- - Tuesday, March 10, 2015

This column has joined other observers in sounding the alarm about our failing schools, both lower education (The Washington Times, June 1, 2014) and higher education (The Washington Times, August 12, 2014). The widely quoted OECD (Organization of European Cooperation and Development) study, “The Program for Student Assessment” ranks our 15-year-olds 29th in the 65 countries it studied. Another even more frightening statistic is the dropout rate of American high school students at 7,000 PER DAY! That equates to 25 percent of the entire population. This at a time when securing a job and certainly advancing in most careers depends increasingly on education and training.

The individuals who make up this 25 percent of the population will attempt to enter the workforce without even a high school education. In our ever more complex and specialized economy, these youngsters are condemning themselves to menial jobs with little chance of advancing to a prosperous middle class career. Worse yet, 39 percent may not be able to find or hold a job at all, leaving them as wards of the government.

Thus, we begin the coming era by disqualifying 25 percent of our population from entry into the middle class.

But what about the students who do receive their high school diplomas? An interesting study by the National School Boards Association found that, by age 26, 88 percent of high school graduates had at one time or another attended a two-year or four-year college. This finding makes one thing clear: The message about the value of a college education to one’s career has gotten through to today’s students. However, a competing statistic from the U.S. Department of Education shows that only 18 percent of ninth graders complete a college degree with 10 years (approximately age 25). So, many students try college but few finish.

A statistical profile of American education provides a basis for discussion, but it leaves a host of questions. Why is the dropout rate so high? How can we afford to waste the talents and energy of nearly one-quarter of our population? Why is our prison population greater than our high schools? Why do so many students drop out of college? Why are so few middle class kids accepted to medical schools? Why — when everyone knows that we live in an information age turning into a “digital” age — do so few American students graduate with doctorates in science, mathematics or engineering?

No one knows the answers to all these questions. There are too many different kinds of problems for any one solution. Yet that is what we have.

The key reason for the stagnation in American schools is the government monopoly of public education. Once the government — even local government — gets involved in anything, the fastest growing segment of that enterprise quickly becomes the bureaucracy, in this case, principals, assistant principals, superintendents, assistant superintendents, assistants to the assistant superintendents, etc., etc., etc. In addition, American schools are controlled by unionized teachers, licensed by State Boards of Education, and intellectually dominated by the remarkably similar university Schools of Education throughout the country. The interrelatedness of all these institutional influences leaves the local school boards able to do little more than hire and fire superintendents and provide the funding for ever-increasing budgets.

What we need is an American education revolution. The OECD might love the standardization of education in tiny Singapore and Shanghai (top rankings in their assessment), but our American culture was built on creativity and competition. America is too big and too diverse for “one size fits all” education. Yet this is what we have. What we need is experimentation with different approaches to different challenges. Charter schools, home schooling, and limited voucher programs have shown the way. It is time to act on what we have learned from these experiences.

The answer is not the curriculum, the teachers, the books, or the facilities. The answer is to change the way the American institution of education is organized.

The way to accomplish this goal has been pioneered by school vouchers. The new principle for overhauling our educational system is this: the money should follow the child, not the school.

This approach puts parents in charge of the child’s education, rather than the State, rather than the teachers, principals, or superintendents. With each child carrying a publicly funded voucher, many experiments with educational strategies will be tried. The successful schools will be easy to spot – they will be the ones with the most students. Likewise, teacher evaluation will be vastly simplified — the best teachers are the ones with the greatest parent support. (One note on teachers’ unions: Collective bargaining does not go away, but the rules on tenure will have to change.)

We are amused by the answers to Jay Leno’s and Jesse Watters’ and Jimmy Kimmel’s questions to the kids on the streets. But what if those funny, stupid answers are all the coming generation really knows? America as we know it will not survive. The middle class will become extinct. America will become an oligarchy of the few, the knowing, the wealthy.

The rest of us will be hoeing our gardens.

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