Piggy bank with money and graduation cap in a classroom. Savings or investment in education fund
Photo by Maksym Yemelyanov on Adobe Stock

The Bottom Line Education System Not Getting Better, Only More Expensive

Originally published at Idaho Education News

As Ben Franklin was leaving Independence Hall after the adoption of our Constitution, a lady asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” He replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Ben Franklin knew that the new country would last only as long as the electorate adhered to the guidelines delineated in the newly adopted Constitution. It was an experiment in self-government and it would not last unless properly protected.

The signors of the Constitution also knew that an educated electorate was an essential element. In fact, they initially limited voting to property owners on the assumption that such individuals would possess sufficient knowledge to be an educated voter.

Over the decades, we have expanded the number of people who can vote, and we have expanded the access to education, but the requirement of an “educated electorate” has not diminished. In fact, it may well have increased.

So, how are we doing in producing an “educated electorate?” Not well. In fact, we are putting our way of life at risk by our continuing failure to effectively educate our citizens. For decades, our education system has failed at its mission. We have consistently seen 20-25 percent of our students drop out of school prior to graduation and of those who do graduate, more than half have not achieved a level of learning to allow them to effectively live in a 21st Century society.

Today, we have the highest rate of poverty in our history, in spite of spending $20 trillion on the War on Poverty. Half of the children, in our public schools, are coming to school from homes where the family income is at or below the poverty level. Income inequality is at the highest level in our history.

With this type of situation readily visible, you would think massive action would have occurred, but you would be wrong. We have continued to support a 19th Century school system in a 21st Century world. In fact, we keep spending more money on this obsolete system hoping it will get better. However, it does not get better, it only gets more expensive. Test scores remain flat, dropout rates show minor improvement, and poverty increases. We keep turning out an under-educated electorate.

We have an “unrecognized crisis” that should demand our attention. We need to begin the process of transforming our schools to operate in a manner that effectively educates all our children. That cannot happen with the current system as it has never achieved that goal. In fact, one could argue that the system was specifically designed not to achieve that goal and it has successfully not done so for 114 years.

The change has to occur at the state level as states control most of the money, they control who is allowed to teach and who is allowed to lead, they control compensation, curriculum, the school calendar and graduation requirements. In other words, “they control.” Meaningful change cannot occur without changes to state laws and codes. Also, because schools and the school calendar are such a fixture in our society and imbedded in our culture, change must occur gradually.

What is needed is a multi-year “Game Plan” that is adopted by one state. The plan must release the handcuffs under which educators now operate and provide the opportunity for educators to create the schools our children need, not the schools that the law dictates.

Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Chairman, American Center for Transforming Education
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Chairman of the Institute's program on public education reform. For nearly 30 years, he has devoted his life work to transforming public education. For two years, he traveled the country studying America's public education system and authored, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education. Mr. Nielsen was awarded the Harvard Business School's 2004 Alumni Achievement Award. In 2009, he received the Leadership Award from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.
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