Essays on Rebuilding America: Education Reform

Columnist : Jonathan Williams

by Col. Frank Ryan, USMC Ret.

What separates a great nation from one in decline is the quality of the education that its citizens receive. Our very freedoms, our success, and our wealth are influenced by our students, the education they receive, and the ability to determine for ourselves our future careers.

Unfortunately, with the mass public education system of the past 50 years, all too often the minimum standard has become the benchmark of success, rather than the cutoff for failure. No Child Left Behind is hardly a piece of legislation that a politician could vote against. Just the name of the Act itself is intended to invoke sympathy. Sympathy and testing do not solve the problem. Education directed from Washington, DC or any state Capital does not work.

Parental involvement is the key to the success of any education program. When a child knows that his or her parents are part of their lives, the value of the education they receive increases substantially. Yet, in so many cases, parental involvement is difficult to gauge, monitor and enforce.

The longer term solution to getting more parents involved is to back off parents. That seems contradictory but, in reality, most parents today are at their limits due to very high costs, taxes, and a government that is already intruding into every aspect of their lives. The answer is not a child care tax credit but to back off on government spending so that taxes can be cut so that one parent can support his/her family comfortably.

Another crucial aspect of rebuilding America’s education system is to reward education. It makes no sense to me that academic scholarships are few and far between. Making a student with an A average and great test scores qualify for a scholarship mainly due to parental income is silly. Financial need is but one aspect of a scholarship. Performance is the most important aspect. Making all students winners may seem like you we are being kind, but once the student gets into the work force, it is about performance, experience, critical thinking, and abilities. In an education system in which you cannot fail, it also means that you cannot succeed.

We must encourage superior performance at every level of school from elementary to high school to college. Programs that cater to gifted and remediation tend to focus on extremes of the student body such that many capable students are able to just get by in school with very little effort, commotion, and attention. We need to greatly expand the ability of the school to tailor the education to the student. That is best done locally and with the parent’s involvement.

As you tailor a program to each student, the traditional paradigm of education erodes. As an example, for many students, the fourth year of high school is of limited value. Many are working on college credits, advanced placement, and the like. If you are looking for college credits, go to college!  My daughter had almost 18 credits of advanced placement by the time she went to college. If the program is that good, then perhaps she would have been better off going to college in her senior year of high school. I realize the social value of the fourth year of high school but should that not be a choice rather than a requirement?

Our teachers deserve great respect. They deserve to be paid fairly. They are a great national asset. Teachers, however, like doctors and CPA’s, need to police their own. If a teacher is substandard, protecting that teacher is done at the expense of the student, teachers, and society. The small percentage of unqualified teachers is causing society to paint all teachers with that same broad brush. Police your own ranks, and the benefits will accrue for all. Accountability for your actions will reap huge rewards.

Giving local autonomy, greater parental involvement, rewarding students for performance, and insisting upon rewarding quality teachers while ridding ourselves of those not qualified, our children will truly succeed. We will not have to worry about them being left behind, because they will be leading us.

Frank Ryan is a member of the Lincoln Institute Board of Directors and lectures for the AICPA and BLI on management related topics. He can be reached at [email protected].