…or Keep Chasing Apes And Silly Elephants, as I learned it). The report opined that all education should attempt to reach the level of Evaluation as much as possible, but that this was very difficult to do in practice and nearly impossible to do in a test. In other words, the goal of education is to equip students with the ability solve new problems using old information, but most methodologies and nearly all testing measure only Comprehension and Application. If the tests themselves receive a failing grade when examined, why should we trust them to accurately and appropriately measure the “success” of our children and the teachers in our communities?

I propose that education should be a path decided upon by families rather than legislatures. I would provide vouchers for each school-aged child in the state that each family can use to obtain the education for that child that the family deems best. I would replace the high school diploma with a certificate of achievement awarded to all students who score above a minimum threshold on a standardized test (no unlike the GED system). I would lower compulsory attendance to age 16, and make it easier for young people aged 16-18 to work in the real world workplace as part of their education rather than prohibiting it as contrary to their education.

What Should Be Taught?

It is impossible to study the history and developments of the law in the area of the First Amendment without dealing with the content of education. Famous US Supreme Court precedents have dealt with issues ranging from what language may be taught, how many years of education may be required, whether or not more than one version of the earth’s origins can be taught,  and what dating rules may be imposed on private college students. No matter your opinion on any of these issues, it is impossible to deny that the content of instruction has become a wedge issue and a point of social tension.

The foundation for this current struggle can likely be traced to the GOP just after the Civil War. The official Republican platform of the time was “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” meaning anti-alcohol (which was funny if U.S. Grant was promoting the platform), anti-Catholic (due to the xenophobia of Americans witnessing large Catholic immigration from Europe), and anti-South (which was simply rubbing the Northern victory in the faces of proud Southerners). The public schools were suddenly required to do Bible readings only in the King James Version, which Catholics would not use. New states carved out of the western territory were required by enabling statute to include an anti-Catholic clause in their state constitutions in an attempt to starve out the growing parochial school network. It is amusing to hear many present-day Evangelicals bemoan the “anti-God” nature of the public school system when it was their forebears that imposed the rules cause their descendants so much grief.

In an era where technology can allow our children access to teachers around the world without ever leaving the living room, doesn’t it make more sense to leave the content questions up to parents and their children? Shouldn’t families be free to choose the education that is right for them? And before you start pointing at some “fringe” group that you think may be damaging their children, remember that the power you would use to control their educational choices is the power that your opponents will be glad to use on you.

Who Pays the Bill?

Presently, the single largest source of funding for K-12 public schools is the taxation of real property. What this basically means is that you would do well to be a renter on a piece of geography that has a high property tax levy and where property values are high or rising. The same ground that generates taxes (for your landlord, at least) will also determine which school your children attend. Of course, if you don’t have children you probably want to move to the district with the lowest tax levies and the highest number of people without children who share your passion to keep property taxes low.

Moving on to higher education, there is an even more sinister system. At least with K-12 schools, the folks paying the bills have the ability to pay the bills. When it comes to higher education, students saddle themselves with massive loan debt just for an opportunity to get paid the lowest acceptable wage or salary they can get from an employer that plans to benefit to a much higher degree from their knowledge and skills then the students themselves.

When it comes to K-12 schools, I’m not opposed to spreading a certain amount of cost of basic education across the entire population of the state. I would derive those funds from sales tax, rather than property tax, and would distribute it through vouchers rather than awarding it to inefficient and ineffective institutions. But I believe our entire state benefits from educating all our children in the foundations needed for success in the modern world.

When it comes to higher education, I believe it is high time for tax-payers and students to get some relief. The businesses that benefit from the knowledge and skills of its workforce should be contributing to the acquisition of those attributes. Costs should be attached to benefits. Application of basic principles of economics should be made to the financing of colleges and universities.

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