The American Vision
Very recently, I saw a query by a friend on Facebook who asked, “What is your vision for our country?”. This friend then made a statement of her vision which was quite nice. It included things like “adequate employment for everyone”, “high quality education”, “respect for authority”, and “healthy communities”.
Who could argue against wanting any of these things? What a great vision for our country. Where conflict arises is in HOW we achieve this vision. And, the HOW is where the political discussion ought to take place.
I will be writing a weekly blog on each topic in this ‘vision’ statement to tell you where Democrats stand, where Republicans stand, and where I stand. Let’s start with Education.
High Quality Education
It is somewhat important to understand why education is important for citizens of any modern, democratic society. Here are a few reasons why an educated citizenry is vital to a strong country:
- Ability to Thrive in an Advanced Economy
- Understanding of Political Issues
- Quality of Life
History of Education in the U.S.
Throughout our national history, we have slowly developed an education system that has been paid for with public funds. Unlike many federal programs, education has been funded at the local level, then state, and finally federal government. Since most money for public education comes from local governments, an education system in a wealthy suburban community will be funded better than an education system in a poor urban or rural community. Most states have tried to balance the scales by offering ‘equalization’ laws that take funds from wealthy communities to pay for shortfalls in poor communities. The federal government has tried to further balance the scales of inequity in education by offering free-lunch programs, early childhood learning, and other grants to supposedly help educators.
The most recent question that has made it to the fore front with Bernie Sander’s run for president in 2016, is the idea of free higher-education for all. The logic is sound. After all, why would we decide that public education up to 12th grade is a good idea; but education beyond 12th grade will cost any willing student a fortune?
The Political Landscape on Education
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the two leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, advocated free college for all students willing to attend college. Their platforms varied in details. Clinton wanted to create a system whereby students would need to work while they received free tuition; and would not offer free college to those who could afford college on their own. Sanders did not want tests of income, but rather an extension of K-12 public education to now include grades 13-16 in higher education.
In addition to free higher education, Democrats endorse the federal Department of Education and greater federal control over curriculum in K-12 public school systems.
Republicans are not fully united on a homogeneous position in education. However, like most of Republican’s ideas, they are advocating less government involvement in education. Particularly, involvement from the federal government. Republicans believe in public education that is fully controlled and funded at a local school district.
Since Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, I will state his positions on education as the Republican leader. Trump has stated that he believes that the federal government should eliminate Common Core standards which do not reflect what our kids ought to be learning in K-12 schools. He has acknowledged that we have a problem with high student loan debt for higher education, but is not advocating free education for all; but rather allowing competition to drive costs of education down. Trump believes that we have several flaws in our current education systems at the higher and lower education levels. While he has offered several insightful commentaries on why schools are not in a state of functionality, he has not offered solutions that will solve these education dilemmas… except that local school boards are in a better position to fix the problems than the federal government; and teacher’s unions are not helping the situation.
While both political parties make valid points, I believe they are both wrong in their final solutions. While I believe in the importance of a high quality education for the reasons I have previously stated, I think we have the following problems with our current system that will not be solved by either partisan idea:
- Public education is not consistent from local district to local district. The idea of public education is that every kid, regardless of economic position, get the chance to gain knowledge that will help them succeed in life.
- The public education system is expensive, ineffective and inefficient, particularly at the secondary (high school) and higher education (college) levels.
- A large portion (47%) of college graduates are not finding jobs that require a college degree at all; while only 20% of college graduates are finding jobs in their field of college study.
In short, Trump is correct in most of his assertions of our current public education system. He simply fails to provide viable solutions to the problems he has highlighted. To a point, Democrats are right in wanting to extend public funding of education into higher education. However, it would be wrong and grossly unaffordable to subsidize a currently failing higher education system.
Federal Involvement: As our education system evolved, it was reasonable to pay for and control education at a local level. After all, if you grew up in the 18th century agricultural south, it would not make much sense to be educated on manufacturing processes that commonly employed northerners. However, in today’s economy, there is no reason why education ought to look differently in Georgia than it does in Montana. Therefore, we ought to establish common academic metrics for all Primary Schools.
Common Core is an abject failure in our current school systems. I am not sure who put this system together, but they have failed in achieving a national system of educational standards. Instead, they have prescribed odd methods of doing math; and have created an abhorrent testing system that does anything but test basic academic aptitude. I agree with national standards, but believe we can do much better than Common Core.
Department of Education
The Department of Education has become an extension of our welfare system and not a contributor to improving our nation’s education system. One only has to look at the decline in education performance amongst our international peers since the advent of this department to understand its failure. I believe this department should be scrapped and replaced with maintaining educational standards. The welfare aspect should be moved to Health and Human Services with all of the other welfare programs.
Early in the 20th century, Americans decided to add Secondary Education (high schools) to Primary Education (elementary schools) in our public education system. This was prompted by a transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy. A citizen would be ready for the ‘real world’ after high school. A high school graduate would be able to easily get a high-paying job and start a family. We decided to create a similar standardization for Secondary Schools as we had for Primary Schools. In other words, we force students to improve math, english, literature, and social sciences above what they learned in Primary Schools… assuming that this education would help them in the ‘real world’.
In my view, Secondary Schools have failed to move students in a direction of gainful employment after high school. There are pockets of educational programs that do prepare high school graduates for food service employment, trades, and agriculture. But these programs are not required and often ignored by most students and parents chasing a college education.
The U.S. Higher Education system is a mess. Where Secondary Schools have failed to prepare their graduates to make a decent living; our expensive colleges have done even worse.
We have created a culture in the U.S. where, in order to get a well-paying job, you need a college degree. However, just like a secondary education, a college degree is no guarantee of a well-paying job. It is true that you will see statistics that show higher overall compensation and lower unemployment for college graduates. However, this is more a reflection of a conditioned employer class; than actual benefit from our higher education system.
Based on current statistics, only 20% of college graduates are gaining employment in the field for which they have been educated. If you owned a furnace in your home that was 20% efficient, your gas bill would be five times higher than it needs to be. This is not a system that we ought to invest even more public funds to enlarge with free-education.
The Secondary Education Solution
The main reason for education is to prepare students for whatever career they desire. In this vain, we ought to invest much more effort in career planning in our Secondary Education systems so that students and their parents can make a fully informed decision about how their education will match up with the need for their skills and abilities in the work force. Students need to also be fully educated on the economics of their decisions.
Secondary students ought to know early on the income potential and employment statistics of a teacher, engineer, lawyer, accountant or any other career they may choose. They should also be taught what it costs to live in their world. What does it cost to rent an apartment? What does it cost to buy groceries? How much should they expect to pay in taxes? We need to dramatically increase the amount of financial knowledge we are giving our youth. At what point did we decide that learning calculus was more important than understanding how money works?
The Higher Education Solution
Instead of lofty academic accreditation’s for colleges, incoming students ought to be given a report on the placement and salaries achieved by graduating students from their institutions. This report ought to include a financial ratio that shows how much students are paying for their education compared with how much graduates are making in their eventual careers after graduating college.
Who Pays for Higher Education?
I agree that education is a great public investment. I also believe that education can be an economic equalizer much more impactful than any welfare program. However, we have to fix our education system, before we start making Higher Education free for all. In addition, I don’t like the notion of a high school graduate paying to educate a college graduate. As popular as college has become, the majority of Americans (70%) have not graduated from college; nor did they need to attend college to gain employment. I believe we should fully cut government subsidies altogether for college education.
Since I went to college in the 1980’s, Higher Education tuition’s have increased by 6X the rate of inflation. Subsidies have proven to increase the cost of whatever they subsidize. If a student is deciding between a $8,000 per year public college; and a $40,000 per year private college with a $32,000 subsidy, they will pick the more expensive option every time. This creates a disincentive for subsidized colleges to become cost competitive and will continue to drive the cost of college ever higher. If colleges have to compete in the free-market, prices will come down and they will be forced to be creative in how they prepare their students for gainful employment upon graduation.
Of all of the issues I will discuss in the next several blog posts, I believe EDUCATION is the most important one that we need to get right as a country. Many traditionalists may read these words and wonder how we could make such dramatic changes to our education system. I believe America can lead an education revolution, if we do it right.
If you are interested in reading more about how such an education revolution could take place, I encourage you to read my book ReEngineering Education: A Tale of Repairing American Schools.