Morgan Liddick: Education funding is a problem, but so is our student work ethic
Ah, the tiny bat-wings of apprehension are fluttering as I follow the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth in Colorado’s educational community. Newspaper articles, interviews with educrats, buttonholing the legislature, lobbying (without the big lunches nowadays) and much more, all with the message that our educational system needs boodles more cash to produce better results. Don’t buy it. Money alone won’t do the trick. Admittedly, underfunding is a problem in Colorado – particularly for higher education. Historians need access to collections of primary sources, nuclear physicists need ever-larger, more powerful – and costly – tools to push forward the boundaries of research. Our future doctors, biotechnologists and yes, even ecologists need modern laboratories. But the real problems our students have will be solved by none of these, nor by anything else bought for cash.In its report on the American educational system, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce put its finger on the problem: Our students are not performing adequately and in an increasingly competitive world, underperformance is a death sentence.
Unfortunately, the traditional solution of throwing money at poor academic performance does nothing to address the core concern: students who are comfortable with undemanding courses, and the parents who created them. Let’s begin with the neglected fact that learning requires effort. It demands application, dedication, diligence – in a word, work. Sometimes learning is fun, but fun isn’t the point. Gaining, and applying knowledge, is. A good rule of thumb for success in university courses is two hours or more of preparation time for each hour of class. Even for the student taking the increasingly popular minimum of 12 credit-hours, this means almost a full workweek solely devoted to class preparation, plus class time. In disciplines such as engineering and hard sciences, more is usually demanded. Is it any wonder that the leap from secondary to university education is such a shock for so many of our students?Recent surveys of American high school students indicate that five hours per week is the average amount of homework done, and Colorado is no exception. Asian-American students nationally do about twice that, and tend to concentrate in courses that will lead to careers in engineering, mathematics and other hard sciences. In Taiwan, China and India, students attend school six days a week, and can expect hours of homework every night from the middle grades onward. Competition is brutal and relentless.
When asked, most Chinese and Japanese students are unsatisfied with their own performance. Our scholars are not nearly so self-critical. After all, they’ve been taught that, in the words of Garrison Keillor, “All children are above average.” Given that, is it any wonder our students’ academic performance ranks 24th out of the 29 OECD countries? We’re on par with Latvia, but behind Hong Kong and Liechtenstein. That’s right, Liechtenstein. Extra credit if you know where that is, within 200 kilometers. What will more money do for this situation? Next to nothing. What will help? A more rigorous and demanding academic curriculum, and both educators and parents with the spine to withstand the gales of whining that such a change will engender. That’s right: more calculus and less “character education”; more reading and writing and fewer posters about famine in Africa; more time devoted to the facts of history and geography, and less to the emotions of caring and empathy; and above all, more effort. In the modern world, six hours a day of class, five days a week for half a year, plus an hour of homework here and there, just won’t make it – although I suspect that our international competitors hope we continue as we have over the past few decades. That way, we will continue to get the results we’ve been getting lately, and they won’t have to worry about competing with us for long.The New Commission’s conclusions are stark: unless our educational system is radically improved, our future is very bleak. It recognizes the reality of the international marketplace and its challenge – a challenge which should be nailed to the door of every classroom in this country: increasingly, other countries offer hardworking, highly-educated and highly-skilled workers that will labor longer for less than Americans will accept. So what can we offer that they cannot? Look at our international scholastic standing again before answering. And shudder at the implications.
So by all means, spend money for those laboratories, libraries, cyclotrons and classrooms. Raise educators’ salaries across the board so they won’t have to have two jobs. Build new “green” buildings. Just don’t expect any dramatic improvements in scholastic performance for all your money. Not until those responsible for the learning part of the equation start studying like there’s no tomorrow. Because if they don’t, there won’t be. Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, comment on this column at www.summitdaily.com.
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