Brian Eller

I don’t know how many of you paid attention to the State of the Union address last Tuesday, but the president put a huge emphasis on the importance of teaching more math and science in schools. As most of you already know, American students in high school and middle school are falling behind in these critical subjects. To all the students in the College of Engineering and to many other students at Cal Poly who spend most of their week doing math and science, it seems baffling and somewhat disappointing that many students in our country’s middle schools and high schools are falling behind in these subjects and are missing out on the wonder, beauty and fun of math and science. This is very troubling since much of our country’s future depends on a workforce that is strong in math and science. If our country wants to remain competitive with other nations, we need students who excel at math and science. The students of today are going to be tomorrow’s engineers and scientists, and I want them to be excellent in math and science so that when I’m 70 and retired I can drive a super-cool, American-made and developed, hydrogen car.

The failure to teach students in middle and high school the fundamentals of math and science is outrageous. Our colleges and universities have the best math and science programs in the world. People from all over the world come to America just to attend college and receive a degree from an American university. However, these same people wouldn’t want to send their kids to an American high school. What makes America’s universities so much better than America’s high schools? Why are our universities the envy of the world and our high schools the joke of the world?

The answer to this question is competition, and it goes back to the essence of good ole capitalism. Most Americans don’t really have a choice of what grade school, middle school or high school they attend. Unless your parents had the money to send you to a private school or to change locale that puts you in a better school district, your choice of school was rather limited. However, everyone has a choice when deciding which college to attend. One can go to a variety of community colleges, public institutions or private universities. Instead of being assigned to a college, the colleges competed for me. Cal Poly impressed me with its outstanding engineering program, its cool labs and friendly professors. Likewise, the University of Kansas (I am originally from Kansas) did not impress me. This competition makes universities recruit the best professors, get rid of the poor ones, build new facilities and continually improve themselves.

This lack of competitive spirit makes our country’s high schools some of the worst in the nation. It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher in a high school. Even worse, there are few rewards or promotions for the good teachers. Salaries remain at a pretty stable rate, but this salary isn’t linked to a student’s academic performance in any way. Likewise, most people have little choice over their high school they attend. Even if there’s a school that performs better and has room, if it’s out side of your district tough luck. Wait, lack of competition, no incentives to work or improve, no opportunity to choose a better product – isn’t this what they tried in the Soviet Union? As I recall, this method didn’t work out too well over there.

Many reformers believe that the answer is not competition, but that as a nation we need to spend more money. I constantly hear this voice urging people to increase spending on education and cries of outrage and disgust when someone tries to cut the education budget. However, I doubt money is the answer. I was lucky enough to go to a private high school in Kansas City. My school cost about $9,000 per student, although those who couldn’t afford it were often given financial aid or were allowed in work grant programs. On the other hand, the Kansas City School District, according to a Cato Policy Analysis by Paul Ciotti, spent as much as $11,700 per student which went toward: higher salaries for teachers, a robotics lab, model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, field trips to Mexico, an Olympic-size swimming pool with an underwater-viewing room and even small teacher-to-student ratios. This spending produced no improvement in test scores which stayed way below the national average. At Central High School (another school in the Kansas City School District) many students showed no improvement on standardized tests between their freshman and senior years.

This result isn’t isolated to Kansas City either, according to Eric Hanushek, a University of Rochester economist. After looking at 400 separate studies of the effects of resources on student achievement, Hanushek found no correlation between increased funding and student performance.

Instead of giving incentives to improve student performance, the schools were just given money. Any incentive to increase accountability, give benefits to good teachers and give people a choice about there education should be encouraged. Our country’s future depends on providing a strong education to which everyone should be entitled.

Brian Eller is a materials engineering sophomore and Mustang Daily columnist.

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