I was asked the other day whether I thought President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide free community college to all was a good idea. I responded that “free” is just another way of saying someone else should pay, and that just spending more money on education is a fool’s errand – the last thirty years should have taught us that. (Free community college will only be free when the teachers unions, administrators and education bureaucrats offer their services free.) As further proof that more money is not the solution, please note that New York and New Jersey are among the highest states in the union on per capita spending on education and among the lowest on achievement. (The Portland public schools however are yearning to catch up to them – high spending/low achievement.)
If you are looking for real education reform there are four things that you must do to achieve it.
First, you must eliminate the assumption that every child should be educated to a college preparatory level. Most jobs in America do not require a college degree. (In Oregon the public employees unions have negotiated job descriptions requiring a college education for a whole host of jobs that do not really require a college education but result in a higher salary for basically a ministerial task – curiously, the unions have succeeded in “grandfathering in” all of their current members who are competently doing those jobs without the requisite college degree.)
Not every child is going to attend, or graduate from college. In Portland alone, nearly one-third of all children beginning high school fail to graduate. That in itself is a remarkable comment on the quality and relevancy of the education system. In addition, the single focus – the one-size-fits-all mentality of the education establishment – requires many courses to be “dumbed down” to accommodate those who cannot or will not ever use the intensified educational requirements for a true college preparatory program. Meanwhile, insisting on participation in educational courses that are practically useless for those not destined for college limits the time available for courses that could actually prepare such students for real and meaningful jobs.
There should be a clear point of demarcation in which one alternative is college preparatory and the other post-graduation entry into the workforce. The decision as to which course to follow should be that of the parent and child, not the government or the education establishment. By creating the demarcation and accelerating the vocational/technical elements, the standard can become whether the courses can keep up with the students rather than can the students keep up with the courses.
Second, you should strengthen the vocational education program. For those who will enter the workforce soon after graduation from high school there should be a course of study that prepares them both for the general requirements of living independently and the specific requirements for a particular line of work. The former part should include the basic economics of living (bill paying, managing a checkbook, setting and maintaining a budget, etc.), the basic elements of running a household (cooking, maintenance, etc.) and the basic elements of civics (voting, paying taxes, interfacing with law enforcement, etc.) The latter part can be directed toward virtually any vocational course that is available. In such instances the excellent vocational programs already offered by community colleges ranging from secretarial services to electrician and from retail sales to computer programming should be examined and a course of study preparatory or commensurate with them should be adopted. Along the way courses in bookkeeping, labor/management relations, and basic business economics should be included. Collaboration with business and tradesmen organizations (e.g. electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc.) will focus such programs on current needs and create avenues to immediate employment.
In suggesting this I do not mean to undermine the community colleges which already provide excellent vocational/technical programs (in addition to excellent academics for the first two years of college). Instead I envision a collaborative program between high schools and community colleges that allow an evolution in training utilizing both the high school and community college teachers and facilities.
Third, you should eliminate the participation of the teachers unions in any curriculum requirements, teaching standards, administrative standards and work rules standards and enforce it by providing school choice by allowing the dollars to follow the student. The teachers unions are not professional organizations – they are trade unions and their singular focus is on wages, benefits and job protection. Each of those elements comes substantially before actual educational performance. It is the reason that the teachers unions routinely oppose actual education reform and instead demand more money. (It defies logic that paying incompetent teachers more money makes them better teachers.) It is also the reason that teachers union are amongst the largest bloc of political contributors (virtually all going to Democrats) and maintain – along with other public employee unions – a stranglehold on the Democrat party and candidates.
Educational reform requires an unbiased examination that cannot occur in a trade union such as the teachers unions.
And fourth, there should be a trade off between teacher tenure and implementing a standard that “dollars follow the student.” The elimination of teacher tenure allows schools to rid themselves of incompetent and poor performing teachers and to hire and retain better teachers. The union sop that teacher tenure is necessary to avoid arbitrary firings is baloney. There may be scattered incidents but they are in the distinct minority and most certainly at no greater level than employment in private industry. By introducing the concept of the “dollars following the student” you create the incentive for schools to hire and retain the best teachers in order to attract and retain the best students. (A poor performing school will lose students through the exercise of choice.)
This discussion does not eliminate the need to look hard at the level of financing available for school, but until real reform is implemented there is no way of knowing what the true costs of excellent and relevant educational programs are.
The education establishment has exercised near dictatorial authority over the education process for at least five decades and they have failed – and they are continuing to fail at the expense of our children. It’s time to try something new, something with more common sense, something that benefits the children rather than the educational establishment.