U.S. Education: Will This Work?

My last post – Fifty-Two Years – touched on the importance of primary and secondary school education for the future of the United States. Not just for the U.S., of course, but that’s the system with which I am most familiar. I’ve also touched on education in earlier posts, including A Simple Candidate for a Simple Electorate. There I noted that the American Association of Mangers estimates 2 million of the anticipated 3.5 million high tech manufacturing jobs to be created over the next decade will go unfilled due to low numbers of sufficiently educated high school graduates.

So how do we improve the U.S. education system so that a large percentage of graduates have the skills needed for long-term success? There is no shortage of opinions out there. Here are a few:
1. Equalize per student spending so every child has the same chance;
2. Make it more difficult for poor teachers to remain in the classroom by curbing tenure and reducing the power of teacher unions;
3. Get corporate America to partner with the education system to ensure graduates have the skills needed to thrive in the current and future economy.

Let’s explore these.
1. For most states, money spent to educate our children comes from federal and state taxes (generally evenly divided per pupil), and local governments which distribute property tax revenues. This system means that schools surrounded by wealthier neighborhoods will have more resources than schools surrounded by poorer neighborhoods. Just like in the Deep South in the 1950s, such a system entrenches the status quo and ensures that the children of wealthier people have more advantages and opportunities to succeed.

Because those with money and power benefit from the current arrangement – or at least their children do – there is resistance to changing it. Consequently, school funding formulas will likely stay relatively unequal until those in power are convinced that the country’s future wellbeing is jeopardized by a system which provides a subpar education for a significant percentage of students.

2. Some states have taken steps to weaken unions, including teacher unions. There are twenty-five Right-to-Work states which means that an employee cannot be compelled to join a union. This weakens unions because they have fewer members and, as a result, less money to spend and less negotiation power with management. Michigan’s two teacher unions are discussing a merger because both have lost members since 2013 when Michigan became a Right-to-Work state.

3. Germany’s education system includes a good apprenticeship program which works in conjunction with large companies like Siemens, Deutsche Bank and Daimler. Nearly 60% of German students are enrolled in such programs in which the last 2-4 years of school are split between classroom instruction at a vocational school and on-the-job training at a company. In the U.S. only about 5% of workers are in an apprenticeship program and the vast majority of those are in the construction trades. The fields serviced by Germany’s apprenticeship programs are advanced manufacturing, IT, banking, hospitality and more.

A similar system seems like a good option for the U.S., but there are some concerns that will probably keep its impact small. In Germany, an apprenticeship program is considered a good, desirable career path, but in the U.S., it is often thought of as a place to put difficult students. And then there’s the cost. Companies spend $25-80,000 per apprentice in Germany, but at the Siemens USA plant in Charlotte, NC, the company spends around $170,000 per apprentice. A big chunk of the difference is that the government pays the post-secondary school tuition in Germany, but the company is responsible for the tuition bill in the U.S.

That is a large price tag for developing a worker, especially since a company can just hire a skilled worker away from another company for considerably less than what it takes to grow your own, so to speak. Apprenticeships may grow in the U.S., but not likely at a rate that will make a significant impact for at least a generation.

Will This Work?
I have a common sense suggestion. Let’s provide year round education for the lowest performing schools (bottom 5-10% to start), including reduced or free breakfasts and lunches, if applicable. Possibly, we should also shift the school day to later start and end times.

Here’s My Reasoning
1. In most states, the poorest performing schools are found in impoverished, high crime neighborhoods in medium to large cities. For many struggling students in these schools, poverty is the main factor that keeps them from succeeding academically. Poverty generally means hunger, and it’s difficult to perform any task well when you’re starving. Poverty also manifests in gang activity because the promise of riches through illegal activity is a real draw to those who always have to fight for basic needs. That gang activity leads to violence and the crime affects schoolchildren both within and outside of the gangs.

If these students for which educational success is a low priority when compared to basic survival find themselves with year round schooling and nutrition, school may become the highest priority. The number of days without food is reduced and school may be seen as a valuable asset not to be squandered.

The time out of school – evenings, weekends and several 2-3 week breaks throughout the year – would be the risky times. Can churches or other nonprofits feed them when they’re not in school? Will the gangs still have such a prominent role in the students’ lives if there is no long summer break and when they are in school later each day? I honestly don’t know the answers, but some students will likely make school a priority.

2. There are many proponents for year round schooling. One important factor is that knowledge is lost during the long summer break, even in very good, committed students. Teachers assign required summer reading lists now – much of it ignored most or all of the summer – but there’s not much that can be assigned in May or June that retains knowledge in science and math during the long break. Year round education means the breaks are shorter (2-3 weeks between quarters or quintiles) and much less material would have to be taught a second or third time.

3. Because not every teacher within a school district will be required for the full-year schools, superintendents will have the ability to choose the staff best suited for the positions. The teachers would have to be willing to give up the long summer break, but would have the opportunity to travel during off-peak times and pay off-peak rates so their money goes further. We can probably assume that this works best for young, energetic teachers.

4. So what happens with the students and teachers in the next group up – bottom 20%, but above bottom 10%? I suggest that there will be upward pressure. Both students and teachers may put in a little more effort so they are don’t end up in the bottom 10% at the next evaluation. And that puts upward pressure on the next group up, and so on. By going to year round education for a small percentage of students, we may create a domino effect that improves the success of nearly all students.

5. Why bottom 10%? Tourism. We Americans like our summer vacations, and we don’t want them ruined by homework or other interferences like classes. Here in Western Michigan this time of year, the sun is out from around 5:20 am to 10:50 pm (civil twilight). Homework and schooling would cut into the summer days and nights and our kids wont be able to join us at the fire pit.

But if we’re talking about the bottom 10%, there would be very little impact on tourism. Most of those students are from poorer communities and aren’t spending a week at a beach house or roasting marshmallows over an open fire. The tourism industry’s only potential concern would be the slippery slope argument. If this program is successful, you could have year round education for all and there goes the tourism business. In the long term, however, a high skilled workforce means a better economy and more money to be spent on vacations.

What the Teachers Say
I’m a camp counselor this week and several of my fellow counsellors are teachers who have much more experience with the U.S. school system than I. Here are some comments.
1. We don’t want to institutionalize students, i.e., segregate them from their families;
2. A year round program for only some students is a “separate but equal” system;
3. With respect to the students’ parents or guardians who suffer from addiction, their development stopped at the age at which they became addicted (if addicted at 15 years old, a person acts like a 15-year old at any later age);
4. The teachers do the best they can within the current system, but it could be improved.

Please let me know what you think, especially if you’re a teacher or administrator. I’ll compile the comments in a future post. Thanks.

About tonyj126

I'm a 50+ married man who always seems to have a large backlog of work to do, but also a lot of flexibility in my schedule. Much of the work I do is volunteer or taking care of extended family members. I suffer from, as my priest calls it, "the sin of self-sufficiency," which means I can figure out how to do most things myself, and consequently, reduce the need for community to solve problems. As a logical extention (at least to me), I find myself called to comtemplate the country's and the world's woes and offer my observations. I hope someone out there will find them useful.
This entry was posted in Economics, Education, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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