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Education that Works 1

It is possible to successfully teach children.

By Will Offensicht  |  February 21, 2012

As totally unsolveable as many of our major problems appear to be, such as the self-actuating welfare cycle and the war on drugs, there are actually simple albeit unpalatable solutions.  If you think about it, this has to be so: the opium poppy and coca plant have been around forever, and as none other than Jesus Christ observed, "The poor ye have with you always."  Yet humankind has not extincted itself in either a drug-induced fog or via poverty-induced starvation.

The same is true for education.  Reading, writing and 'rithmetic have been around for thousands of years and there's never been any serious risk of them ceasing to exist.

It follows, therefore, that solutions for our modern problems may be found in the history of times gone by, when similar problems existed and were overcome.

The Dead Hand of Big Government

Our present "ed biz" charges the taxpayers for essentially all education, either by directly paying the cost as in K-12 or by making lavish student loans which tend to leave jobless students underwater with essentially no way to pay.  In any case, the taxpayers get stuck.

The root problem with the modern American educational system comes from exactly the same cause as the dreadful problems with our modern health care systems - the users who need and receive the service mostly don't pay for it with their own money, so nobody has any direct financial incentive to make the system work on the ground.  Insofar as some students do pay, they shell out before the results of the service are apparent; if it was a total waste of money, too bad, they're stuck with the bill anyway.

Do colleges care whether their students can find paying work with those newly-minted degrees?  No, at least not directly; they can always find one or two students who get good jobs whom they can advertise on their web sites, but all students pay in advance.  Colleges also know that the Feds will lend whatever it takes to get through and price their services accordingly, as even Vice President Joe Biden tacitly admitted.

Although many students relish the "party school" atmosphere of college, some students are smart enough to know that what they learn makes a long-term difference in how much money they'll make.  Those students attend classes faithfully and work hard.  Unfortunately, they aren't all that well equipped to know what skills will be needed in the job market; even the traditional advice to "be a doctor or lawyer" isn't an automatic path to riches anymore.

Businesses, on the other hand, have a very good idea what skills are useful to them.  Any executive knows what sort of people they're hiring now, what they'll be looking for over the next couple of years, and which job slots are most difficult to fill.

It would be perfectly logical for businesses to subsidize their employees' education, so as to fill new, higher positions with people they already know and trust. The trouble is that, since employees can leave at any time, such investments tend not to pan out: the newly-minted MBA may readily find greener pastures elsewhere with a firm which pays more because it doesn't invest in training.

As with health care, the feds don't really care whether the students learn anything that leads to employment.  Agencies simply want to shovel out money and ask for budget increases.  That's how total student debt got to the trillion-dollar level, even while the employability of college graduates has plummeted.

As proof, when a huge ruckus blew up about for-profit colleges taking money students had borrowed and leaving them unemployable, the feds proposed that for-profit schools be rated based on what percentage of their students were able to pay back the loans.  There was no thought of requiring "nonprofit" colleges to report their success rate despite there being a total lack of evidence that it's any better.

As far as we know, we're the only ones to advocate rating schools by how much income tax their graduates pay adjusted downward for how much their graduates cost the welfare and prison systems.  If the purpose of education is to generate economic success and revenues to the government paying for most of it, what more logical means of evaluation could there be?  But, of course, "government" is not a monolith with "government" interests; a "government" is actually hordes of individual government employees each with their own vested interests, most of which are directly opposed to the benefit of the nation as a whole.

The Little Engine That Could

Before discussing cures, it's appropriate to point out that one part of the American educational system works very well indeed.  As regular Scragged readers should expect, that's the market-driven part where parents choose to pay schools their own money, unsubsidized and with no federal loans, to educate their own children.

New York City has a number of fantastically expensive kindergartens which are rated by how many students get into the fantastically-expensive grade and high schools, which in turn are rated by their ability to get graduates directly into the Ivy League.  Effective private schools have existed since the founding of the Republic and have always been available to anyone with sufficient scratch.

A top-tier private school is every bit as businesslike as any successful for-profit corporation, and despite the academic veneer, just as cutthroat.  Any teacher or other school employee who doesn't pull his or her weight in meeting school objectives is summarily fired.  The word gets around fast if a school seems to slip just a bit in sending their graduates to the "right" schools.  Headmasters monitor their success rate as closely as diabetics monitor blood sugar - declining levels mean death.

Parents - The First Teachers

Parent-funded education goes back to the dawn of time and far predates any public system.  There simply was no "mass education" until very recently in human history, for good reason - "education" had no practical survival value for most people.

Before the Industrial Revolution made fossil-based energy available, agriculture was based on human or animal muscle with minor assists from windmills and waterwheels for pumping water or grinding grain.  Muscle-powered agriculture is so unproductive that between 80% and 90% of the population has to farm full time in order to feed everyone.  It didn't matter what might or might not be going on in peasants' heads; all that mattered was that they pulled a plow or plucked crops.  This requires training and experience but no formal education whatsoever.

The traditional "tithe" was based on the fact that if the landowner took more than 10% of the crop, the farmer's family starved and there wouldn't be a crop next year.  Every landowner knew that dead farmers pay no taxes and acted accordingly.  Modern politicians have forgotten that dead businesses pay no taxes, alas, which is why their policies are killing so many jobs without an end in sight.

It took a while for the Industrial Revolution to reduce the number of farmers, but the eventual effects were profound.  There were 27.5 acres per American farm worker in 1890 - and 740 acres each in 1990.  The average farmer of today can now handle 30 times as much farmland as his great-grandfather could, freeing up 29 people to do something else.

In 1935, there were very few tractors in America; today, farming is almost entirely mechanized.  Before that, farmers fed a fraction of the population we have now using muscle-powered farming based on horse-and-buggy technology.

In such environments, parents put kids to work as early as possible.  At Plimouth Plantation, a historical reconstruction of the Pilgrim settlement, you'll see kid-sized butter churns.  A 3 or 4 year old could churn a cup of milk into butter instead of playing.  The very young could weed, slightly older kids could plant and harvest, and so on up.

Kids knew that their labor made a difference in whether they personally ate or not.  A 15-year-old farm kid had learned everything needed to run a farm without knowing how to read, though the Pilgrims felt that reading was needed for religious reasons.  It was essential to get started early - muscle-based farming is so much work that most people wore out and died in their mid-thirties or early 40's.

The Plutocracy and the Peasants

Having any "formal education" at all instantly demonstrated that you were a member of the elite.  When most people couldn't even read, reading and speaking a foreign language such as Greek or Latin separated you from hoi polloi.  When Roman soldiers rescued the Apostle Paul from a religious riot, his speaking Greek showed that he was a man or influence who should be protected and cared for (Acts 21:37).

There were skilled trades - blacksmiths, weavers, goldsmiths, and such - but little literacy was needed and most skills could be learned from parents.

Upper-crust parents were willing to pay for their children's upper-crust education because children were their only retirement plan.  The more successful a child became, the better care their aged parents would get, and passing on the ability to move in elite circles helped ensure that their descendants stayed elite.  Wealthy parents move heaven and earth to make sure their kids get an Ivy League degree even if their actual intelligence would barely qualify the kid for community college.

No other private entity such as an employer was willing to make a major investment in employee education because employees could walk out the door, or die at any time.  Even the army and navy taught the vast majority of soldiers and sailors the bare minimum needed to do their job; they'd probably die of disease soon anyway.

During the Middle Ages, a solution to the problem of paying for non-elite education was discovered - indentured apprenticeship.  A promising young lad would be legally bound to a skilled craftsman.  In return for a lot of underpaid work, the master was committed to teach the apprentice sufficient skills to enter the profession in due time.

Depending on the profession, a legally-binding apprenticeship term would last between seven and ten years with the master committed to feeding, clothing, housing, and teaching and the apprentice legally bound to obey in all things.

This didn't always work.  Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed to his brother to learn the printing trade.  He got tired of his brother's overbearing ways, ran away, and started his own printing shop in another town.

The newspapers of the day carried the occasional "lost, stolen, or strayed" advertisement seeking the return of a wandering apprentice.  The law was on the side of the master, but inter-colony returns of escaped apprentices were fairly rare.

So, one historical solution to the problem of paying for education that's known to work would be to revive the system of apprenticeship, or its cousin, indentured servitude, which would require appropriate legal enforcement based on contract law.

A Modern Apprentice System

As it happens, we have a fully functional modern indenture system today: the U.S. Army and its ROTC program.

Today's US Army offers suitable recruits a free college education in return for a specified number of years of Army service.  The Army has every incentive to make sure that the training is relevant to the job because the Army is paying; indeed, the Army generally provides ROTC instructors for at least the military-specific courses and specifies their content.  The better the training, the more value the employer receives from the employee's improved services.

However, the ROTC cadet is no mere slave: he obtains a fully accredited college degree and, upon successful completion, an officer's commission.  True, the cadet is obligated to serve some years in the military at a specified rate of pay, but when that's finished he can embark upon a private-sector career using his college degree and military leadership experience.  Or, if he finds that Army life suits him, he can stay on as career military.

Either way, both the Army and the individual ROTC cadets benefit from the arrangement, even though it might seem on its face to limit the freedom of the individual and be expensive to the Army.

Some companies have tried to set up arrangements on the same principle: offer training in return for a contract requiring the trainee to work for a specified number of years, or alternatively, to pay back a pro-rated part of the cost depending on how long employment continues.  These arrangements aren't so common because, unlike in the Army, it's not easy for a company to force an unhappy employee to continue to do useful work, much less squeezing thousands of dollars out of someone who's unemployed.  The Army can throw AWOLs or disobedient soldiers in prison, which concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Investing in the Future

There's another large, rich group which might have an interest in successful student outcomes: the universities themselves.  While most colleges care more about the next tuition check than the next generation, there are some colleges which provide below-cost education and then engage in strenuous efforts to persuade graduates to make tax-free contributions to the alumni fund.  "Non-profit" universities have accumulated billions of dollars worth of such contributions.  MIT, Harvard, and the other Ivies are so enormously wealthy, thanks to massive donations from successful graduates over the centuries, that they could offer free tuition to all qualified students if they chose to.

Giving education away free would make it easier for the alumni fund to play on guilt and exact even more tax-free contributions, but students probably wouldn't study as hard if they weren't paying something.

Could a wealthy foundation offer free college in return for, say, 20% of lifetime gross earnings?  Would such a contract stand up in court?  The foundation board would be far better placed than the student to choose a profitable course of study; it's hard to envision the Gates Foundation funding degrees in Feminist Theory but doctorates in computer engineering science would be right up their alley.

There's nothing wrong with the privately-funded part of our educational system because the people who pay the bills demand demonstrable results.  Results such as what happens after graduation are easy to measure, despite educrats' protests.  The difficulty is that nobody cares enough about whether the public system is effective or not to do anything about it.

The next article in this series explores yet another way to handle our educational problem.