Now that the 112th Congress has been sworn in, it is time to turn our attention to matters closer to home. With barely a week before he takes office, Governor-elect Bill Haslam has a plate full of problems before him and a remade General Assembly at his disposal to solve them.
The short list? A budget with a $1 billion plus hole in it. 10% unemployment. A failing public education system. Infrastructure in need of attention. Needed health cost reduction. Where does the Governor start?
Of these five issues, the one that seems to provide a path to solving the other four is education reform. A better result in education provides a better work force, thus encouraging business and industry to relocate to Tennessee. It produces educated citizens who are imaginative, motivated and capable of starting businesses right here. Improved employment creates a broader tax base, which creates the revenue for infrastructure improvement and caring for the most vulnerable among us.
Policy makers and professional educators have had decades under the current paradigm to produce a better product. It is now time to admit that the Tennessee public education system is in need of a complete overhaul. We do not need education “improvement”. We need real education “Reform”. Not just a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic, but breaking the whole system down and starting over.
For the past decade, public schools in Tennessee have performed in the bottom 20% in the nation. Even with Tennessee being one of the two states to receive “Race to the Top” federal funds, the jury is still out on whether those monies will make any difference. Historically, additional money thrown at public education has not produced needed results. In addition, the City of Memphis public schools are on the verge of collapse and may require intervention at the State level.
So, what assumptions are necessary to move toward real education “reform”?
We have to admit that our paradigm is broken. We have to realize that more money will not repair a failed process. We cannot ask taxpayers for any more money without showing them a better plan for success. We must allow local problem-solvers to take control of their local systems. We must have the will to press ahead against loud special-interest voices that have held sway for decades. Tweaking the current system is not the answer. If it is not producing the desired results, it must go.
So, what are the pieces of real “reform”?
First, decentralize the education structure and process. Charter schools across the nation are having great success by using this paradigm. We do need some centralized procedures to deal with real administrative issues like bus service, facilities repair and maintenance, accounting, etc. But at the school level, each campus should be an independent entity. Hire excellent principals to run each school. Allow each principal to control his/her budget, hire and fire teachers and staff, establish or eliminate programs, evaluate people based upon performance, and create or renovate facilities to enhance their education goals and objectives. Incentivize them for efficiency and excellence. Under this scenario, the best teachers would be allowed to search for the best schools and Principals would be allowed to find the best teachers and staff. Principals would be allowed to streamline programs and plan for growth. HCA produced hundreds of entrepreneurs in the healthcare industry and built the largest hospital corporation in the world by following this pattern.
There is no “one size fits all” in education. Even within the state of Tennessee, it would make sense for students in the Knoxville area to have greater access to the nuclear sciences. In Nashville and Chattanooga, students might have more access to auto manufacturing tracks. In Clarksville, attention could be paid to emerging solar energy technology. In more rural areas, agriculture sciences would be helpful to many students. By allowing this kind of diversity all over the State, and the nation, we provide a laboratory for creativity whereby the best practices can be developed and disseminated.
Parents would be allowed to register children for any school in their district. Likewise, Principals, teachers, and staff would evaluate and select students. Students prone to cause trouble would either opt out of the public school system or would learn discipline in order to remain in school. The underlying principle here is that students receive the privilege of someone else paying for their education as long as they participate in maintaining decorum commensurate with an educational atmosphere. They are not owed anything.
Teachers constantly complain that real education cannot be accomplished amid uncontrollable students. Since educators are forbidden from disciplining unruly children, Principals should be allowed to refuse them entrance to their “education” laboratories.
Educators affirm that their jobs are made more difficult by the apathy of Parents/Guardians who refuse to engage in the education process. Schools are not designed to substitute for parents/guardians. Students whose parents/guardians refuse to be engaged in their education may find it difficult to get their child into the school they desire. Education is a team effort, involving both educators and parents.
Rather than requiring every school to provide every service for every handicapped student, specific schools would be established whereby students needing these specialized services would have the finest staff, equipment, and resources available within their communities, but not on every campus. Under current procedures, parents may demand that services for a student be provided even if that child is the only child needing such services, including specialized transportation to and from the school closest to them. Taxpayers certainly want to provide these services, but in an efficient manner.
In the health arena, the State requires entities to establish need before they will allow the construction of “multiple” facilities or purchase of surplus equipment or allow unnecessary duplication of services. For instance, there is only one “Trauma Center” in Nashville. For every hospital to have these kinds of facilities and services would drive up the cost of medical care. If an individual or corporation wishes to build a hospital, they must first submit their application to a State panel showing “need” for the services. So it is with “special-needs” children. Metropolitan Nashville/Davidson County could establish four centralized elementary and middle schools and two high schools to care for students needing specialized facilities, equipment, curricula, and staff. Transportation would be provided within each district. As it stands, duplication of facilities, equipment and services unnecessarily drives up education costs.
Second, we have to realize that money is not the “cure-all” for a failed process and we cannot ask taxpayers for any more money without showing them a better plan for success. For the past fifty years, the education lobby has demagogued this discussion by constantly referring to the lack of funds available for “the children”. Well, the children are just a part of the process. It is time “the taxpayers” had an advocate as well. We have tried the money fix for years and all we get are more receipts and substandard results. We need to turn our creative people loose to generate new ideas while living within our budget “means”. Monies not used in a school year could be paid in bonuses, saved for future use, or spent to provide better facilities, curricula, or equipment.
Third, reconfigure the purpose of education. Because people are different and have different interests and different educational capabilities, not all students are either interested in college or will find college moving them in the direction of a career they desire. Curricula in high school should be structured to move students who desire to attend college in that direction with the appropriate resources available. Students who have no interest in college should be allowed to pursue career tracks that require apprenticeships. One potential by-product would be less remedial classes needing to be taught in our state universities, a current colossal waste of taxpayer money.
Studies that allow hands-on work (i.e. electrician, plumber, HVAC technician, carpenter, woodworker) should be made available as well as some internships with local companies. By the time graduation arrives, these students should be well on their way to a well-paying job while apprenticing with successful journeymen. Students who pursue this track should have the same access to Hope Scholarship funds as college-bound students. Perhaps, some of these funds could go to the hiring companies to subsidize apprenticeships. Why is it a better use of funds to train a college student in English or Science that to train a non-college student in a trade?
(Perhaps these funds could be provided at the completion of a segment of apprenticeship rather than in advance. In the same way, perhaps Hope Scholarship funds should be paid at the completion of each semester of college rather than in advance.)
When students remain in school, they are less likely to engage in crime or gang-related behavior. They are less likely to engage in many other forms of irresponsible behavior. Students looking for a non-college career track often drop out because they are bored or see no point to the curricula for their future plans. These tracks can also serve to increase graduation rates.
Schools should be encouraged to partner with local businesses and industry in order to provide students an idea of income earning options after high school or college. In this way, local entities can begin to build relationships with young adults, encouraging them to stay in their communities or return home after college. After all, isn’t this why we provide public education? Parents who see this kind of partnership may opt out of private schooling for public schooling.
Fourth, begin the process of separation from Washington, D.C. control of local education. Such would necessarily mean separating from their money. (Fact is, they have no money. It is our money.) Currently, there is too much meddling from Washington, D.C. We have allowed ourselves to be controlled by people we never meet because we have allowed them to tax us and then give us our money back through federal education dollars. We have often allowed the mores and values of a minority to dictate the standards of our own communities. These practices have driven millions of children into private schools and into homeschooling because parents refuse to allow their children to be exposed to values foisted upon them by Washington through public schools.
By engaging in real reform, what we provide for our students, parents, educators, and communities is a product that produces for us exactly what we desire and not what just “educators” tell us we need. We certainly cannot do any worse. It is time for our own “Extreme Education Makeover”!