Myths and misperceptions cloud the future of education’s status quo

By F. Bruce Pettit, Chamber of Commerce Education Committee

The economic and political health of our country requires an educated and informed citizenry. Yet, the performance of our educational systems has been in decline for decades. Our high school graduates, once ranked first among developed countries in mathematics and science, are now ranked 23rd and 18th respectively. (Program for International Assessment (PISA), 2006)

While these statistics weigh heavily against our future global economic prospects, it is our performance in subjects closer to home that jeopardizes our continued existence as a democratic republic.

A thirty-three question civics quiz from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute was given to 2,508 people, 164 of whom said they had held elected office.

I suggest that you take the quiz yourself (it is anonymous and only you will see your score) to understand the nature of the questions and to form your own opinion about how critical the tested knowledge is to the responsible governance of our nation. When you complete the quiz, you will be directed to a page that shows how well others did (press the highlighted word table in the top box of the page displaying your score).

The average score on the civic literacy quiz was 44 percent among those holding office, compared to 49 percent for those who have not held an elected position. Put another way, the failure rate on the test among those who have held public office is higher (74%) than among those who have not (71%). (Click here to see the group performance figures without taking the quiz, including scores on individual questions.)

Following are some of the most significant reasons our public education is declining to third world status, and some generally held myths about education in general, and public school education in particular.

■  There is a widely held belief that the quality of public education depends on the amount of money allocated to schools. A document issued by a statistical unit within the Department of Education compares the cost of educating one student for one year in K-12 public school for selected years from 1961 through 2008. It revealed that in 2008, we were paying $10,441 for a commodity that cost us $2,808 in 1961 (both amounts adjusted for inflation to 2008 dollars). The cost of one year of education increased 3.7 times from what it had been in 1960.

Clearly, work needs to be done to analyze and understand why the cost of education has outpaced inflation by almost 400 percent. The quality of education is not improving, so it is vital that we identify the reasons for such an increase. This level of budgetary growth is simply not sustainable, and taxpayers should not be subjected to ever-increasing tax burdens with the only alternative being to offer education of declining quality.

This year, despite increases adopted by school boards, voters approved 93 percent of proposed school budgets. This seems to indicate that voters do understand the current system, and appreciate that it must continue be funded until we can understand the nature of this mammoth increase in the cost of education. Unfortunately, some areas that did not approve increased spending in their districts, and even in some communities that did, school districts risk the loss of jobs and programs that may not be replaced anytime soon.

■  For several decades, students and their parents have been indoctrinated with the attitude that blue-collar work is demeaning—that a college education is the best, if not the only way to achieve life’s goals and gain the respect of others. President Obama, in a 2011 speech, declared that 80% of our high school graduates should be able to receive a college education.

In a press release titled Manpower warns global skilled trades shortage could stall future economic growth, the magnitude of a worldwide labor shortage is forcefully cited. In this country, the “Baby Boomers” were the last generation that had the benefit of six years of vocational training in a fully accredited, publicly funded, secondary school diploma track.

BOCES in New York was intended to fill the void created when vocational training left the school campus. Local school districts are expected to pay for BOCES on a “per-student” basis for providing these services. Too few students have been vocationally trained—compared to other countries with strong manufacturing sectors—and this trend continues.

In addition to the negative stereotype regarding any work not requiring a college degree, the requisite payment to BOCES provides a financial disincentive for school districts. If students are not sent to BOCES, that money will remain in the budget of the local secondary school.

Another reason is the longstanding debate—ongoing since the late 19th century—over what constitutes an appropriate public school secondary education. A report from Education Next presents a historically accurate discussion of this philosophical “discussion,” then argues for the secondary school system we have in place today. It is the best statement I have seen describing today’s attitude toward secondary school education.

■  Three quarters of high school graduates who do go on to college are in for a very hard climb. A report in the Chicago Sun Times noted, “Nationally, in 2010, only 24 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates were deemed college ready in all four subjects tested — English, math, reading and science.”

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reported, “In two-year colleges, eligibility for enrollment typically requires only a high school diploma or equivalent. About one-quarter of incoming students to these institutions are fully prepared for college-level studies. The remaining 75 percent need remedial work in English, mathematics, or both.”

While the number of graduates being directed toward college is unprecedented, there are very few resources available to provide the needed remedial help, help that should be, by virtue of the requirements for high school graduation in this state, unnecessary. Obviously, a high school diploma, alone, is no longer sufficient proof of college readiness.

■  There once was a time when community colleges and many state universities were tuition free. Federal and state contributions to community and state colleges have declined over the past 40 years as the costs at these institutions have risen. The burden of paying tuition and other costs falls increasingly on the student.

Laboring under the belief that jobs are not, and in the future will not be, available to those lacking a college degree, students without the means to pay for a college education resort to taking student loans. In a failing economy that cannot provide jobs for many that are graduating, the prospects for those who fail to graduate are much bleaker. Still, most of those leaving college, with or without a degree, will carry with them significant student loan indebtedness.

Under law, student loans cannot be vacated through bankruptcy. This unfolding financial tragedy is fueled by the fallacy, inculcated in the minds of these freshly minted debtors, that they must attend college in order to succeed.

A person possessing a skilled trade is much more likely to find a job quickly, will make a better initial wage than many holding a bachelor’s degree, and is likely to continue to earn more than that degree-wielding worker.  A Wall Street Journal Report outlines efforts that are currently being made to change existing attitudes toward blue-collar work.

The problems described above have much to do with the situation in our public schools today. My next post will describe the challenges facing any entity wishing to improve the status quo. They are so daunting that seemingly only fools would consider major improvement a real possibility. Among them is the perception that the system as it currently exists is ideal—at least as far as some very powerful interests are concerned.

- F. Bruce Pettit

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