Education: Investment or cost-center?

Education: Investment or cost-center?

Summary: Let's be clear, it's not about money. Education is about opportunity, so why limit it to the basics?

TOPICS: IT Employment

I'm returning to the education issue, again, because of two threads in the comments that need to be restated or clarified.

First, there is the argument that I am a liberal saying we need to spend more on education. I didn't write that. I wrote in the first posting in the series that the United States since the 1980s has taken a basics-oriented approach to educationEducation is how society invests in its future, not how it minimizes the cost of getting kids into the workforce. and it has failed. Second, I'm not suggesting spending more is the answer, though it may be part of the answer. It certainly seems to be part of the current policy of the Bush Administration, which is spending more on education as a percentage of federal spending and in real dollars than any administration ever, as I explained in the second posting. The idea I think we need to embrace as a country is that by investing in a broad-based educational system that offers the maximum opportunity to learn and explore knowledge is the only rational approach to national economic security in the information age.

I didn't say that schools should teach morality, though several commenters suggested I did, one saying that "programs" that teach a book called Heather Has Two Mommies would constitute success in my book.

Instead, I wrote that narrow basics-oriented education, introduced in the Reagan era, have produced lower graduation levels and less prepared citizens. There's no doubt that this notion of basics-only teaching is a Reagan-era idea. Anyone can look at statements to that effect and the history of the budget, which shows a definite change in priorities in federal spending.

I didn't write that we need to teach tolerance in schools, but that treating kids as individuals with different paths to success is a good idea. We don't need "programs," we need well-stocked labs where kids can experiment, we need literature classes where they can explore ideas, we need trigonometry as well as special education, orchestras as well as behavior contracts for kids with ADD.

When there's a kid who wants to learn, why would we ever say "no"?

The family does need to do a lot more of its own moral educating, but that doesn't mean the schools don't also need to do a lot more skills-and-specialized-knowledge teaching. We also need some dangerous ideas in schools, too, because children shouldn't be conditioned to shy away from controversy, even when it treads into territory where their parents have fixed ideas. Too often, the conservative agenda has urged schools to avoid ideas that run counter to the comfortable notions that define polite society.

The binary more/less argument has nothing to do with conservative values, because George W. Bush is spending more money and still getting less because the schools are too narrowly defined to produce the knowledge- and serviceworkers that dominate in today's economy. While there are some good public schools, there are plenty of awful ones—and few that offer any curriculum beyond those cherished basics.

After 25 years of this can we not see that the lack of paths to more complex studies within the public schools is choking kids' accomplishment? there's something wrong with the feedback system we call democracy, if raising questions about our kids is too liberal. The disaster that is American education is a conservative thing. Since Reagan, even though we've spent massively greater amounts on government, primarily military spending, we've underinvested in the schools. Spending on schools went up, but it should have soared if the United States was going to compete with emerging economies by transforming itself into a high-level knowledge society. That's quantifiably obvious.

Instead, we get interactive TV and the idea that, if someone can afford it they can purchase some knowledge over the Internet. Reagan wanted us to eat his dog food and now it is all we can digest. Americans have been made into good consumers, not active democrats in control of their republic.

There's also no question that the emphasis on "basics," which clearly includes anti-science and anti-intellectual prejudices, has stunted our youth. "Personal accountability" is important, but not if there are no rewards for succeeding. So, if you think it's fine that we tell kids to learn to add, subtract and multiply, but that if they demonstrate that competence there is no further advancement without "private" spending, then we've missed the target for a public education. Education is how society invests in its future, not how it minimizes the cost of getting kids into the workforce.

If anything, I am centrist on schools, because I believe they waste a tremendous amount of money on programs that add nothing to the intellectual capacity of students. We'd do a lot better if there were months dedicated to science and language like there are months for black history and women's history. We've neglected the soaring heights young minds can reach because of the one-dimensionality of basic education with a few programs tacked on to remediate historical wrongs.

I also believe that lavish investment in children is the key to creating a prosperous future, when that early spending is translated into economic and cultural wealth. So, the keystone to educational success seems to me to be not more money, but a much more generous interpretation of what kids deserve to be able, if they demonstrate their abilities, to continue to learn for free throughout their childhood. Once we have those higher standards for education in place, the budgetary realities will fall into place as we consider the benefits of spending on schools versus, say, subsidies for oil companies, wars and "tax relief."

Topic: IT Employment

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  • That covers what you're NOT saying

    Now what are you saying, beyond "education is important" and "education should be more than the basics?"
    Erik Engbrecht
    • I think it's clear....

      This piece, like the ones before, calls for broad-based education
      with more attention paid to the student as an individual. It's pretty
      clear, but I also know enough to know that I don't know the specific
      answer, so as I wrote in the first posting, I'm calling for change and
      talking about it.

      In the meantime, I will continue to clarify my position as it is
      muddied by others seeking to dismiss it with simplistic labels.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
      • Short attention span

        Was it so hard to say it in one paragraph?

        Of course that's the non-controversial aspect.

        You also said minimum standards are bad because the result is schools teach to the standards and throw everything else out.

        The thing is if those standards were being met, then enforcing those standards wouldn't change teaching practices.

        So the problem isn't the tests, the problem is schools are so ineffective that the only way they can get kids to pass the tests is to simply teach to the tests.

        Consequently, if you create more effective teaching methods, then the tests become a non-issue and a sanity check that the methods aren't failing.
        Erik Engbrecht
      • Simplistic labels


        It was the simplistic labels in your posting that triggered the responses. Everything that is wrong is because of "conservative" administrations....

        My counter-point was that programs in school that present liberal-leaning views pushed by teacher unions and meddling elected officials cannot be blamed on a person sitting in the oval office for 4 or 8 years.

        I will agree with you (Gasp!) that students are individual and have individual styles of learning.

        Go back to the basics - let the teachers teach subjects not agendas.
        • Yes, actually, they can....

          I beg to differ. Examining the evidence and concluding that an
          administration radically altered national priorities is not
          "simplistic labeling." Calling that conclusion liberal spin is
          simplistic labeling, because it doesn't respond to the facts but
          implies a motive for the criticism. Anyone can see the change in
          national educational goals and performance, and they start with
          Reagan's 1982 budget, it's the pivot point in our history. My
          comments about the current administration were only that it is
          spending more for less than ever, not that it is particularly to
          blame for it. But I do think it is contributing to the problem by
          re-emphasizing the basics, a conservative approach to

          I have problems with the teacher's unions, as well, because they
          tend to adopt over-arching strategies for education that benefit
          the teachers more than the students, even though, like
          conservatives, I think they are well intended efforts. We really
          need to rethink it all.

          We should teach subjects, leaving the agendas for the home. But
          "basics" are much more than rote learning, which is all we get
          today for the most part, with many notable exceptions that are,
          in large part, the successes of local teachers who defy their
          circumstances. Those folks ought to be rewarded for their
          Herculean efforts when they make them, too.
          Mitch Ratcliffe
          • "We" don't all get rote learning

            There are schools where students get much more.

            There are schools where students get much less.

            "Conservative" thought process:
            1. Inner cities and some rural areas are rife with poverty.
            2. Conservatives get accused of being heartless and lose votes because they "fail to address the problem"
            3. Conservatives notice that a large portion of the population in those areas is functionally illiterate, despite having at least partial high school educations.
            4. Conservatives try to ensure students at least know how to read, write, and do arithmetic by forcing testing and standards.

            Conservatives want accountability, but no one wants to be held accountable.
            Erik Engbrecht
          • I conceded that already


            I've written in these postings that there are exceptional schools
            out there.

            You have a wonderfully one-sided view of conservative thought.
            There are a lot of other implications in the basics-only approach
            to education that exaggerate social differences, too. Moreoever,
            no one said being held accountable was bad?I wrote that kids
            who excel at their work, in other words those who meet the
            standards, need to have the incentive of access to broader
            education for doing so.

            I guess it must be liberal, then, to think that rewarding kids for
            succeeding with more opportunities to learn is a reasonable
            approach to education. When I was young and a Republican, that
            was called the "merit system." Post-Reagan conservatives seem
            to think that shutting a door and all the windows is the best way
            to help kids graduate, which is one of the many reasons I am not
            a Republican anymore.
            Mitch Ratcliffe
          • Let me try again

            The only place where we really disagree is on whether strict standards for minimum achievement should be set, measured, and enforced.

            You argue that the testing required by No Child Left Behind leads to schools "teaching to the test." I'll agree with that.

            You argue that kids really need skills beyond what is required by No Child Left Behind. I'll agree with that, too.

            You argue that we need more innovative teaching methods, and that students need to be treated as individuals. I'm still behind you 100%.

            You argue that because the tests required by NCLB cause schools to "teach to the test" that they should be eliminated. That's where we disagree.

            The tests expose a problem that many do not want to face: a lot of kids aren't even acquiring the most basic of skills.

            I'm sure the tests need refinement, but you don't stop measuring something just because you don't like what you see. It's better that kids be taught to the test and actually learn something than to learn nothing at all.

            If the underlying problems are fixed, the tests will be a non-issue. Kids will take them, the vast majority will pass, and every year we can ratchet the standards up a little higher. Every year we can become smarter in what we test and how we test it.

            We need measurement, and we need to ensure schools at least perform to the minimum standards set.
            Erik Engbrecht
          • And if they don't?

            Erik wrote:

            [i]"We need measurement, and we need to ensure schools at least perform to the minimum standards set.[/i]

            If schools don't "perform"? What then? If students fail mandated tests what should the response be?

            [b]More[/b] emphasis on the tests?


            Throw money at it??

            Fix the school maybe?

            So a school who's students do not pass mandated tests will need to be "fixed" so that they do, and all other schools will see that before anything else their students MUST pass the mandated tests.

            If you define and fund your education system by a method of measurement-by-mandated-test then the system [b]must[/b] focus itself towards the tests. To do anything else is to operate outside the mandate of the funding body.

            I challenge you (Erik) to write a reply without using the words "basic" or "skills".
            Dave F_z
          • Reply w/o "basic" and "skills" for Dave F_z

            1. Measure rate of improvement instead of absolute position

            This could get complicated, but I think metrics are better when they measure the rate of change towards or away from the desirable direction rather than an absolute position. So schools should be measure on how quickly they increase the knowledge level (both breadth and depth) of students, and also on the rate at which that rate is improving. Of course it should be possible to fail if an absolute measure is simply too low, and a school with an extremely high absolute measure shouldn't fail, if you toss out the outliers I think this works.

            2. Fixing underperforming schools
            Shut them down. Give parents/students choice. Create a market so schools have to compete for students and associated funding.

            Public schools are essentially a monopoly. Competition among schools is needed.

            3. Helping underperforming students
            Under a market-driven system smaller schools could specialize in providing educations tailored to the needs of specific groups. That way students could get the education they need.


            As Mitch rightfully pointed out, one size certainly does not fit all when it comes to education. Different children have different needs, and one-size-fits-all schools fail to meet those needs. Frankly, I don't think the public sector is capable operating in an innovative manner, much less an efficient one. The government can provide the oversight and objective assessments required to keep the schools honest, along with the funding to ensure all students have access to opportunities.
            Erik Engbrecht
          • Wee problem

            Closing down underperforming schools and getting "the market" to provide specialised services for those that need them sounds all well and good but I see a wee problem with it.......

            Equality of choice

            Not all consumers (students) have the same quality of choice, and for some fairly basic reasons.

            lets take the most obvious - geography.

            If the local school in a low socio-economic area is underperforming and is shut down - where do the consumers go?

            Remember that any possible alternative needs to be operating [b]before[/b] the first schoo is closed - the need for education is constant and time critical - you can't tell a group of kids that "we'll come up with something better soon".
            In order to come up with that "something better" way more money is going to need to be spent in one form or another...which leads back to Mitchs original assertion...

            No matter what you think is a "good way" to "fix" the current situation (and there seems to be a general consensus that it needs "fixing") - the first step has got to be ........MO' MONEY MAN
            Dave F_z
          • re: Wee Problem

            I didn't say it could be done overnight. I think it will take a while.

            I don't think the geography problem would be as big as you think. The reason is a school doesn't have to be this big, capital intensive monolith.

            Why can't a couple teachers rent some space in a strip mall (or other retail or office space) and teach 40-60 kids covering 2-3 grade levels?

            You need a gym? I know the gym I go to is empty during the day, so why can't a small local school rent some time in it? Or go to the park?

            Why do we need a giant school with all sorts of dedicated support staff? How about lots of little schools?

            I think it could work. The barriers to entry just need to be low enough.
            Erik Engbrecht
          • Great idea

            All it takes is a lot more money.

            Centralisation of location is done on economic grounds - not idealogical.
            It costs more to provide essentials to cover a distributed schooling method (think toilets, recreation areas, eating areas, resource depositories like libraries etc etc etc). Convince the powers that be to throw buckets more money into education and you can try all sorts of different models - some of which may even work
            Dave F_z
          • re: Great Idea - Economic Problem

            I agree that schools have been driven to increase in size in order to achieve economies of scale. However, I think the economies of scale, if they ever were really achieved, have been rotted away by beauracracy.

            Furthermore, I don't believe that schools required exclusive infrastructure. If you say every school must have a gym, a cafeteria, a playground, and a library, then yes - a school needs to be a capital intensive project.

            Think of a school as value-added daycare (hopefully lots of value). Then look at the facilities required to safely house a group of kids during the day.

            Now replace the normal care-givers with highly-motivated teachers. Line the walls with books. Put computers on many of the desks. Now you have the essentials of a school. Locate it near public or rentable facilities like parks, gyms, etc. Hold art classes at a local art studio or crafts store, same for music classes.

            So I think even if large schools weren't horribly inefficient, small schools could still be more efficient by leveraging existing under-utilized infrastructure. Specialized private companies provide the support required.

            I think it could work, as long as it wasn't regulated to death.
            Erik Engbrecht
          • DoE - not started by Reagan

            The DoE was instituted by Carter in 1979. 1982 was the first year Reagan was in office. So this puppy was up and running (admittedly an early stage) before Reagan was President. Again, my point, one person cannot be blamed for a nation's educational issues.

            You have to go back earlier than 1982 and look at the things that shaped what was put in place in 1979. Disclaimer: I'm going to paint with a broad've got the make-love-not-war collgege crowd all growed up and ready to continue their counter-cultural "revolution".

            So these "modern" thinkers are now the movers and shakers and they see the federal government as the solution to society ills. We hadn't won the space-race yet so the socialistic system of the USSR looked like there might just be something there that could be useful.

            Please don't tell me this group of people did not have an influence on the Carter administration to create a central oversight blob because we want peace, man, and education is-like-the way to ensure it, dude. If we all think alike, man, we'll have peace.

            You mentioned the educational system moving from teaching individuals to teaching groups. I submit it started earlier than Reagan's presidency - but it would seem you don't want to consider stuff earlier than Reagan.

            If I had a magic wand and could wave it, I would prefer that the DoE had never been brought into existence - it brought the federal government into an area it didn't/doesn't need to be involved. I wish school districts had the guts to say "no" to federal funding. I would also pay the teachers like rock-stars (to borrow from Tom Peters)- but only if they renounce their union membership. They could stay in the union if they wanted, but only for the union-negotiated pay.

            I don't have a magic wand - however, so I work with my kids, try to help re-motivate their natural curiosity, and volunteer within their schools. I'm also blessed to have my kids in a great school-system with fantastic teachers. I'm not naive enough to think that is the case everywhere.
  • What's the cut-off?

    "We also need some dangerous ideas in schools, too, because children shouldn't be conditioned to shy away from controversy, even when it treads into territory where their parents have fixed ideas."

    Or rather, what's the starting point? It seems to me that for the introduction of "dangerous" ideas to be beneficial, the students need to be able to understand why those ideas are considered "dangerous" and the consequences of acting on them without considering all alternatives. Doing so at too early an age would, in my opinion, cause far more problems than are solved. Look at how so many high school-age students are so quick to jump into one social cause or another without considering the larger ramifications of what they espouse.

    It's far too easy for younger people, with their relatively limited experience, to see the world in strict black-and-white terms. Dangerous ideas are good, but only when considered by those with the knowledge and experience required to assimilate those dangerous ideas into a bigger picture. Where will the students get that experience? At what age would you propose to introduce these "dangerous" ideas to students?

    Carl Rapson
    • I wouldn't legislate the age

      Treating students as individuals rather than clots of people who,
      because they are the same age/grade, is one of the solutions I've
      suggested. So, I wouldn't legislate that kind of cut-off.

      Your question also raises another complication, that of what is a
      dangerous idea? Darwinism is thought to be dangerous, so is
      communism. Which did real damage? Why would learning about
      Darwin at, say, 8 years of age, be more or less dangerous than
      learning about communism in college?

      How about we trust smart people who work with kids all day to
      deal with the kids as individual intellects? Every teacher my kids
      have had for a class understood that part of what they had to do
      is figure out what my wife and I had prepared them for in the
      first place. There's no cut-off point that makes sense from a
      legislative standpoint and I think that if kids get involved in a
      cause that turns out to be a mistake, that's a good opportunity
      to learn, as well. Sanity comes from living in the world, not being
      protected from it, after all.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
    • Choices and Consequences

      I think above all people need to learn that all choices have consequenes. Real consequences that go beyond a teacher giving them a bad mark or a parent being angry. I think most parents spend too much time shielding their children from the "cruel world" as well as too much time dolling out punishments for harmless behaviors.

      The danger in an idea is that it will be pursued in a harmful fashion. There is no inherent danger in having knowledge about an idea. Quite the contrary in fact, I think the danger in most ideas is partial knowledge of them.

      So when your child wants to run around outside without a jacket, tell him he'll catch a told, but don't make him put on a jacket. When he catches a told, tell him "I told you so" and don't be sympathetic. He knew and he brought it upon himself. (I'm not saying don't care for him, I'm saying don't act like he's a poor suffering innocent; and I'm not saying let your kid freeze to death; just let him learn).

      I think there are a lot of simple things parents can do so that their children will understand "If I do this, something good/bad will happen."

      Anyway, that's my thought. Children these days seem to think all pain and pleasure come from punishment and reward doled out by their parents. But eventually children grow up and can't have mom and dad watching over them. Let them learn when the consequences aren't lasting.
      Erik Engbrecht
  • Some Basics

    Our biggest problem is trying to make it easier for our kids.

    Growing up to be worth while is hard work. It requires hard work. It requires compition. You must preform to be get to that next interesting subject.

    Making it easier should be helping students who have reading/writing/speaking challanges to learn process they are missing and then they can compete more readily.

    Rewards without effort lead to our current "education" system and the articles lamenting it.

    The world market rewards effort and knowledge. The lesson not learned in our current mediocrity is effective effort to secure the reward of knowledge.
  • Is this a topic I should Expect on ZDNET?

    While I commend the insightful story, I am surprised that I am reading about this on ZDNET and not in the NY Times.