FREEDOM: What is the true ‘common core’ of education? (Part 2)

IMAGE: T.J. O'Hara

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., October 25, 2014 – The United States federal government spent approximately $141 billion on public education in fiscal 2014, yet test scores continued to fall in our K-12 schools and tuition continued to rise in our institutes of higher education. Additionally, vocational training remained relatively stagnant. Rather than throw more money at the problem, perhaps we should try to identify the root causes of the problems and try to fix them. That would be the “smart” thing to do.

Part 1 of this two part series (FREEDOM: U.S. Education policy gets a failing grade) established the following education policy statement. In Part 2, we will review a few examples of how that policy could improve student performance, reduce costs, and contribute in a meaningful way to other aspects of our society.

The first step is to identify the purpose of education. In that regard, Wikipedia actually provides better insight than the U.S. Department of Education, which interestingly does not provide a definition for the word “education” in its otherwise extensive glossary. According to Wikipedia:

“Education… is a form of learning in which the knowledge, skills, and habits of a group of people are transferred from one generation to the next through teaching, training, or research. Education frequently takes place under the guidance of others, but may also be autodidactic. Any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts may be considered educational. Education is commonly divided into stages such as preschool, primary school, secondary school and then college, university or apprenticeship.”

If we distill that into a mission statement, it might look like this:

“The purpose of education is to provide individuals with an equal opportunity to attain the knowledge, skills, and habits that are necessary to achieve their goals and to function in and contribute to society in a positive way.”

The requirement to provide an “equal opportunity” forces us to address the disparities that remain in place and only serve to reinforce social-economic differences generationally. As was touched upon in Part 1, if we actually provide an “equal opportunity,” we will no longer be able “to mask our political failure to provide such an educational environment with programs such as Affirmative Action.”

Adding points to one’s college application score only affirms our failure to have provided a K-12 education of equivalent quality for all of our children. It becomes an even greater disgrace when the solution is applied linearly to all students on a basis of race regardless of their actual socio-economic status and the charade must cease.

Next, in a society that is progressively broadening the concept of “choice” in a manner that is actually consistent with several tenets of the Constitution as well as two of the unalienable rights described by the Declaration of Independence’s (i.e., “Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”), it is interesting to observe how many of the same proponents argue against “choice” when it comes to education. Rather than limit school “choice” for what appears to be a politically motivated reason (i.e., pandering to a particular constituency), we should find ways to expand it. To do otherwise is to reserve “choice” to only those who can afford it.

There is no reason that those who otherwise favor a “redistribution of wealth” should deny the poor the right to have tax dollars redistributed in a manner that assures an equal opportunity to receive a quality education. It might allow the poor to break the cycle of dependence that otherwise plagues them.

The term “voucher” should not be a non sequitur to an intelligent discussion of providing access to competitive education systems for all those who would like to explore them. Lotteries are an unconscionable way to extract revenue in lieu of taxes; they are an even more abysmal way of limiting access to educational alternatives. If we expand competition within the education sector, we are likely to experience innovative improvements that can become adopted “best practices.”

For those who are committed to the paradigm of protecting union jobs for teachers before preserving the mission of education, here is a hint: Expanded educational facilities generally create job opportunities. Just as unions exist in other private sector industries, there is no empirical reason they should not be able to penetrate private sector education; that is, unless they lose focus on the mission of education.

School bond issues used to pass with regularity. Now, they face an uphill battle. Why?

Could it be because public school administrations have grown disproportionately and teachers’ unions have become perceived to place compensation and benefits above the best interests of the students? The latter spends millions of dollars in most States on political advertising and lobbying. Perhaps if those dollars were returned to the teachers, compensation would not be quite the issue it appears to be today.

Conversely, teachers play a critical role in our society. Objectively, they should be more highly compensated. Unfortunately, support for that premise will be difficult to garner until academic performance begins to rise and every student gains access to a high quality K-12 education. Perhaps if merit were the metric instead of tenure, performance would improve and resistance would begin to wane. Again, it should be a matter of how well a teacher is fulfilling the mission of education.

It should also be noted that the mission of education does not distinguish between academic offerings and vocational training. Both avenues provide an “opportunity to attain the knowledge, skills, and habits that are necessary to achieve their goals and to function in and contribute to society in a positive way.”

Unfortunately, as union membership has declined in recent years, the availability of apprenticeship programs has also plummeted. There are at least two solutions to this issue: (1) increase union membership by returning union focus to the employees rather than political endeavors; and (2) expand vocational training within the public and private sectors.

With regard to the latter, community colleges could begin to offer trade-oriented training as a certificate program to help close the gap between unfilled job opportunities and the unemployed. Private training organizations could follow the same path. Perhaps federal funding could be structured to underwrite some or all of the cost since it would ultimately reduce unemployment (an exposure for the Government) and reintroduce people into the tax base once they gain employment (an opportunity for the Government). This type of approach would be particularly effective if it were limited to skills that represent long-term employment opportunities.

Next, let’s discuss cost with regard to higher education.

In recent years, college tuition has been increasing at a much higher rate than inflation. Many students graduate with a significant level of debt; some of whom shirk the responsibility of repaying their loans, which might be an indication that the “habit” portion of education is missing. This raises two questions: (1) Is there a way to reduce the cost of tuition; and (2) Is there a way to reduce the amount of student loans that end in default?

With respect to tuition, it is worth noting that tuition represents a cost to the students but revenue to their colleges or university. These institutes have to cover their cost of operation (i.e., “default” is generally not an option).

Part of the cost with which these institutes are burdened comes with the “strings” that are often tied to federal and/or State funding. For example, monies may only be available if the institute hires employees who are often tied to social reengineering rather than educational endeavors. However, when the related funding is exhausted, the employees remain as does their related cost.

Diversity Officers are an example. They are sometimes a required component to secure federal or State funding.

Interestingly enough, if our K-12 schools were doing their jobs correctly, we would no longer have to mandate diversity. It would be a naturally occurring condition if our children were given “an equal opportunity to attain the knowledge, skills, and habits that are necessary to achieve their goals and to function in and contribute to society in a positive way.” The fact that we deem it necessary to establish a function that monitors and facilitates diversity is again a reflection of our failure to modify “habits” in our children’s most formative years.

State and federal funds should be singularly focused on providing the quality of education necessary for students to “achieve their goals and to function in and contribute to society in a positive way.” If we fix the problem in K-12, we will no longer need to layer additional costs upon our educational institutes to achieve the same social objective.

Correspondingly, college students have a role to play in reducing costs that otherwise contribute to higher tuition. They need to refocus their attention on the educational aspect of their college experience.

In recent years, college administrations have become enamored with “rankings.” They compete to attract freshman and graduate students who bring high standardized test scores with them (e.g., ACTs, SATs, GMATs, etc.). Unfortunately, they often invest in superficial resources that have little to do with educational content in order to create a more attractive environment to lure such students.

As a result, many universities now feature five-star spas and recreation centers, complete with rock climbing walls, massage facilities, etc. Student unions no longer host old furniture, a few televisions, and a Ping-Pong table or two. They now resemble the type of lounges one might otherwise associate with a resort hotel.

This is not to begrudge a modest upgrade, but rather to underscore the sense of expectation that has been established; an expectation that has a cost associated with it. These non-academic facilities and services have fixed and variable costs associated with them. Either tuition must rise to cover these costs or the funds that might otherwise be directed toward academic excellence must be applied to them. Neither option makes sense.

If students were to eschew these non-academic luxuries and make their decisions based upon the academic experience their college can deliver, they would see their tuition costs decline or their educational alternatives expand. Our institutes of higher learning have simply created a disassociated expectation that has been embraced by the market they serve (i.e., students). In turn, students might change their expectations if they were taught to recognize that they only receive a return on the part of their investment that actually goes towards education.

Now, let’s reintroduce the concept of merit.

Several countries have an interesting approach in this regard. Their “state” supported schools represent their finest educational resources. In the United States, our private universities tend to hold that distinction.

Access to our private universities is generally reserved for the rich, who can afford it, or for the poor, who qualify for assistance. In these other countries, everyone has the same opportunity to matriculate at their finest universities. This includes middle-income students who, in the United States, cannot afford to attend equivalent universities but whose families make too much money to allow them to qualify for assistance.

These other countries accomplish this in a uniquely simple way: They base access upon merit. It does not matter whether a student is rich, middle-income, or poor; Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, etc.; male or female. It only matters that they have applied themselves during their preparatory education (the equivalent of K-12 here), gotten good grades, and earned outstanding scores on their international exams. If students achieve these goals, their country happily funds their education at the finest institutes available; effectively rewarding academic excellence.

It is worth noting that there is absolutely no discrimination associated with this approach. Every child, regardless of his or her background, has an equal opportunity to achieve their highest potential. Isn’t that the goal for which our educational system should be striving?

If we wish to “sway” interests, we can also provide additional scholarships and grants in areas that will improve our Nation’s global competitiveness in the coming years (i.e., incentivizing students to pursue degrees related to areas such as healthcare, renewable energy, etc.). In that regard, it would be easy to create a tiered funding mechanism that would provide every student with the opportunity to exercise a level of self-determination and to learn the nexus between effort and reward.

With respect to loan programs, we need to instill a sense of obligation. The rate of default continues to rise.

Hopefully, our K-12 education process can be restructured to create a higher sense of responsibility among future generations. However, we can begin to mitigate the issue of defaults without waiting.

The traditional loan repayment schedule represents a 1:1 ratio of dollars-to-debt. The option is to honor the loan or default (with or without consequences). In election years, politicians like to “dangle” interest rates in front of students to attract votes. However, this does little to address the real problem.

What if we adopted a “sweat equity” approach that provided for accelerated repayment based upon a tiered “forgiveness” approach that benefited our Nation?

For example, we could offer the following “dollars-to-debt” repayment structure (as a hypothetical; more formally, the ratios should be indexed to projected value they represent):

  • A 2:1 ratio for those who work for a qualified charity or in the public sector for one of the three branches of the Federal Government for such time that they serve;
  • A 3:1 ratio for those who work in the public sector as teachers or health care providers or who serve the United States military in a non-combat role for such time that they serve;
  • A 4:1 ratio for those who work in the public sector as first responders (g., police officers, fire fighters, etc.) for such time that they provide such service;
  • A 5:1 ratio for those who serve the United States military in an active combat role for such time that they serve; and
  • A 1:1 ratio for all other residual student loan obligations.

This approach allows the decision to reside with the individual (i.e., providing a reinforcement of the concept of “responsibility”) while encouraging the consideration of at least transitory roles in some of our Nation’s most challenging and critical careers.

Vocational schools and institutes of higher education can also explore the well-proven option of creating cooperative education (“Co-Op”) programs. These programs provide flexible academic/work schedules (alternating academic semesters with work sections) that allow students to gain real-world experience while attending school.

It is a “cooperative” relationship between the academic institute and private sector partners that benefits all parties concerned. Co-Op students earn income during their work sections with which they can fully pay tuition to their schools (or at least minimize debt). In turn, companies gain access to a cost-effective resource (i.e., the student) and have the opportunity to observe the student in a real-world environment related to the student’s chosen field of study, which may lead to permanent employment after graduation.

These are but a few of the ways we can improve the system of education within the United States. There are many more if we put our minds together, learn from others, and teach ourselves how to stay focused on the mission. Hopefully, we will graduate to that level of thinking someday soon.


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.


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 offers many real insights into ways to improve our education systems effectiveness. Let’s demand from our elected officials solutions that will provide improved results before we are asked to spend more money.

  • Eric N Keya Erickson

    Mr. O’Hara,
    I would jump at the opportunity to use one of the repayment programs you mention. Even with the GI BIll and Pell Grants, I graduated with about $20,000 of student loan debt. And I attended a relatively inexpensive school with no high cost sports programs or fancy student union buildings. Also, because I chose a major that requires further schooling to make any money in (and have yet to complete this further schooling), I have had to defer my payments since graduation, because I can barely make enough money to support myself and my family. There’s nobody to blame for this, except maybe myself, I probably should have chosen a more useful major. But being the first in my family to finish 4 years of college, I didn’t have a whole lot of guidance. So I chose something I was interested in, and that I thought I could earn a decent living at, once I finished all the schooling. I underestimated the difficulty of getting into and paying for a decent graduate school. So maybe some good guidance counselors at universities would help with student loan debt as well. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment Mr. Erickson.

      I am relatively sure that you didn’t fail the system; the system failed you. However, I believe you made a better choice than most people in that you pursued a personal passion rather than merely the lure of money.

      I know many people who spend their time in what may be a better paying job but, in retrospect, might represent a horrible waste of their lives. If you persevere, I’m sure you will experience a success that few others ever do.

      I wish you the best of luck in that regard.