17 January 2006

A modest proposal on education reform

Why does Johnny have such problems out there? UNICEF is, perhaps, a bit suspect with its UN involvement, but people have been complaining about this for... decades now? And yet Johnny still can get to some of the best colleges in the world, with 62 of 200 of the top ranked colleges and universities being in the US. So what gives? Why is it that in K-12 children in the US underperform, but as soon as they hit college they become world beaters?

First off, the US does not place the emphasis on K-12 schooling that many other countries do. The summer break dating back to agrarian times eats into about a third of the available time for schooling during the year.

Second, the public schools have no incentive to perform. And because of the problem funding private schools with public funds, that will always remain a problem. Especially with religious institutions running some private schools.

Third, many other countries cram in much of what would be considered freshman college courses into the last year or so education, so those not heading to universities have a somewhat broader background and have to push the entire academic curricula down accordingly. Thus they score better having an earlier mastery of the material.

I remember reading (and I cannot remember where) of a Japanese man who recounted the deathlike struggle to get good grades in school. He worked day and night, very hard, sweating bullets and barely getting into the bottom rankings for decent higher education. And when he got there, the students basically treated school as a HOLIDAY for the next four years, the tough work being done already. When he came to the US so that he could actually *LEARN* and master his subject, he was appalled at how hard everyone had to work to get a decent grade. And he saw that the fresh US students quickly stepped up and not only did the work, but excelled at it. They were more complete as individuals, more assured of their abilities *to learn* than he was with constant drilling and repetition. And he was doubly shocked that so many students just blithely questioned instructors on absolutely everything, taking *nothing* for granted and granting no respect due to age or position. That is the *magic* of the higher educational system in the US. Question everything as you never know when something that is obvious can also be dead wrong.

Spending on the Dept of Education by the Federal government will be in the range of $68B for FY 06, a little down from last year's $71B and on par with $67B for FY 04. So when given numbers and the ability to calculate constant dollars, I end up with something like this for the budget profile in appropriated dollars and FY2005 constant dollars:

It looks that for FY 2005 constant dollar comparisons there has been a very steep increase in funding for the Dept of Education, probably associated with NCLB. And since the Department was started in 1979, this basically covers its entire history, although it does not show total Federal spending on education as other Agencies have directed programs for *specific* needs. All of that said there is a basic problem with this: Johnny still can't read! Now Jerry Pournelle posted this little graphic at his web site a few years ago and it is still a telling graphic today:
And while it is using inflated dollars and only covers the K-12 age range, that is the one that *everyone* keeps on pointing at. The rest of the Dept of Education's budget goes towards post-secondary education, access and financial assistance... that portion not eaten up by the bureaucracy, that is. So here we are in the 21st century still worrying about Johnny, and Jane, and Jose, and Juanita, and Jules, and Jennifer, and just about every child. And pushing this problem up to the Federal level has not done a thing about it, except to institutionalize it...

One of my mother's quotes is: "Marriage is a great institution, but who wants to live in an institution?" a wonderful misquote of Mae West! But the point is that when things get institutionalized they tend to become static in nature. When jobs revolve around 'Why Johnny Can't Read' and those jobs are institutional jobs, the one thing you can bet is that Johnny will have a very hard time getting off the dime and actually reading. There are very few bureaucratic institutions that actually work, and the Dept of Education is not one of them. It becomes a sinkhole for money, a place for politicians to stand up and point to them actually 'doing something' to help the children. It is a prop.

Another of Jerry Pournelle's great Cold War quotes is: "If a foreign nation had imposed this system of education on the United States we would rightly consider it an act of war." And it is such and it is the shame of our society that we have allowed it to go on like this for so long. Foisting children into the public school system without oversight, without participation and without caring by parents is a major problem. That does not explain, however, why this problem originated in the raptuous 1950's when everything was soooo much better. Unless it wasn't that much better and the Blackboard Jungle was more the rule than the exception. No matter how you slice it (yes its still bologna) and the problem still exists. The wonderful, forward thinking and very Socialist concept is to make it a concern of the State. Unfortunately that is what Americans chose to do and very much to our sorrow as we are not a socialist country. What is need is an American solution, not one well thought out, not one brimming with bureaucrats and paperwork, and, most particularly, not one that a Congressman can stand in front of to prove that he or she is actually *doing something* for YOU.

And what is the American solution to such a thing?

Let the states handle it! Oh, but that means you can't call your congressman about it... and how very true it is. And how very lucky for you that an inept, uncaring and really quite overburdened politician, who would leave it up to 'experts' would not be in the loop on this. That is, of course, part of the *problem*. Thanks to busybodies pushing this *up* to where it could get visibility and get Federal attention, it got the worst attention anyone could give it. And because parents did not want to get involved in local politics, school boards and actually teaching their children *anything*, more dispassionate experts got called in... and things did *not* improve. Every expert called in has an agenda and a reason to keep the problem going so that they can have a lifelong job at being an expert in this problem.

If you want reading, writing, mathematical and other basic abilities to improve, you must *not* hand off responsibility to the Federal government for it. That is an abdication of your responsibility to exercise your rights as a citizen in the US. You, the voter, have signed it over to them by not asking for accountability, clear and precise objectives, a rewards system for actually achieving the goals of teaching children to learn *how* to learn. And then the *expert* educational people come in and tell you that they can do so much *more*... if you would just pay them... continually... and not hold them accountable... ever.

To anyone who reads this, and who thinks that the Federal government is the place to put the responsibility for teaching children, go look in the mirror and you will see the source of the problem. For nearly three generations the responsibility for the right of education has been handed over to *experts*, *qualified professionals*, politicians, bureaucrats and the ever loving school board you never voted for because you couldn't get *involved*. Three generations of parents have abdicated their responsibilities for exercising their rights and being held accountable. And then have the temerity to whine... 'But Johnny Can't Read!' Well, that is what you got: a set of institutions devoted to keeping illiteracy alive and at a steady rate.

There *is* an American answer. It is the *only* answer that will work in the long run. Not in one year. Not in five years. But certainly in time. And it will cost you time, precious time of your life... to learn about your children... to shoulder the true responsibilities of raising a child... and to *not* letting the 'Village' do it for you! And for those that feel that there is some collective need to help children from the highest level, I offer you this humble methodology.

  1. Eliminate the Department of Education at the Federal level

  2. Establish the goal of meeting the top academic scores in the world and set that as the 100% mark.

  3. Take 2/3 of the money given to the Department of Education and Block Grant it out to the states. The states may not use this for anything other than education of children for those things being tested.

  4. Each state will get funds based on that State's overall percentage score to the 100% mark for all of their students.

  5. No school that refuses children based on race, gender, religion or other otherwise means tests children will be eligible for this money.

  6. Children may not be instructed in religion with this money and all instruction related to Federal funds must be clearly separated from religious instruction and enrollment may not be held as contingent upon religious instruction.

  7. Homeschoolers get paid directly the portion allotted to their child based on performance in standardized tests.
What this does is very simple: it removes the question of supporting religion with Federal funds from the equation. If Catholic Schools have a better methodology of teaching those basics needed for excellence in education, they may not require a student attend religious courses to get such schooling. Similarly, if a group of Satanists find a wonderful way to up test scores via teaching methodology, they are not to be barred from it. And at for those that perform *over* the 100% mark, they will get additional Federal funds as that would prove a sound investment for society, no matter how the teaching was done. And the public schools will be forced to *compete* and start to rely upon and lobby those people who can most *help* them: Parents.

It is far too easy to say to a Congressman: 'We are doing so poorly because we do not have enough money'... it is far harder to tell a parent living near that school the exact same thing, and keep that parent's children at your school. You have to offer *solutions* to parents or ask them to *help* in solving the problems. And if a school is falling apart, has students with failing grades, disinterested parents, sky-high property taxes and an apathetic school board... well... why exactly *should* they get more money?

Education cannot be the right of everyone and the responsibility of bureaucrats.

The American solution is to let Americans shoulder the burden and find the *best* way to handle it and then pass that on to other Americans. Not the *easiest* way... the *best* way. If you say you can not be bothered to get involved, can not be bothered to vote, can not be bothered to learn what is going on at school... then do not bother *ME* by whining about Johnny. By avoiding your responsability, you have lost the right to whine to me. Whine at someone who will *really* care... your Congressman perhaps... so they can stand in front of the Dept of Education to say how much they are doing for 'the children'?

Trust in your neighbor.

Trust in your children.

Trust in yourself.

Your parents took the *easy* way out.

Will you?

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