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Talking is easy, teaching is not

The“education president”? — not very likely

President Obama wants to be known as the “education president” and proposes spending billions of additional (borrowed) dollars for education. Raising educational competence is an admirable goal, and might even be achievable, if the president and his advisors actually understood the nature of the education problem. Spending public money is an easy “solution” that requires no delving into the fundamental problem; money is not the problem, so it can’t be the solution. 

Much of the money currently spent for education does not produce the intended results. Revising the Georgia HOPE scholarship to make it more academically relevant is recognition that the program has not been meeting its goals (nearly half of the students lose HOPE after their freshman year); the federal Education Department bureaucracy wastes billions of dollars writing incoherent plans and dispensing tax dollars to political favorites; and the turmoil in Wisconsin shows that part of the money spent for teachers is actually siphoned off by teachers unions.

The key to better educated citizens is increasing student motivation to take advantage of their learning opportunities. Far too many of our students have little appreciation of—or desire for—education.  Student motivation must come from family and society, not federal bureaucrats. Without parental guidance and community standards, many students will take the easiest—least rewarding— academic path (or drop out altogether).

Public schools reflect the attitude (not the innate ability) of the students they serve. The more motivated the students, the higher the school’s achievements. Closely correlated to attitude is behavior. Almost without exception, badly performing schools also have extensive behavior problems. Blaming schools for failure is—in most cases—illogical and counterproductive. Probably there are some individual schools where failure is so ingrained that they could never be made functional. Other than those few abject cases, closing schools overlooks the reality that, wherever the student goes, his attitude goes with him.

Federal money spent for college education programs is also highly problematic. Student loans are—at best—a mixed blessing. Graduates are often left with debts (average of $20,000 in 2009) that dwarf their ability to repay. Those who leave without a degree are in a worse condition because they lack the earning opportunities that a degree often provides.

It is not surprising that default rates on student loans are quite high. Interestingly, the more academically rigorous colleges have the lowest default rates: suggesting that once again attitude is a factor. For public colleges in Georgia, defaults rates range from a high of 75 percent, to a “low” of 20 percent.

Federal grants are a genuine investment in education, but unfortunately the program’s accomplishments are minimal. Pell grants are given for “need,” not scholarship. As a consequence, the academic success of its recipients is abysmal. Graduation rates range from 30 to 57 percent. Here again, motivation is a determining factor: the more demanding schools graduate the highest percentage of grant recipients. Regrettably, a large majority of grant students never graduate. Pell grants are an expensive program with very little return on the tax dollar investment.

An interesting irony is that grants are entirely paid for by the government, and recipients —graduated or not—owe nothing in return. On the other hand, students that rely on loans—that cost government much less—are expected to repay the loans, plus interests, whether they graduate or not.

People should be able to pursue as much college education as they desire—and can pay for. Attending college, even for a limited time, will bring personal and economic benefits. However, the end-goal of attending college is a degree: a certification of accomplishment that promises to open doors to success. The value of college degrees varies significantly: some provide a path to well-paying jobs; others lead to disappointingly meager opportunities. Many students unwittingly diminish the value of their diploma by avoiding the more demanding courses.

As the president has noted, our country is short of competent technological and scientific graduates. If we are to continue government funding for college education, the tax dollars should reward scholarship that provides the knowledge and skills vital to our nation.

More money will not improve our public K-12 education, and more money for questionable college grant and loan programs won’t improve higher education.

Before more public money goes to education, we need to ensure that it results in effective education, not feel-good programs or presidential reputations. 

We need well educated people capable of paying China for the money we borrowed for education