Education problems don’t need more money, just smart answers to tough questions

For far too many years, we’ve tried to address the problem of failing educational achievement in America essentially by ignoring it — meaning “throwing money at it and hoping it’ll go away.” Yet those problems persist. There’s a gross disconnect here that no one’s talking about and no one really wants to address.

The challenges with U.S. public education hit home for me as I watched my own niece struggling in school, in a rural county of South Carolina that has one of the state’s lowest-performing school systems. The usual culprits were to blame: ridiculously large class sizes and frequent learning disruption by behaviorally challenged students that took away valuable learning time. The schools, despite having adequate funding, were nonetheless poorly managed and underresourced. It got to the point where my sister and I were desperate to find a better option for my niece.

We decided to take matters into our own hands. Fortunately, our family had the resources to enroll my niece in educational enrichment programs, to take time with her to make sure she completed her assignments, to find appropriate private tutors — and ultimately to move her into a better school. She is now thriving and performing above her grade level in all her subjects. My niece is a success story, but those left behind in the failing schools are sadly condemned to an uncertain fate.

So let’s get down to brass tacks. What exactly should we expect of our educational system? What should we not expect? That is difficult to answer effectively because most public schools cannot control the quality of students who attend. They have to take whoever shows up and deal with it the best they can. So, increasingly, schools have become extensions of the welfare state. They are expected to feed students who come from impoverished homes. They have to deal with the socio-economic problems that students bring with them — and often find themselves in the position of being behavioral counselors, mental health professionals and baby sitters. A smaller and smaller portion of each school day is focused on learning.

What about the quality of education itself? Should schools be primarily focusing on “liberal arts” education or the hard sciences? We live in a country in which less than half the engineers and scientists were educated in America, and even fewer of those who were born in America are products of the public education system. Companies like Apple and Microsoft are begging the government to expand the H-1B visa program and similar measures to permit more foreign-trained engineers and scientists to enter the country and stay after they have completed college here.

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