I was pleased to see a recent story that came across the Reuters wire regarding the return of some manufacturing jobs to the U.S. mainland. This is, of course, good news.
It remains to be seen if we can build on this trend and re-establish the American workforce as one of the best, most competitive and productive in the world.
At some point during my life, someone shared the secret to business success with me. I will share this with everyone now, but please remember that you heard it from me first.
How do we ensure that our labor force is the most competitive in the world? There are really only two ways to accomplish this.
- Build things better (cheaper/faster) than everyone else
- Build better things than everyone else
Given those two choices, you have to go with the second one, build better things! Better is unlimited, better is not finite and better allows for future improvement. On the other hand, cheaper/faster has a limit and once that limit is achieved, you are looking toward margin reduction as your only alternative for improvement.
Strive for cheaper/faster, but not at the expense of quality in the thing you are building.
So, how do we get better?
“Wars are won in the temples years before they are fought”
The quote above is attributed to Sun Tzu and is said to be from his seminal work, The Art of War. Most people assume the lesson is related to careful planning prior to an engagement. I believe the lesson is a bit deeper, extending into the development of values and knowledge a culture instills in its youngest members. Our children will become what we teach them to become.
We do live in a time when fiscal constraint seems to be pervasive and touch almost everything we do. Public education in the U.S. has become a politicized discussion. This only ensures that people are not thinking and talking about it with their brains, but rather allowing the discussion to be diverted into anyone of many emotional issues that have little to do with basic education.
This is unfortunate. This is precisely the time for us to have a rational discussion, guided by facts and ideas that would hopefully render up a better way of doing things; a way to teach competitiveness, a passion for excellence and appreciation and understanding that hard work as something to be embraced rather than avoided.
What’s wrong with how we do it now?
Our current U.S. educational system is designed to deliver college-ready graduates after 12 years of study. Sure, we have some special schools that offer accelerated arts, linguistics, math/science, athletics and other curricula. But, overall most kids graduating from 12th grade are most likely either going to work or going to college. The two destinations are mainly served by the same course work, same schools and same teaching faculties during the 12-year education process.
Our college-bound students are typically headed to larger, public universities offering a full liberal arts curriculum. Sure, some are declared pre-med, pre-law, education etc, but most people don’t have a clue what they want to be and end up graduating with whatever degree they can get for the least effort.
The other high school graduates are likely not qualified to really do anything at all. They may be lucky enough to land a job that features paid training, but most likely they will join the military, apprentice in a trade or go to a trade school to pick up some sort of marketable certifiable skill.
Frequently, people from both groups will realize, later in life, their education was really not designed to help them earn a living. They will feel the need to go back to school to learn something more marketable in a changing world. These people will likely choose some kind of non-traditional route, such as an online-only university or perhaps a more practical two-year community college.
We’re not getting our money’s worth out of our education system
Enrollment in K-12 grade schools has remained pretty much flat over the past 15 years. The U.S. Department of Education shows 1999 school enrollments to total around 46 million students in the U.S. For the 2012 school year, enrollments are estimated at 49.5 million.
Despite a fairly tame growth rate in enrollment, education spending has taken a very different trajectory. In the year 1999, K-12 spending, combined state and local, came to $490 billion. In 2012, the total is expected to top $891 billion. That is an increase of 81%.
On the college level, the story tends to differ state by state and institution. In my home state of Missouri, the flagship campus of the University of Missouri is experiencing record enrollment levels, effectively a 20% increase over four years.
Despite the rather rapid growth rate in enrollment, the funding levels supplied by the state have dropped each year for the past three years. In the year 2008/2009, the state appropriation was $438 million and in 2011/2012 the appropriation was $383 million. A decrease of 13.5%
Neither of these trends is sustainable and neither is indicative of a system that is serving us very well.
I do think that the post high school education process will be more likely to fix itself through market pressures as more alternatives make themselves available. College freshman these days are more focused on getting the paper, getting hired and getting to work. They will be looking for educational opportunities that get them earning a quickly as possible and also minimizing the debt accrued during that process.
But, what can we do about K-12 education?
We need to change
We need to change, and we need to change at the most basic level. We need to rethink some of the assumptions we’ve always considered somewhat sacrosanct. We have prided ourselves on the egalitarian notion that anyone can do anything and become anything they want to be through hard work.
This notion has carried over into a sense of entitlement. If I want to be a baseball player, I should be allowed on the team. If I think I can sing, I should be allowed to participate in the school operetta. If you don’t believe this, just try watching the first few episodes of a given season of American Idol.
Aptitude has only a cursory role in our decision-making about education and career options made available to us. We try to teach our kids success by not allowing them to fail at anything. Consider some of these trends:
- Athletic teams with no cut days – everyone who shows up is on the team
- No chair challenges in band or orchestra – each student playing is rotated through the first, second etc. chairs
- No auditions for performing arts, just show up and sing or play
- Lowering standards associated with grammar, math and science
There is a real value in losing and learning to lose with grace. Lessons are taught from loss, usually lessons that can’t be taught from any other experience. Sooner or later, all of us experience personal failure. We need to learn how to turn that into a positive experience. But our schools won’t allow this to happen.
Our schools are set up like buffet lines in a cafeteria. We ease ourselves through, picking a bit of this and a little of that and at the end we have a general studies high school diploma. We are ill equipped to earn a living and likely in need of some remedial academic training if we go the college route.
A possible model for us to emulate
When I studied education, one of the more interesting courses I took dealt with how other countries handle education of their young. We looked at most of the European countries and few others around the world.
In Germany children are evaluated much earlier in their educational experience. Aptitude is measured in multiple areas. This, along with personal desire and actual performance figures into the education plan for each child. Following the fourth year or so, children are channeled into programs that are aimed at technical or trade schools or college prep study. The course content for each channel is decidedly different.
In the years we would consider early secondary school years, some students are attending a Hauptschule which delivers an academic course load, but one that is not as demanding as those delivered to college-bound students who attend Realschule or Gymnasium. Realschule offers continuing education of a more technical nature.
At the end of the process people are well educated and able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. In other words, when you come out of the system, you know how to do something.
One of the aspects of this system that I most admire is the instilling of a sense of worth in all work performed well. It doesn’t matter if you fix hearts or carburetors, you and your work are valued.
I’m not talking about a wholesale replacement of our existing system, but I am saying we need to be realistic about matching skill and aptitude along with desire when we educate our kids.
All in all, I see this system as something that offers a far better ROI for the tax payer because it creates a business ready work force. A workforce with a well trained, highly skilled membership that is ready to compete with anyone on the planet.