GoBigEd

Thursday, August 04, 2005


ANNOUNCING AN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT BOON: BECOMING THE ‘COOL SCHOOL’ STATE

Nebraska doesn’t have mountains, seashores, lakes, pro sports, fabulous arts, or even a reliably fantastic football team any more. We have high taxes because we have so many miles of roads and bridges to maintain and so few people to pay for it. And our taxes are high for a few other reasons – like keeping our public schools going.

Of course we want to attract great new people to come to Nebraska to live, and new industries and jobs. But it isn’t easy. Frankly, even though we’re the best place in the country to raise a family, bar none, we’re not real hotly competitive in the economic development department.

So I got to thinking: what better draw could we have for economic development here, than to be able to claim that we have the best schools in the country?

We don’t have a Harvard here, nor a Silicon Valley, and not a lot of millionaires. But we have what it takes: favorable demographics compared to the rest of the country, a solid work ethic among most educators, and most of all, a family-based culture that values education as a top priority. Attitude matters tons more than money when it comes to setting the stage for school success.

I believe Nebraska needs to reshape our educational system in the next few years, bigtime, to keep up with the Joneses – other states – and, hopefully, surpass them. If we don’t, we die. Or at least lose even more ground.

And I hope that the new Go Big Ed, with a statewide push for more grassroots networking and influence on public policy, can help make our schools No. 1.

We have a long way to go. The big school-consolidation pushes going on right now – the OPS takeover and the wiping out of Class 1 country schools – are diametrically opposed to what we should be doing to reverse the decline in student achievement among low-income and rural youth.

A few years ago, Nebraska got an “F” from the Thomas Fordham Foundation for the public policies we have in place regarding teacher quality. Ouch!

There were some disturbing “brain drain” statistics that came out last spring, that people new to Nebraska tended to be more illiterate than highly educated, and the people we lose to other states are our “value-added” contributions – born and raised here, like corn, and then exported to other states to live and work, so that those other states get the value of their citizenship that we actually created.

I was shocked to see another statistic like that the other day: Nebraska lost 9.7 people per 1,000 residents from 1995 to 2000, while our neighbor Colorado gained 43.8 (annual report,
www.goldwaterinstitute.org).

It makes you wonder how much the quality of the schools has to do with a huge gap like that; mountains aren’t everything, you know. Why do so many more people think Colorado is the place to be, and dwindling numbers think that about Nebraska? I know Colorado has a favorable tax climate. But do they also have better schools? It looks so.

Then I winced to read that Iowa has started allowing parents the option to send their children to 10 charter schools as of this fall. That sounds like Iowa is more on the move with educational innovation than we are. So now our only neighboring state that does not allow charter schools is South Dakota. How many new businesses do we lose to South Dakota these days? Not many. How about Iowa, and other states more on the cutting edge of what’s going on in education? Lots. Nebraska is one of only nine states without enabling legislation for charter schools. That can’t be good for attracting new people here.

It’s kind of embarrassing that Nebraska doesn’t have a relatively objective outside assessment system for our educational quality, the way other states do, but instead has allowed our educators to assess themselves, and eureka! They’ve “found” that they’re doing fantastic! It’s totally meaningless, and damaging our national image.

It’s also pretty disturbing to note that we have a Social Security-type mess looming on the horizon in our teacher retirement system that needed addressing yesterday, and that sloth is going to haunt us.

Then the big push at the state level is for more government preschool and all-day kindergarten for everybody – the exact opposite move of what we should be doing, based on the no-good record of Head Start. Subsidized, universal preschools for all children will nuke private and faith-based preschools, which are far, far better than publically-provided ones, and keep parents and the private sector in charge of the sandbox set.

Half-day kindergarten using the right methods is far, far better for young children than all day in the grips of the public-school environment. Trust me on this, as the mother of four who is spending $2,000 to send our youngest to a private half-day kindergarten this fall instead of using the “free” all-day k in our local public school. I know from experience and from the research that all-day k a dumb move for all but economically deprived children.

And then we have the War of the Laptops, as Nebraska schools fall all over themselves to “provide” more and more of them for students and teachers, just showing off. Go Big Ed reported recently that Nebraska pays close to the top in the country for educational technology – when there’s not a shred of evidence anywhere that learning on a computer is better than the traditional and far cheaper tools of teacher, books, pencils and paper.

Why does Nebraska keep doing all the things the research shows SHOULDN’T be done, for educational quality? And why don’t we do the things that have been shown, in other states, to WORK?

In the past, I’ve been embarrassed to see astoundingly high numbers of Nebraska schoolchildren labeled as “learning disabled.” What’s up with that? Is it something in Nebraska’s water that gives kids problems? Of course not. Obviously, we’re teaching reading wrong. That’s a real economic development blooper. Surely, that can be reduced, bigtime, as well it should.

Now, our ACT and SAT scores look pretty good compared to the rest of the nation. But we “cook the books” because a relatively small percentages of our high-school students are taking them. People realize this, so it’s no big deal that your state’s top 5% “ranks” higher than your neighbor state’s 55%. I like Colorado’s mandate that everybody takes the college admissions tests whether they think they’re college-bound or not. I like the tremendous boost in scores that has resulted from that smart public policy.

We’ve got to do something for gifted and talented kids instead of the pervasive Political Correctness that seeks to level their achievement to the norm instead of letting them fly, intellectually, because it would hurt the other kids’ self-esteem somehow. Poppycock. As college prices mount, increasingly sophisticated parents realize that your chances of making it into a selective college, especially back East, are pretty small if your test scores are just good, not great, and you’re from a “flyover state” like Nebraska, attending public, not private, school. We are limiting our best students’ chances, and therefore, we will get fewer families with top students to move here, if we don’t act.

Another deficiency: we don’t really have much in the way of school choice in this state. We do allow a student in one public-school district to switch to another public-school district. But that’s of limited value if you’re looking for a significant difference in things like curriculum, discipline and avoidance of Political Correctness.

Because of the financial difficulties of this monopoly education system, there are nowhere near as many private-school slots in Nebraska as there is demand to fill them. For example, our local Catholic grade school had a waiting list of more than 75 children for kindergarten last spring, and counting. If private schools made a little more financial sense, more people would start them.

We need to “incentivize” private educational development, bigtime. To my knowledge, we don’t have any collaborations between private schools and homeschools in Nebraska, the way Texas does and some other states, that would give people more flexibility to combine those two educational styles.

We don’t have many tutors, nor do we have any vendors of online education here, that I know of. I’m not aware of any traditional, high-octane, classical academies in Nebraska other than Brownell-Talbot, though they are springing up all over the country elsewhere, with outstanding curriculum that’s far more civilizing and literate than anything I’ve seen in the three public districts our children have attended. If you want a classical education for your kids, though, you have to homeschool or move to Omaha and pay $10,000 a year to Brownell . . . or move to another state.

And of course, we’re not among the 12 states that now have school-choice voucher programs going on to help low-income families send their children to private school with partial funding from tax dollars. We do have the Children’s Scholarship Fund, but it helps only a few hundred kids a year, vs. the 20,000 attending Arizona private schools through tuition tax credits.

We don’t have merit pay for teachers, nor alternative certification to get good people in the classroom who didn’t go to teachers’ college but are still great teachers. We don’t allow districts to pay hiring bonuses, or pay more for teachers in hard-to-find specialties like math, science, voc ed and special ed.

Nor do we have value-added assessment like Tennessee, where teachers and principals are financially rewarded for doing more for kids.

We don’t have tax credits like Minnesota, and we don’t have very friendly homeschooling regulations.

Nor do we have one of the most exciting educational-freedom tools in the country – a corporate scholarship program like Arizona’s, where corporations can get tax credits for sending a disadvantaged child to private school with a full or partial scholarship.

You know, I still think we have the smarts and the guts in this state to will ourselves to the top of the educational pile. I really do.

I honestly think the problem is that Nebraskans have been too “nice,” have accepted the status quo, aren’t aware of the problems we have and how other states are solving them, have allowed unions to dictate to our educators how schools are going to be, and haven’t demanded true accountability and innovation from our public servants, and true options and alternatives for our kids.

So we need to start now to make the changes that are necessary to blow away all other states in the quality and cost-effectiveness of our school system. And tomorrow, I’ll tell you how you can make your opinions known so that together, we can do just that.

-------------------------------

Education as an Economic Development Tool

Q. In terms of quality of life and business climate, nothing counts as much toward a state’s economic development efforts as having excellent schools. With increasing global competition, it’s a given that you have to work hard to create 21st Century schools to turn out a workforce who can support high-value economic activity on down the road. What should our state be doing to get, or stay, competitive?

It’s a no-brainer. Good schools bring quality of life and prosperity. Bad schools bring crime, drug abuse, gangs, reliance on transfer payments, and all kinds of other problems that raise everyone’s taxes and make the world a worse place, not a better one.


We need schools that can maximize the knowledge and skills of each “crop” of students to equip them for the knowledge-based economy, where the most people can make the most money and live the happiest ever after. But it’s not easy.

The pressure is on those states with the most increases in the numbers of disadvantaged students, or new immigrants, as well as the strongest unions resisting innovation and “market competitiveness” in education.

What it takes is good business decisions by the education establishment. That’s not happening on a widespread basis now, but it should be.

Nobody likes the term “human capital,” since it is so demeaning, but the principle is valid: educational resources should be used as intelligently as possible to make students as ready as possible for fulfilling, lucrative careers.

So no state can afford to make big errors in educational resource allocation. That means state government and local school districts should do everything they can to make sure the evidence shows that they are using the best methods, practices, curriculum and infrastructure to maximize their students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills.

Voters and taxpayers need to use their leverage to force schools to be more cost-effective to do that.

If the evidence proves that using a phonics-only approach to reading instruction in the early grades is the fastest, cheapest way to build literacy, then that’s what should be used, instead of the ineffective and expensive Whole Language method that’s so popular.

If the research can show better school achievement by low-income pupils who were able to go to preschool through taxpayer subsidies, then more of those subsidies should be considered.

If a connection can be made between academic success and smaller class sizes, more technology and higher-paid, higher-trained teachers for at-risk students who are low-income or non-English speaking, then those investments would be worth it.

Homework: Get the book, “Smart Money: Education and Economic Development,” by William Schweke (Economic Policy Institute, 2004). Schweke is research director for the Corporation for Enterprise Development, which is dedicated to creating economic opportunity for low-income citizens.


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