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Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Value of a Good Education


The word is bandied about these days in conjunction with phrases like “charter schools” and words like “vouchers.” It has become a little confusing, trying to figure out what all the gibberish means for schools. Thus, before I discuss education, it seems proper to engage in a quick summary of the terminology.

Vouchers are a system by which parents can choose where their school taxes go. In other words, in an unaltered voucher system, they may send their kids to private school and use their tax money as part of their tuition. At face value the system seems fair enough, after all, who doesn’t want control over where their money goes?

Upon closer examination, however, problems appear. First, the vouchers do not cover the whole amount of tuition to a private for-profit institution. In truth, the vouchers don’t really cover even half. This means that generally, low-income families cannot take advantage of this system because they can’t cover the rest of the tuition. Second, school taxes were never meant to be a one-family, one-tuition system. People without children pay school taxes as well, thus distributing the load around the entire community. The end result, then, is that people opting into the voucher system are effectively opting out of the shared responsibility of ensuring the education of their neighbors. Vouchers reduce funding to public schools, and for all that “throwing money at the problem” won’t fix our schools by itself, they certainly need at least enough money to maintain their buildings, pay their teachers, and buy textbooks, desks, and other equipment like overhead projectors and computers. Without that base amount of financial grounding, a school cannot rise to the occasion no matter how much it tries.

One other major problem is a social one. The history of vouchers is rather nasty - an invention of a south forced to integrate their schools. In other words, vouchers allowed white parents to take their kids and tax dollars into segregated private schools. While the intention of modern vouchers is no doubt better, the results sometimes look disturbingly similar. Black students find themselves left behind as the generally-better-off white students evacuate to better schools, taking their funds along with them, along with the investment of their parents in the public school system.

Proponents of vouchers tend to believe that they promote free-market competition among schools. I don’t see it, but this might be a failing in my education, rather than in theirs. I’ll ask an economist friend what he thinks of that, and get back to you on it.

Which brings us to Charter schools.

“Charter School” is a term bandied about often as though it has only one meaning, which it doesn’t. The only things one Charter school is guaranteed to have in common with another is the “charter” which prescribes what each school is required to produce in terms of results. They are also public institutions and thus they cannot charge tuition.

My favorite example of a charter school actually failed due to parental intervention, and I think the story is important enough to put down here at length.

There is a lot of research floating around regarding effective education, almost all of which has been ignored. Some of it is bunk, some of it isn’t, and both the bunk and the not-bunk hide under the same veneer of “science” that shields all social scientists. Some of it actually has been gathered more-or-less scientifically, much of it hasn’t, but a surprising amount of it, when actually applied, produces remarkable results.

One of these not-bunk experiments produced the surprising result that parental involvement in a school environment was counterproductive, and extremely so. The reasoning behind it is simple, thankfully. In order to function properly a school must have authority over its students, and that authority must be absolute while the students are in school. If the authority appears to be diminished, the student’s response to that authority becomes diminished. They do less homework, the attend less class. If you’re young enough you might remember the fallout from this from your own days in high-school. Teachers you respected, you skipped less, you did more homework for, and by and large you learned more from. This authority also allows the creation of an environment in which school work is prioritized over other concerns.

The problem with parental involvement in school education is that they assume their own ultimate authority over their children and the school must as well. This produces the result that the authority of the school is diminished to a level below that of the parents.


This particular charter school, like most charter schools (that I know of) was an elementary school. It put into play a great deal of the research that was being ignored, testing different principles and practices and measuring the results. The results were great. The kids were learning and their graduates went on to bigger and better things. But parents were cut out of the loop. You can understand how this might upset them, particularly with their kids being that age. There were no teachers’ conferences (again, that I know of) and Parents were not allowed to contact their kids at school unless it was an emergency. Within the school, the school was the ultimate authority.

What is less discussed, of course, is that within the school, the school was the ultimate refuge from the parents. The presumption that all parents are good parents is frankly just wrong, and charter schools of this kind put students with that kind of parent on more equal footing with students born of the other kind.

The details are unknown to me, but essentially the school buckled under parental complaints.

For me though, the more important lesson is that it was working.

See, we’re doing a really, really bad job of education at the moment. Our students receive and education which is at best second-rate and at worst incapable of retaining accreditation. What we need is a new system altogether, and the only way to get this system working is to experiment with different methods until we find one that works. We must also overcome a few well-known institutions that entrench the old system, most notably the teachers’ union. I don’t think it needs to go away, I just think it needs to be replaced with a system that has its priorities straight... or to put it more bluntly has priorities in line with the national long-term best-interest.

It is absolutely essential that we do so, for a number of reasons.

First, we’re not a manufacturing giant anymore. The economy of our future is unavoidably going to see much of that sort of work shipped overseas. It already has. Our brawn, then, has become devalued and the value of our brains is on the rise. If we fail to make those brains worth their price, the brain-jobs will be shipped overseas as well (some of them already have been), and then we will have nothing. Our economy will collapse under the sheer weight of a rising service industry dependent on our sons and daughters whoring themselves out to the inherited rich as paid (sort-of) slave-labor. I do not see this as a favorable future for any of us.

Furthermore, as we fall behind in education, we fall behind in solutions and answers. Does this seem general? It is. Sweeping, rather. In every field, we will fail to excel. Our sciences will struggle to keep up with our neighbors, including our space program and all of our medical research. Our businesses will cease to innovate, our inventors will run up against a wall. We’ll fail to keep up in alternative energy and military technology (these days it should be easy to see how the necessity of the latter relates to the former). We will not overcome the challenges posed by global climate change.

University standards for admission will by necessity drop lower and lower each year until the only requirement for going to college is having been born. High School will become middle school. Middle school will become elementary school. University education will cover the same basics High School now fails to, and ultimately a graduate education will be necessary in order to achieve the same level of erudition that was previously attainable from an undergraduate degree.

This is already happening.

Part of it is, of course, the baby boom ending. More university seats exist per student than ever before, and universities must have students paying tuition to make their bottom line. You would think, of course, that the increased demand for students would decrease tuition, but on the contrary, the only value the university sees in this new breed of students is their tuition money, without which they cannot offer competitive scholarships to the now-fewer students they really want. Regardless, the value of a degree at an American university is diminishing rapidly.

So how do we reverse this decline?

Charter schools are a good start, but they’re only part of the solution. Early-childhood education is essential, and it seems likely we’ll have a champion of it in the White House soon, so that’s another good start.

A redesign of the property-tax system would also help - at present, city schools receive less money per student than suburban schools by a wide margin.

Paying teachers more? That would increase demand for the job, and consequently increase the quality of the people in it. Certifications should be adjusted to be more demanding, and this can only happen if the pay on the far side of the flaming hoops is enough to compensate for the trouble. People are people.

Perhaps the most gripping challenge, however, will be the problem of parents. Good parents are grand, but bad ones must either be taught to become engaged with their children, or cut out of the loop. They are the single greatest influence on their kids, and should that influence be a bad one, there’s only so much the schools can do to raise students' sights.

Another problem is healthcare. Obesity, sickness, and general malnutrition are all counterproductive to education. Sickness results in missed classes (or death, in the case of missed vaccinations), malnutrition reduces attention and mental endurance, and obesity can result in social isolation of a sort difficult to overcome.

Education is, additionally, a feedback loop. The more people you educate, the more people you have that can educate. I think the largest problem we have is that education is presently producing a deficit. We need more brains than we’re making, so the ones that end up teaching in low-income districts (barring the ones who do it for the right reasons, thank god for them but they are few, I think) tend to be the bottom of the barrel. The job there is the most demanding and the pay should reflect that, but the schools lack the funds to comply. Even worse (for those of you dense enough to believe this does not involve you), if the feedback loop continues to fail to make the bar, soon teachers in high-income areas will be failures as well, and the wages necessary to attract good teachers to private schools will rise to the point where the tuition system will collapse under the weight.

In the end, the things we need to do are numerous. But High School is way, way too late. By then, the value of a student has been established, it just hasn’t been determined yet. If you have failed a student up until ninth grade, you will accomplish little with them after that point.

Whatever reform we start with, then, the proper time to start is birth.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

Tomorrow: The War