The Problem of Feudalism in American Education

The timid suggestions being put forth by educators and politicians for dealing with the generally acknowledged educational crisis in America constitute a kind of malpractice. Not only have many of these same people been tending the “patient” as the malaise developed over the last several decades, they now seem unable to prescribe anything more than larger doses of their same old feudal medicine - more local control, more fragmentation.

In any other field, their expertise would have been questioned or their “licenses” revoked. But educational malpractice is not yet a legal offense. Then too they may feel some immunity provided by the considerable personal embarrassment a person would be forced to suffer if he or she were to stand up and say, “After spending twelve years in your schools, I am still uneducated.” Increasingly, however, Americans are being told just that by the marketplace.

Though there is a proven link between economic success and the effectiveness of an educational system, we know there is much more to education than money-making. Education is directly related to the happiness and health of every person. Illiteracy condemns a person to a life of ignorance, ignorance of the past, present, and future and his relation to each. No community can tolerate widespread ignorance and expect to escape its accompanying frustrations and violence. No nation can let its people sink into darkness and expect to remain secure economically or politically.

We are presently saddled with an extremely expensive, inefficient, and ineffective system that stays afloat principally because it is compartmentalized into thousands of school districts. The failure of this system is noted in poor student performance, in the mushrooming of remedial programs at every level, in phenomenal student drop-out rates, in more classroom violence, in the increasing demand for private schools, in the spread of home schooling, in the gathering momentum for a voucher system, and in the touting of “choice.”

Our crisis in education offers a unique opportunity to do what should have been done long ago - establish a national public school system. Given more than $500 billion dollars to educate just over 50 million students, no one in his right mind would begin by creating 16,000 districts and an unnumbered multiplicity of administrative units that would soak up 45% of all that money in overhead costs. This enormous waste, incurred by local control, could perhaps be rationalized if the system worked, but it obviously does not.

Our feudal system of education grew without rhyme or reason and has now established its own fiefdoms, defended tenaciously by local warlords who would loose power, position, and money in a centralized system. Supporters of these latter day barons are, in essence, arguing for a continuation of the Dark Ages. Together these aristocrats in the Land of Education constitute the greatest obstacle to an American renaissance, an appreciation of knowledge and a flowering of learning, accessible to all.

The severity and magnitude of the educational crisis we face demand fundamental systemic change. All reform proposals should be judged first and foremost in terms of their effects on students and society. After all, students, the raison d’être for the system, will be the primary beneficiaries or victims of whatever is done or not done and society, in paying the bill, has a right to expect that the educational system will be a problem solver, not a problem maker.

We must resolve not to sacrifice another generation of Americans on the altars of special interests. In considering how to create the finest educational system in the world, one that can meet the personal and national challenges of the twenty first century, we must not limit ourselves with questions of placating existing power centers or even public acceptance. If the cause is worth the effort, power positions can be overcome and public support can be generated.

The following proposals are submitted in the candid belief that a complete restructuring of the American educational system is an absolute and immediate necessity.

National system: To minimize the amount spent on administration and maximize equal educational opportunity the nation’s present 16,000 local public school districts must be consolidated into a national educational system. Similarly, all other levels of public education must be amalgamated to produce an overall system from kindergarten through university. The economy of scale thus achieved would free well over $120 billion.

National curriculum: Our first priority must be to establish a rigorous, nationally standardized ten-year curriculum that is carefully sequenced for all students, 6 to 16. This basic education should be capped with a two-year vocational program in which all students, ages 17 and 18, master needed job skills.

A single, strong, high quality, national curriculum can go a long way toward overcoming the well-known shortcomings of inadequately prepared teachers and give every student the same firm educational basis on which to build his or her life. A national curriculum must go far beyond the so-called 3Rs. We must equip our young people for life in a democratic, pluralistic, post-industrial society. To achieve this there must be an end to “tracking” or grouping students by ability. Instead, there must be a high level of expectation that all students can and must master the same basic material. Slower students need more help, better instruction, perhaps even better instructors, not watered down subjects.

A single, national curriculum, as introduced in Britain by Margaret Thatcher, determines the subjects to be taught, their content, and sequencing. Questions of method still allow for constant innovation in classroom materials, texts, and, particularly, teachers as they prepare their students for national examinations.

A completely standardized, high quality curriculum will mean an end to the basic differences between rich and poor schools. It will give the United States a united educational program, allowing students to transfer from one geographic area to another without penalty or loss.

The qualitative goal of a national curriculum should be to raise, within a generation, the general level of intelligence of our population at least 10 points and make tomorrow’s high school graduates equal to today’s college graduates, both accomplishments the Japanese reportedly have already attained.

Ten-year basic program: The present twelve-year program of elementary and secondary schooling should be cut to ten. A six-year elementary program, followed by two years of middle school and two years of high school will be over before the drop-out bug begins to bite. Shortening the number of years and lengthening the school year from its present 180 days to 220 means nothing is lost and makes better use of facilities. The school calendar should be based on an 11 week quarter or a 22 week semester system. A half day on Saturdays should not be automatically excluded. In comparison, Japanese students have a longer school day and are in school 240 days a year which by the end of high school means three and a half more years of education than American students. No wonder a Japanese high school diploma is equated with an American community college education.

Since it is easier to deal with students at age 16 than 18, truancy and violence will decline. This trend can be reinforced by splitting the teenage groups between middle school and high school. The introduction of school uniforms will serve to eliminate much of the present distraction caused by clothes, fashions, and fads. Concentration on school work can be enhanced by creating separate classes for boys and girls during the four years of middle and high school. Making students responsible for the basic janitorial functions of their schools would help engender a respect for property and their environment as well as save money.

Two-year vocational program: The present eleventh and twelfth years of high school should be replaced with a two-year vocational program developed in consultation with business and unions. Vocational training will give every student marketable skills that will support him or her in the world of work. A natural corollary to classroom instruction should be part-time, on-the-job experience, which would keep the instruction practical and have a maturing and confidence building effect on students.

Special schools: Every city of 250,000 or more should have two kinds of special schools: scientific and language. A scientific school would emphasize science throughout its entire ten years. A language school would conduct its entire curriculum, except for English, in a foreign language, e.g., Spanish or French, with the purpose of spreading bilingual ability among Anglophones.

Course content: Great stress must be given to the mastery of English in all its forms: reading, writing, and speaking. Every humanities course should strive to use original materials, instead of simplified or digested summaries. Students should always be given the original works in literature, philosophy, politics, etc. A high level of literacy in mathematics and science is needed if our people are to comprehend and operate within our technical environment.

Religious instruction: Education does much more than produce a competitive work force. It lays the basis for much of life and therefore must include clear, conscious, and continuing moral and ethical elements. A valued-based education does not mean simply dictating established truths, but kindling and making evident abiding truths. The goal should not be to indoctrinate as much as to help each student identify and react to wholesome inborn qualities. This means bringing religion into the classroom, and beginning and ending the day with prayers of hope and appreciation. There must be explicit religious instruction and the study of comparative religious principles and practices. The local clergy should be invited to participate, when and where appropriate. Separating church and state does not mean separating values from education.

Class size: The goal should be to keep classes small to facilitate close contact with teachers. Classes in elementary school should have a maximum of 15 pupils, middle school 20, and high school 24.

Parental involvement: Schools and teachers must seek and maintain parental involvement in the education of their children. Discipline and learning will be enhanced when students know there is open communication and close cooperation between home and school. The desired level of cooperation will only come about when parents are firmly convinced that their children come home from school each afternoon better than they left in the morning. Schools and teachers must stop blaming parents for their own failures.

Academic camps: Using space camps as a model, academic camps for math, physics, chemistry, biology, botany, history, civics, literature, etc. should be established to help generate enthusiasm for academic subjects. Such camps would also give some of the leaders in the various fields a chance to interact with the next generation.

Academic Olympics: All academic subjects should have a annual national competition, a kind of Academic Olympics. This would recognize youthful excellence in school, create peer role models, and establish benchmarks by which others could measure themselves.

Opportunities for the Gifted: A conscious effort must be made to identify gifted students and offer them and their families opportunities commensurate with their abilities. This might take the form of boarding schools or university adjunct programs wherein particularly talented students could be properly nurtured.

Adult education: An important integrative function in every community can be filled by adult education. The millions of illiterates and functional illiterates, the millions who need instruction in English as a Second Language, the millions in need of remedial work in basic subjects as well as the millions who desire the traditional gamut of adult enrichment offerings form a natural focus for a much expanded and strengthened program of adult education.

Community colleges: The core academic program of the nation’s community colleges should be totally integrated with and transferable to all four-year institutions. Preparation for licensing in many professions can easily be done at the community college level. Program flexibility can be assured by reserving 10-15% of the college’s courses as community specific, designed to meet the special needs or desires of the area served, or to develop new fields. Another 10-15% should meet the desire for personal growth through skill acquisition - music, art, computer, etc. Remedial courses should be phased out rapidly.

Four-year Bachelor’s programs: With a national core curriculum, the only difference among four-year bachelor programs should be a few local electives. There should be total transferability among all public colleges and universities, such that courses taken at California’s San Diego State are fully recognized by New York’s Stony Brook, if taken within a seven year window. This will encourage students to move from campus to campus and state to state helping to broaden their horizons.

To hone research and writing skills and stimulate critical thinking a research paper should be required in at least half of the upper division classes in every major, together with a graduating thesis supervised by a faculty advisor.

Two-year Master’s programs: At the master’s level there must be special sensitivity for both rigor and consistency. A master’s degree must be increased in value and therefore the learning it represents must be much more profound than at present. The granting of a master’s degree via examination must stop. Master’s candidates should be required to write research papers in each of their classes as well as a graduating thesis under the guidance of a departmental committee.

Ph. D. programs: The tendency to lengthen doctoral programs must be stopped. Five years should be the maximum for completion, including the dissertation. Every effort should be made to increase the number of doctoral candidates in all fields, while maintaining the traditional quality of the degree.

College/University Governance: Campus presidents should be elected by faculty and staff, whose interests the president should represent to the larger community and higher levels of administration.

Libraries: Just as a good book can make up for a poor teacher, immediate improvement of school libraries can fill many of the current gaps in staff and curriculum. Shortchanging libraries is the devil’s receipt for undermining the educational process. Libraries at all levels must receive adequate funding for use and acquisition of materials. The knowledge explosion means that at a minimum 10-15% of a library’s collection should be replaced annually. This means a total turnover and update of material at least once every decade.

Instructional technology: The effective presentation and learning of material should guide the development and use of instructional technology. A lot of money can go for naught in the field of educational technology, so care must be taken to avoid any tendency to acquire technology for the sake of technology. Efficacy should always be the rule of thumb in bringing machines into the classroom. But, when they are needed they should be there.

Educational TV: National educational television should be expanded and strengthened with complete and integrated programs of study offered to the entire community. One of the first programs should be English as a Second Language to help the millions who are barred by their lack of English from entering the mainstream of American life.

International exchanges: American higher education should be coordinated with the Erasmus program that exists among the member nations of the European Union so our students can study in Berlin, London, Madrid, Paris, Rome, or Vienna as a normal part of their educational programs. International exchanges should be enlarged with an immediate goal of 50-60,000 American students studying at foreign universities.

There should also be a significant expansion of American teachers teaching abroad. A reciprocal program of receiving students and teachers from around the world should seek to ensure that every school in America has both international students and international teachers. The pairing of schools and the establishment of sister programs should have high priority. Immediate attention should be given to creating enduring relationships among all educational institutions in the Western hemisphere, particularly Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. This can have far ranging consequences for our students and society.

Overseas universities: The concepts of a “junior year abroad” and campus programs located in other nations should be expanded with the establishment of at least one American university in any nation willing to accept it. With English as a strong component and most of the classes taught in English, American university education can be “exported” instead of “importing” international students. The goal should be to have between 25% and 50% of the student body and at least half the faculty American nationals.

Tuition free education: Tuition payments at public colleges and universities produce approximately $8 billion or less than 10% of the total spent on higher education. All tuition can easily be eliminated through economies of standardization. The effect of having truly free public education throughout America will be enormous. No longer will anyone be able to rationalize not going to college because of expense. Any filter to higher education should not be economic.

Student loans: In October 2011, student loan debt was said to exceed $1 trillion, and is now more than the total of all US credit card debt. This burden must be cancelled. The abuse of students must be stopped with the closure of Sallie May, Nelnet, et al., which have been overcharging the US Government hundreds of millions of dollars. As a first step- reverse the 2005 bankruptcy reform law that essentially guranteed lenders a 7% a risk free loan that cannot be discharged.

Stipends for living expenses: The present hodgepodge of public grants, scholarships, and fellowships should be simplified with a monthly stipend of $2500 (2012) for all needy full-time college and university students who maintain a B average. The estimated cost of this program, $50 billion, would be money pumped into local economies via student daily living. This idea is nothing more than a broadening of the concept behind the GI Bill that gave a chance for tens of thousands to get a higher education. Just as the GI Bill more than paid for itself through taxes collected on higher incomes, so this program can be seen as generational seed-money that will eventually generate higher revenues. This stipend program should continue for as long as a student pursues a degree program. No nation can not have too many educated people.

At present, our colleges and universities award nearly 1.6 million bachelor’s degrees, 700,000 master’s, and 67,000 doctorates, together with 800,000 associate and 95,000 professional degrees. The immediate quantitative goals in higher education should be to double the number of degrees granted annually and raise the percentage of college graduates from the present 19% of the adult population to 30% - 35% within a decade.
Teachers are the key to student achievement, therefore the teaching profession must be made attractive to the best and the brightest. Most of the $120 billion saved by cutting administrative overhead through educational unification and standardization must go to increasing the salaries of our 3.2 million teachers. Beginning teachers should have a basic salary of $60,000 (2012) with annual increases of $3,000 to reflect years of experience. These figures should be adjusted to account for inflation and the cost of living so that the same relative income is maintained over time. Advanced training should be reflected in significant salary supplements. The goal should be to make teachers’ salaries 70-75% of the total educational budget. To encourage part-time teaching by outside professionals, part-time salaries should be a straight percentage of an equivalent full-time position, without haggling over committee assignments, advising, etc.

This gain in financial compensation should be accompanied by the elimination of tenure. A teacher, like any other highly qualified professional, should be well rewarded for his or her services as long as they are needed. Seniority and experience must be respected, but guaranteed lifetime employment regardless of performance or need does not serve the interests of students, the profession, or the taxpaying public.

Only by having the knowledge of experts can teachers gain the respect experts deserve. Thus, it is essential for teachers to possess the knowledge and skills of true specialists in their respective fields. At a minimum, all teachers should have a master’s degree in a recognized academic subject and there should be strong financial encouragement for them to get a second master’s in a second area. Teacher training should come only after this solid, advanced educational base has been laid. Of course, teachers should be nationally credentialed, able to go wherever there is a need.

In this way, teachers would constitute an unexcelled pool of talent and ability to whom the community, business, and industry could turn for help. As a practical step to this end, teachers should be encouraged to form consultative consortiums, local “think tanks” that can take on problems and projects.

There should be generous support for teachers to keep current through skills workshops and academic conferences, and to up-grade their training through advanced degree work. They should also be encouraged to travel and participate in exchanges. After six years of full-time employment, or its equivalent, all teachers should be guaranteed a year’s sabbatical leave with full pay to study, travel, or write.

Teaching load: Full-time teachers at the elementary, middle and high school levels should have five hours of teaching and two hours of preparation per day. With one week for preparation before the start of classes and three days at the end of the quarter or semester, their work year would thus be 228 days.

A full teaching load at the college and university level should be four classes per quarter or semester. If research is undertaken, three classes should be deemed full-time. To make sure teaching has priority over research, the three class option should be available only once every three or four years. This is an unabashed, direct attack on the “publish or perish” syndrome that both threatens our forests and pollutes the academic atmosphere. People who have nothing to say should not be forced to talk. Important ideas take time to mature.

Retirement: Teachers should retire at or before 65 years of age, letting new blood into the profession. Retirement benefits should maximize at 75% of salary with 25 years of service; anything less should be pro-rated at 3% per year.

School design: The cost of school construction can be minimized by the use of standardized designs. A panel of architects, teachers, and administrators should compile five or six basic designs for schools in a particular region. These basic designs should have a modular nature so they can expand to meet various student populations. The basic designs can be up-dated every ten years to take advantage of building improvements and new ideas. This will result in significant savings in designing and building schools.

Organizational restructuring: Creating a national system of public education out of the present patchwork will mean the elimination of all local boards of education and all district administrative structures, along with all the various state departments of education. Many of their responsibilities can be transferred to the county level, making the nation’s 3000 counties the new administrative centers for educational services.

A truly national Department of Education must direct, control, and coordinate the overall system. The power of this center makes it strictly accountable for program quality and results. The buck will finally come to rest.

The perfectly justified desire for local input should not be confused with local control. Mechanisms must be firmly established for taxpayers, parents, teachers, and administrators to be heard and have their concerns addressed. However, the thousands of pressure points that groups have traditionally used to have their ways will evaporate and so will their ability to skew the educational process with their parochical interests.

Restructured Priorities: At present the US public education system serves approximately 65 million students (35 million in K-8, 14.5 million in 9-12, and 15 million in colleges and universities) with 3.3 million teachers (2.8 million K-12 teachers, and .5 million teachers in higher education) at a total cost of almost $900 billion (of which less than 9% is provided by the federal government). Teachers’ salaries comprise roughly $250 billion.

By restructuring our priorities, a much improved teaching force can be paid an average salary of $85,000 or 60% of the total cost (which still leaves a lot of room before teacher salaries constitute the desired 70 to 75% of the total). To this preliminary salary total of $176.4 billion can be added $55 billion for student stipends. The remaining $95.6 billion equals more than $2000 for every student to cover supplies, books, student services, building maintenance, new construction, and administrative overhead.

Finances: A fixed percentage of the national budget, perhaps 25-30%, should be earmarked for education. This would serve to minimize the possibility of political manipulation of educational appropriations and insure steady, incremental growth.

Until Congress restructures taxes to pay for a national system of education, the existing financing mechanisms (property taxes, sales taxes, etc.) can be temporarily maintained. Then the states and localities, which presently provide more than 90% of the total spent on public education, can simply transfer their existing educational budgets to the national Department of Education. This pass-through funding would permit the national budgeting needed to create a single, national educational system immediately.

Taken individually these proposals are modest in terms of the immensity of the educational problems facing our nation. Taken together they constitute a radical transformation of American education.