Mis-spent money

Our local newspaper had an article today lamenting the state of California’s education system. “Only 35 percent of California’s adults have college degrees in an economy that demands at least 41 percent have advanced schooling,” was the language that came from a report the journalist used for the article. Money thrown at schools, however, is implicitly targeted as one particular savior in this crisis. “The education skills gap could be cut in half, report authors assert, if the state makes modest improvements in college attendance, community college transfers and college graduation rates.”

But money is not the answer. Other recent publications have noted how California is currently 47th in per-pupil spending compared to the other states in the Union. What’s interesting about this statistic, in light of arguments put forth by Teacher’s Unions, is that the amount of per-pupil spending is almost six times that of California in the 1960s: the hey day of California’s public school system, a time when every other state in the Union marveled at the greatness of California’s schools. “In 1960, California ranked eighth in the nation in the share of adults 25 to 37 with a bachelor’s degree, but by 2006, it had fallen to 23rd place, according to the report.”

We moved to California four years ago, and the greatest difference I’ve seen in the education offered students here compared to Massachusetts (ranked 8th educationally through the metrics of high school and college graduation rates, and elementary and high-school test scores) is the expectation of academic excellence you find in some Massachusetts communities compared to the tolerance of academic mediocrity in California.

This is not meant to be a condemnation of California, or a comparison and contrasting of California and Massachusetts. Also, my sample sets for these observations are very limited, making it loose anecdotal evidence at best. Makes for titillating stories, but nothing of academic note.

My take away from this is that the problem with today’s education systems – not just California’s – is the parents.

Understood is that there are many factors that have driven our society from the what existed in the 60s to what exists today. Our society has made many great strides. One regression, or transgression, however, is the removal of personal responsibility from the equation of societal norms.

There is always a reason why someone is not good at something. There is always a diagnosis, or an outside influence, or a natural disaster, or something, anything that becomes a reason, an excuse for not performing. And performing can relate to anything: school, work, the law.

Our governments – local and national – have been complicit in this shedding of personal responsibility. Legislature has done as much to protect the innocent as it has to protect the foolish and irresponsible. Do we really need to print a warning on the bottom of a coffee cup that the contents inside might be hot?

And this mindset is bleeding down into the zeitgeist of how we raise out children. Don’t make things too competitive! Make sure everyone gets a trophy! Everyone’s a winner!

Guess what. Not everyone is a winner. In most of life there is only one winner of an event. Just ask the guy who Michael Phelps beat by .01 seconds at the Olympics. Do you think he thinks that was fair? Who is he blaming? Michael? The timers? His middle school teachers? If he’s a true champion, no one.

We need to teach our children the tools to cope with disappointment and adversity, and it’s not our school system that needs to do this; it’s us: their parents.

Think about it. When children from other school systems in the developed world, and even some in developing nations, put our children to shame in subjects like mathematics and science, and that there are high school graduates in the country who cannot read the menu in a fast-food restaurant, is it the school system that’s failing? When our school system, with these marginal students in comparison to other nations of the world, spends six-times the amount of money per-pupil than do countries like Korea, is more money thrown at the problem going to solve anything?

What needs to happen is changes in the homes of these students. Education starts at home. Interest in education starts at home. Support of education starts at home.

If we are going to spend money it needs to be on ways to incentivize the parents of these under-performing children in a way that the parents see that caring about the education of their children is paramount.

What’s the most effective method of lifting one’s self out of poverty? Education.

The performance of the children is a symptom of the bigger problem. If the parents of under-performing children don’t care about education, why will the children?

If we really care about the children in this equation, it’s time we start influencing their parents. It’s time we all take more responsibility.


RJ Lavallee is the author of IMHO (In My Humble Opinion): a guide to the benefits and dangers of today’s communication tools on sale at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and lulu.com.

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