The real cut and run strategy

By Keith St. Peter

Though the Bush administration claims that improving education and increasing America’s technological prowess are some of its domestic priorities, its policy is consistently counterproductive to this mission. Whether the discussion is about No Child Left Behind, student funding or increasing science and engineering development, the plan falls short of the goal.

While I do not assume to have a total policy solution for every problem with the American education system, and there are problems, I can recognize contradictions when I see them. The administration’s objective is a good one. American education is in desperate need of resuscitation. A 2003 UNICEF survey of major educational research projects ranked America 18th out of 24 nations in terms of the effectiveness of its educational system.

Most people are in agreement that this is a problem, including the administration. What escapes me is the reasoning behind freezing financial support for college students and threatening the closure of elementary schools in the interest of providing better education. To use an analogy, the administration would not agree with reducing funding for the Iraq war when there is need of improving our capabilities to effectively prosecute the war. This is what has famously been termed a ‘Cut and Run’ strategy by the administration. So why cut and run from education?

Formal education naturally begins in our elementary schools. The famous Bush administration policy in this respect is the No Child Left Behind Act. The irony of this program is that it actually has the potential to harm schools that perform well. By focusing on relative improvement, not on learning per se, schools that consistently rank high in their district standings are in danger of being closed down in many states. It seems strange to penalize a school that is on top of the rankings because it is not showing improvement.

In addition to its logical flaws, the method enshrined in No Child Left Behind is at odds with what has been proven to work. No Child Left Behind focuses on testing to measure improvement. In addition to the common complaint that this forces teachers to educate children to be good test-takers, the administration seems to be ignoring methods that have been shown to work in the UNICEF study. Countries at the top of the list such as Finland, Australia and Belgium, place more emphasis on understanding concepts and in-depth study rather than memorization and regurgitation.

While these matters concern free public education, the position of the Bush administration becomes even more precarious concerning college education. The new budget calls for a cut, or freeze in growth, depending on which semantic position you take, of $12.7 billion in federal student loans. That is enough money to send about 1.2 million students to a public college for one year. Granted, the budget does freeze the interest rate on student loans at 6.8 percent, but the current rate is 5.3 percent. All of this is happening while the cost of tuition is continuing to rise.

In the State of the Union, the president pledged to provide more funding for scientific research and to create tax credits for private-sector scientific research, both noble goals. However, with decreased funding for student loans, the ability of students to acquire the graduate and post-graduate degrees necessary to fill these research positions is in serious trouble. And while President Bush claims that improving education is a priority, the policy doesn’t seem to match the objective.

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