To Fix Schools, Return to Founding Principles

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Also published at The Press-Enterprise

When did we accept average as ordinary? Most Americans agree that our education system is badly fractured. We read continuously about how America’s and California’s academic rankings are slipping at an alarming rate.

CEOs like Sky Dayton (founder of EarthLink) have warned that skills for success are often lacking in college graduates. The National Science Foundation indicates that America’s inability to produce graduates in STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math) has forced employers to seek candidates from other countries to fill critical positions. In our mad rush to change with the times, have we forgotten how to produce a quality workforce? If so, how do we recapture the things that once made California’s educational system one of the best in the world?

First, recognize that this crisis in education is both an economic and a moral problem. Human capital is the main driver for long-term economic success, which requires an educated workforce. Our economy could not survive without one directed by a strong moral compass.

Furthermore, problems with education also point to a crisis of freedom. History clearly teaches that a free, self-governed and prosperous people must value liberty. If voters are unenlightened about our constitutional rights, it sends us down a dangerous path.

Many good ideas have been offered to fix the educational system. Returning decision-making power to local districts, as we took steps to do this year, will help improve the mess created by Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Additionally, creative policies like a bill I jointly sponsored, Assembly Bill 51, which would offer California State University students entering STEM fields of study the opportunity to earn their bachelor’s degrees for $10,000, can move us in the right direction.

But at the same time, I believe our problems require a return to basic foundational principles. Before digital classrooms and standardized tests, our great nation produced many of the brightest minds in history. Though times change, these principles do not.

How can education produce strong minds and sturdy, honest character? University founders understood that education requires a core set of values. Their mottos included words like courage, piety, honor, duty and liberty. But in our zeal to give students a taste of everything, we have failed to impart a hunger for the best. I believe this road, where children receive no absolutes, leads to nowhere, except to a drop in academic and economic advantages.

We must start with teaching our children how to think. That includes emphasizing the importance of memorizing facts that can be used in critical thinking. We must lay the groundwork for mastering effective writing and public speaking — all skills necessary for a well-rounded and prepared workforce.

Most importantly, we must also become champions of parental involvement. What early Americans knew, modern Americans are rediscovering: a student’s performance is largely the result of a parent-teacher partnership. Peres Fobes wrote in 1799 that the law of nature “… teaches parents and others that while employed in the humble office of instructing our youth, their services may be as patriotic and perhaps more useful to their country than their wisdoms and their counsels in the senate.”

These principles have stood the test of time and will preserve our Golden State with economic, political and moral prosperity. Every problem of education today is an opportunity for each of us to step forward and invest in the lives of young students. If we perform this duty without fail, the next generation will become the best depository for our national safety and happiness.