FREEDOM: U.S. Education policy gets a failing grade (Part 1)

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IMAGE: T.J. O'Hara

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., October 21, 2014 – The United States’ public education system needs to be taught a lesson. Skyrocketing costs plus plummeting test scores on international exams do not equal a successful educational program regardless of how we might be instructed to do the math. We need to develop an education policy that intelligently addresses the challenge our Nation faces in assuring that its future generations remain competitive in a global economy.

According to the most recent statistics compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States spends more on student education than any other nation on a per capita basis (just over $15,170 including K-12, college and vocational training). This ranks high even on a percentage-of-GDP basis among developed nations (trailing Denmark, which leads in that category, by only 0.7 percent).

In return, our Nation currently ranks 18th among industrialized nations in its performance on international exams. Perhaps more alarmingly, our 15-year-old students ranked 31st in math and 23rd in science according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing.

Education represents an inherently complex issue that includes components such as curricula, facilities, teaching resources, and even evolving elements of social psychology. It deserves more than political platitudes that suggest there will be “no child left behind” or that the simple stroke of a pen will make college education affordable for everyone.


We also need to craft solutions that cure the disease rather than mask the symptoms. Too often, we have reinforced a faltering education system through the imposition of failed principles (no pun intended) in the name political correctness.

To help build a platform upon which these issues can be intelligently discussed, we need to address the first “E” in The FREEDOM Process™, which stands for Education policy.

As we have with our Foreign and Resource policies, we need to approach the development of an Education policy from a pragmatic perspective rather than a political one. It must provide equal access and qualitative improvement while maintaining fiscal responsibility and be established with deference to the Constitution of the United States.

Keeping those parameters in mind, let us create a succinct education policy statement that can be clearly articulated, viably executed, and consistently applied; one that reflects the values of our Republic and can bring equal, affordable access to our future generations and improve their ability to compete in a global economy.

The Education Policy statement of The FREEDOM PROCESS™

Consistent with the responsibilities and authority granted to it under the Constitution, the United States shall develop and maintain a globally competitive system of public education that includes primary and secondary schools, vocational training programs, and institutes of higher education. Each such entity shall be focused upon providing equal access to all who qualify and demonstrate the ongoing commitment and ability to succeed. Curricula will be reviewed and modified to keep pace with market demands as we prepare future generations to contribute to society; technological advancements will be deployed to improve access, create a more uniform quality of educational alternatives, and lower the cost of delivery through a more distributed form of education; and progress will be measured among both students and faculty on a basis of merit. An emphasis will be placed on setting high academic and vocational expectations and providing the opportunity and necessary resources to achieve them.

As we have with respect to the previous policies we have addressed in this series, we can gain an understanding of how this education policy statement might be applied in practice if we parse its components.

Consistent with the responsibilities and authority granted to it under the Constitution, the United States shall develop and maintain a globally competitive system of public education that includes primary and secondary schools, vocational training programs, and institutes of higher education.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides the basis for federal involvement in the public education system. One of its critical legislative objectives is to “provide for… the general Welfare of the United States.” Certainly, offering our children and young adults access to a quality education that affords them the opportunity to become self-sustaining members of their communities who can contribute in a meaningful way to our Nation’s future and compete in a global economy inures to the “the general Welfare of the United States.”

This does not preclude a private education system (or systems) from operating in parallel with the public system. It simply assures that all young citizens have the opportunity to receive a quality education regardless of their socio-economic background or other distinguishing characteristics or preferences. As the second sentence of the education policy affirms: “Each such entity (K-12 schools, vocational training centers, colleges and universities) shall be focused upon providing equal access to all who qualify and demonstrate the ongoing commitment and ability to succeed.”

Correspondingly, we cannot continue to mask our political failure to provide such an educational environment with programs such as Affirmative Action. We can no longer permit disparity to exist with regard to facilities and teaching resources in the formative grades K-12 only to disguise that practice by ostensibly “evening things out” by awarding college entrance preferences to those who have been knowingly denied an equal education. Otherwise, we are condoning the discriminatory practice.

We need to solve the resource problems that plague our current K-12 system of public education. One solution would be to allocate federal assistance on a basis of need. If property taxes continue to be used as the dominant method of funding public education, then federal funds should be distributed in a manner that is inversely proportional to the comparative tax base of each public school. This would provide each school with relatively equivalent facilities and other tangible teaching resources rather than perpetuating the present condition of “haves” and “have nots,” and it can be accomplished through the use of categorical grants (as opposed to block grants).

Categorical grants can also be used to more stringently direct the use of federal funds with respect to vocational schools, colleges and universities. Rather than being used to dictate social policies as they sometimes are today, they should be restricted to programs that have a direct relationship to the educational content (i.e., research grants, academic scholarships, needs-based assistance, etc.). States and private entities can fund non-educational content and investments if they so choose.

The federal government’s core responsibility is to assure that every young citizen has an equal opportunity to receive a quality education. Students also bear a responsibility. They have the freedom to choose their own areas of interest and the degree to which they apply themselves.

The education policy statement continues: “Curricula will be reviewed and modified to keep pace with market demands as we prepare future generations to contribute to society…”

Said another way: Times change, and our approach to education must change with them.

Sixteen countries regularly outperform the United States on international exams in grades K-12. It is time to study those countries to determine commonalities that contribute to their success and then replicate those best practices here. We should also study those areas and schools in our own country that exhibit superior performance and replicate those best practices as well.

Similarly, we need to create curricula based upon achieving global competitiveness rather than political correctness. There needs to be a reemphasis in grades K-12 on core subjects such as reading, writing and mathematics; areas in which we seem to be falling behind.

Logic, ethics, general communication skills, and civics should also be introduced into the curricula as each is proven to contribute to the development of critical thinking, which represents one of the greatest identified skill gaps among graduates (even at the college level). Civics offers added value: It allows us to provide an understanding of the basis upon which this Nation was founded to those who will lead it in the future as well as to educate every future voter of their responsibility to become informed and involved in civic issues.

Additionally, our K-12 students would benefit from exposure to life skills and vocational options. Everyone is not destined to pursue higher education, yet everyone does need to learn how to read labels, balance a checkbook, understand loan programs, and make better choices with regard to diet, exercise, the environment, etc. In turn, these programs reinforce basic principles of mathematics, science, etc.

The education policy then provides that “technological advancements will be deployed to improve access, create a more uniform quality of educational alternatives, and lower the cost of delivery through a more distributed form of education…”

We continue to impose “brick-and-mortar” and “classroom” restrictions to our perception of “school” with respect to K-12. Meanwhile, universities have proven that online education actually offers certain educational benefits (i.e., subject retention, etc.) while lowering the cost of delivery. It also allows students to learn at their own pace rather than the metered pace of a classroom environment. Why not expand upon this concept?

The use of online services and other advanced communication methodologies also provides for a more rapid deployment of best practices. For example: The best lectures on a particular subject could be captured in one location and rebroadcast throughout the country. They would also be archived and could be accessed at each student’s or class’ convenience. Suddenly, every school would share the best teaching resources available without regard to the economic realities of their specific location.

Note how this distributive approach to education addresses the three most fundamental criteria for providing an equal opportunity to every student: Access to the material and instruction; the highest quality of content; and the lowest cost of delivery (including not having to replicate the level of expertise).

The next element of our education policy asserts that “progress will be measured among both students and faculty on a basis of merit.” It acknowledges that the real world is a competitive environment and to prepare for it, one must be exposed to competition. This axiom applies to both those who teach and those who learn.

From a teaching perspective, a good starting point might be to require some period of real world experience as opposed to migrating directly from the receiving end of pedagogy to the delivery end. We form our belief structures from our own personal experience supplemented by the experience of others. If one has limited experience and is require to embrace the beliefs of his or her mentors, it is the mentors’ beliefs that are perpetuated. If those beliefs are never “tested,” they are “handed down” by each generation; perhaps being diluted or misconstrued over time.

This can happen when the next generation of teachers is “primed” by their mentors/professors. If the teachers do not “test” the hypotheses with which they are indoctrinated in college, they may never challenge them. As a result, false premises may be inadvertently reinforced.

Why not require teachers to experience life for themselves before they are presented to the future generations as a mentor? A three-to-five year “apprenticeship” period, during which future teachers serve within other private or public sector roles, might do wonders to break the current paradigm that seems to inhibit critical thinking and diversity of thought (particularly with respect to our college campuses). Who knows what innovative thinking this might spawn?

Correspondingly, the teaching profession is underfunded on a variety of levels. It is of critical importance to our society and deserves to have its compensation model revised on an upward basis. However, just as in other facets of the public and private sector, the teaching profession needs to become performance-based. Rather than a tenured system that too often protects and preserves mediocrity (or worse), why not reward teachers and professors on a basis of merit?

Any measurement of merit should also have one dominant component: The ability to help students achieve their highest potential. What if we were to develop individual and aggregate measures of student performance; standards which measured them against their peers and against themselves?

Students need to experience competition as well. The politically correct practice of not wanting to damage a student’s esteem places that student at a decided disadvantage as they enter their adult life. Children in other parts of the world are being challenged. Those children are learning to compete at an early age; not in a manner that diminishes their confidence but rather in a way that strengthens it. Why not return to that model?

This brings us to the final statement within our education policy: “An emphasis will be placed on setting high academic and vocational expectations and providing the opportunity and necessary resources to achieve them.”

While it makes for great campaign rhetoric, promising a college education for everyone is both disingenuous and disrespectful. Students are individuals with a different range of talents and interests. They should not be made to feel demeaned in any way if they choose to pursue a path that does not involve higher education. According to another famous document, one of their unalienable rights is the “pursuit of Happiness” which, by implication, suggests that they have the right to define what Happiness means to them.

Correspondingly, for those who ostensibly have the talent and interest to pursue higher education or vocational training, they should be challenged with high expectations in their chosen fields. If we took the time to study the educational systems of those countries that routinely outperform us, we would find the setting of high expectations to be a common theme. As Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe once said, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you will help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

Our system introduces many distractions into the educational environment and celebrates many activities in a more public manner than it does academic or vocational excellence. Perhaps if we applauded outstanding performance in that regard as openly as we cheer for our favorite high school and collegiate teams, we might witness a pronounced shift in scholastic and occupational focus.

This leads to an additional discussion of educational alternatives as well as reforming the scholarship and student loan approach that is suffocating higher education in the United States. There are a myriad of ways to solve these problems, but they will be reserved for Part 2 of this series on education policy.

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A Civil Assessment has been designed to serve as an Op-Ed forum for you. You are invited to offer your opinion and to discuss your position in the Comment Section. Please be sure that your “assessments” remain “civil” so that they may earn the respect of others.

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TJ O’Hara provides nonpartisan political commentary every other Tuesday on The Daily Ledger, one of One America News Network’s featured shows (check local cable listings for the channel in your area or watch online at 8:00 PM and Midnight PM Eastern / 5:00 and 9:00 PM Pacific. His segment appears about 35 minutes into the program.

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  • TJ, a very thoughtful presentation and I look forward to Part 2. I recently moved into a high density family community of 80+% Asian families. Our home is very near to a large elementary school. Each morning and most evenings, I am out walking and have been very impressed with what I observe. In the mornings I see what seems to be 1/3rd of the children carrying music instruments to school while not seeing any wearing sports jerseys or carrying sports equipment. In the evenings it is very quite and you hear piano, violin and other musical instruments…not the sounds of sports or general tv. The cultural influence of the parents priorities is an important aspect of education that I hope you address.

    • Thank you for your comment Mr. Maxsenti.

      The parental environment is obviously a critical component of one’s upbringing. Unfortunately, it is not a strong component for many children and it cannot be improved through legislation.

      The good news is that we can intelligently reframe our education system in an attempt to fill some of the gaps that may exist at home; the teaching of respect and responsibility should be at the forefront.

      Thank you again for your comment.

  • Eric N Keya Erickson

    Mr. O’Hara,

    Excellent article and proposal. I especially like your funding ideas. I attended a small rural school in a logging community in Western Washington. The majority of the land in the school district was low-tax forestry agriculture land, so our school never had much funding. It always disgusted us to travel across the mountains to ranch/farm country where schools our size had multiple gymnasiums, world-class weight lifting facilities, and much more. We were as likely to get injured by the condition of our football field as by an opposing player. Our weights were located in a dimly lit, 100 year old gym full of bugs. Academically, we didn’t do too badly, but the school couldn’t afford a lot of resources available to other schools. We finally got a grant for a computer lab when I was a senior in high school. As a freshman, I took a typing class on a typewriter, because the school couldn’t afford enough computers. Of course, I say this knowing that some inner-city schools didn’t have computers of any kind. So I think the idea of passing the funding around more equitably is excellent.

    • Thank you for your comment Mr. Erickson and for sharing your personal experience. It reflects the tattered fabric from which our educational system is too often woven.