Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Education Modernization Proposal

Here is my idea for a comprehensive program for education reform that would save money for our schools and help stimulate our economy in the long-term. This proposal would be easy to pay for, reinvest in itself, and open up real opportunities equally to all Americans.

This program would be easy to pay for. It would be funded by a small tax on hedge fund trading and by closing tax loopholes. The cost of tuition, course materials for required classes, and books for all public universities, community colleges, and trade schools would be covered by the this tax. Students would still have to apply and make the cut to get in but they would not have to worry about costs not associated with cost of living. Assistance programs like the Pell Grant program and the money used to fund student loans currently by the government would be pooled into a special grant program to help pay for the basic cost of living (ie housing, food, utilities all basic) for students proportional to what they can pay and where they are going to school. To prevent waste all universities would be required to conduct a yearly report into waste and fraud that would have to be completed three months before the new budget is due. As part of the program all university applications for public university can only consider coursework and required tests in the application process in a blind process. All personal data, including what school the applicant graduated from, would be removed and not made available to those who handle the applications process.

Cost for covering tuition, books, and course materials is estimated to be around 50 to 100 billion dollars yearly so the tax wouldn't have to be that big and the actual cost isn't much. It would also be a huge boon to the economy and society as a whole for multiple reasons. First, new college graduates would be coming out of school debt-free. This allows for any money they make after graduation to immediately go into helping new production and growth as opposed to sinking into paying off old debts. Second, a more educated workforce is a highly productive one. At the article previously mentioned a Congressional study into the GI Bill done in 1988 determined that for every dollar the Bill spent on education and other benefits for the World War II generation of recipients $6.90 were put back into the economy. That's some pretty serious bang for the buck. Now you would have a work force who would be well educated, able to compete for the jobs of the future thanks to college educations or specialized training in useful trades, and better able to engage in the political process. Third, by making college as cheap as possible and limiting it only by ability we ensure that the best and brightest can get an education and improve themselves regardless of their socioeconomic background.

For such a system to work you would need to seriously re-assess educational standards and who is handling the textbook industry. Most importantly you would need a set golden mean for all of it to work and students gain access to the best opportunity available.

Educational standards would not be based on standardized testing. Standardized tests have done little to improve education in this country and No Child Left Behind, which has enshrined those as the metric to use for school success or failure, has gutted schools across the country. They also cost money that schools can better spend on other things. Instead standards for education would be based on a national minimum curriculum standard. This would require that certain types of classes be taught for a set amount of time similar to admissions requirements for universities. Graduation would be tied in high schools to meeting this standard with two tracks available: one for trade schools and one for higher education. These would also be the baseline for standards for public universities which would be required to meet the minimum standard but could add whatever in particular they like to it for example specific requirements to be admitted to specialized degree programs or taking a particular entrance exam. The specific content of the courses would be determined by the local school boards and universities would still be free to require specific classes and course content. This standard would be set by a panel consisting of representatives from every public university system in the country to ensure that it is educators, not politicians, who are setting the bar and putting the experts in charge.

This would relieve several burdens from the teachers. They would now be required to teach to the course, not to the test. This allows for a more in-depth education into the subject matter instead of a cursory examination and encourages student achievement. Time spent prepping for or taking standardized tests would now be usable as class time for instruction. With all schools required to meet a basic standard teachers' credentials would also be more portable. With every school needing to teach a basic curriculum that is universal in terms of general content. This would also be a major boon for students in terms of their options for university or trade schools. Any student anywhere in the country, provided they are accepted to the particular university, could apply to any public university in the country.

For textbooks I would put in a very simple reform: public universities and primary schools can only purchase textbooks printed by university presses and the contracts for said books must be awarded by open bidding sessions instead of closed negotiations. The modern textbook industry and what are considered to be textbooks are a joke and hideously expensive. They are loaded with unnecessary content that courses often gloss over and are not worth the massive price tags attached.

By requiring they be produced by universities alone this puts the academics instead of big textbook publishing houses in charge of the content and production reducing editorial control and allowing better material to be produced. Competition in terms of content and cost would still be very firmly in place with multiple university presses in operation around the world providing sources of textbooks. The money would also directly benefit education instead of being funneled into publishing houses allowing the universities that produce the best educational materials to have more money to invest into their facilities and courses. This also does not limit the course materials schools would have access to. Professors and departments would still be free to add other sources outside of textbooks to the curriculum. There is also nothing stopping particular schools and departments from asking for multiple textbooks per subject if there are concerns of bias in the materials available. The cost savings for the school system would also be considerable. By increasing the size of the field and making the contracts competitive schools would be spending much less money on textbooks and able to use those savings in a fashion that is more beneficial to the school.

In closing I believe that if this whole program is implemented it would greatly improve our economy, our educational system, and our society as a whole with no real downsides. Previous comprehensive investments in education such as those provided by the GI Bill and during the 1950s had tangible benefits to our economy and society. By ensuring that ability and merit are the only factors that determine if you go on to higher education the best in our society will be able to truly fulfill their potential and rise to the top.