Here is the education story from Wisconsin this week that really matters: only 39% of eighth graders in the public schools are proficient in math, and only 34% in reading, despite a 65% increase in per-pupil spending over the past decade.
While the attention of the nation is focused on what Wisconsin teachers earn, the question of what they do to earn it has been largely ignored. What they do not do is educate our children.
Spare me the hate mail, teachers, as I will give you the first round – I will stipulate that you are all terrific and it is the system that prevents you from showing it. Now, you give me the second round, and admit that you are fighting tooth and nail to keep that awful system intact.
The public education system is operated under the work rules that have been collectively bargained; that is reason enough to end collective bargaining privileges. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Wisconsin’s proficiency results “unacceptable”. He must not be proficient either, because not only does he accept them, but he and his boss have sent 25,000 shock troops to defend the system of forced unionization and collective bargaining that produced them in the first place.
Proficiency is the only purpose of education – not spending, not teachers’ pay, not union representation, not pensions, not benefits, not political indoctrination, not PC speech, not stickers and stars for trying, not outcome equality, and not coddling delinquent students, delinquent teachers, delinquent administrators, or delinquent parents.
Green Bay Packer cornerback Charles Woodson supported the protesting public union workers in Wisconsin, citing his own players’ union as an example of how collective bargaining secures good wages for workers. We all love him in this state, but Mr. Woodson does not earn millions because he is a 34% proficient cornerback with a strong union behind him.
Mr. Woodson earns millions because he is exceptionally proficient. He got that way by working harder than his peers, by going the extra mile, by developing is distinctly unequal talent, by refusing to conform to the common denominator, by rejecting equality of outcome, and by taking heat from coaches who cared enough to push him to greatness. He does not share his excess speed with those less speedy, and he does not get paid on a seniority scale negotiated collectively by Mark Tauscher based on averaging their times in the 40.
Proficiency is the common denominator for all high-income earners; they are extremely proficient at what they do, whether it is Charles Woodson, Oprah Winfrey, the Koch brothers, George Soros, or Lady Gaga. Their compensation is determined by the value they add. Proficiency is how all compensation is determined in the private sector, from the busboy up to the CEO. Imperfectly, to be certain.
Few, if any, of Wisconsin’s eighth graders are going to grow up and win the Heisman Trophy, host their own talk show, build a multi-billion dollar business, corner the markets on currency derivatives, or sell millions of dance records. Most of them will try to find a decent job in the private sector, where their earnings will be determined by their proficiency, and where we do not grade on the curve.
The engineer’s calculations must be correct, not politically correct. The proposal writer can not thumb-type “OMG r u k w/price lol :-)” on company letterhead and expect that to win his firm a multi-million dollar bid. Nobody cares how the architect feels about her design that the client hated, the salesman does not get a chance to come back and improve his presentation, and your lawyer won’t win your patent case because it’s his turn. We don’t all finish together in the real world.
Do the public schools prepare our children to survive and thrive in this world where their earnings will be determined by their proficiency? Clearly not. Wisconsin’s middle class is not disappearing because one party or another is in a majority; it is disappearing because un-proficient people are not worth middle-class wages. But it is a lot easier to curse at capitalists and China than it is to face the truth.
Anyone who has actually been to China comes back with a fuller appreciation for the true nature of the economic threat posed by that rival nation. China is not a land of coulee labor chained to benches in dingy sweatshops hunched slaving over pennies for hours on end. China is mile after mile of gleaming new factories full of new high-technology equipment, clean as a clinic, efficient as all get-out, and full of energetic, smiling, young faces proud of their productivity and their rapid climb up the income scale.
Those factories were designed by Chinese industrial architects, and built by Chinese skilled tradesmen operating Chinese-made cranes and heavy equipment. The machines and assembly lines were designed by Chinese engineers and built by Chinese craftsmen. The skilled workers who operate and maintain the machinery are Chinese, the trainers are Chinese, the inspectors are Chinese, and the management is Chinese. The capital to invest in these productive factories is Chinese, the surplus product of a 50% savings rate; the banks that finance the development and working capital are Chinese.
All those smart, proficient Chinese people are the product of Chinese schools. Children start school at 7 years of age, and complete 9 years of compulsory education – 8 hours per day, 5 days a week, 10 months per year. 60% of curriculum is devoted to math and reading (Chinese). At the end of each school year, tests must be passed to advance to the next year. Teachers must have a 2-year certificate to teach, and local boards control local schools.
Students who do not grasp lessons stand in front of the class to be tutored by the teachers and other students until they learn. Parents are required to come to school and take notes when children are ill. The expectation is that every single child will learn to be fully proficient, and they are. A University of Michigan study reported that Chinese students perceive the classroom as competitive and teacher-controlled and they are happy about it. Proficient people are happy people.
Our public education industry would – and do - say they are doing it all wrong over in China. And when Chinese students placed 1st in math and reading comprehension in last year’s standardized PISA testing, while the U.S. ranked 31st in math and 17th in reading, our educators scoffed at the very notion that their work could be measured by testing. Arne Duncan told us that teaching was not the cause of our dismal showing, admonishing us that “it’s complicated.”
Yes, it is clearly too complicated for Secretary Duncan and the public education industry, who have ruined our public school system by turning it into a social science laboratory experiment gone horribly wrong. That is exactly why they should not be allowed to run it any more.
But it is apparently not too complicated for the Chinese, nor was it too complicated for our parents and grandparents and several previous generations of Americans who managed to do make us proficient at a fraction of the cost, without the benefit of our modern technology, and without collective bargaining for benefits and work rules.
We are Americans; and we can beat the Chinese, because freedom was invented here and only copied there. Choice and competition will save our schools, and saving our schools will save our kids, and saving our kids will save our state and our nation so that generations of Americans can all live free and prosper. That’s why Wisconsin matters.
“Moment Of Clarity” is a weekly commentary by Libertarian writer and speaker Tim Nerenz, Ph.D. Visit Tim’s website www.timnerenz.com to find your moment and order his new book, “Tooth Fairy Government.”