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Steve Hansen ‘One size fits all’ education is bad for students’ futures

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2012 12:00 am

George Neely's recent column on students and college couldn't be more accurate. "One size fits all" education, driven by social idealists, has been an obtuse failure.

The U.S has been "reforming" education since 1957. In those days, we found ourselves falling behind the Russians in math and science. This communist country surprised a sleepy '50s America with the launch of the first satellite, called Sputnik, during October of that year.

More than half a century later, and after hundreds of billions of dollars spent on public education, we still hear the same chant: "America is falling behind in math and science." Nothing has changed on the mantra, but the country has changed dramatically from 55 years ago.

In those days, my mom used to say: "Get a college education. It means a better life. You'll have a higher-paying job." Of course, those were the days before modern technology and cheap electronic communications. People didn't worry about having someone in a foreign country taking their livelihoods at 20 percent of what Americans were accustomed to being paid.

Those were the times when student loan debt was not even close to what it is today, at $1 trillion. Average individual student debt was not between $100,000 and $200,000, but often under $10,000. (In 1960, a full ride at University of the Pacific was less than $3,000 annually.)

Most people with a variety of college majors could find employment — even liberal arts folks like me. Now, only a few college majors have direct value to the employment world. Even these are up against foreign competitors who are willing to work harder for less money. We have spent billions to educate some of the finest table servers and bartenders in the world!

The secret to success in today's world is not necessarily following beliefs that have worked in the past, but rather adapting to a world economy that is rapidly changing.

This leads to a simple rule about success that few people seem to understand. It is simply this: "The fewer people who can do a job that's in demand, the more that job will pay."

Of course, the opposite is true as well: "The MORE people who can do a job, the LESS it will pay." That's why more college graduates flooding the markets will not mean higher incomes.

This premise has been true for centuries, but often gets lost in good economic times when unions and politicians artificially raise wages and salaries. Ironically, it has led to our present state of dismal affairs, where millions of manufacturing and thousands of professional jobs have left the country for better business climates.

The above premise remains true during good and bad times. For example, physicians with many years of training and experience have just about eliminated any worry of being in an unemployment line. A Harvard Business School graduate, with superior intelligence and skills, will find that he or she also has eliminated almost all competition.

One may or may not go to college to acquire special and in-demand skills. Professional athletes are paid millions for talents that few possess. Million-dollar salespeople are in demand for their rare networking abilities and work ethics — not necessarily something learned in a classroom.

Harry Pellow, although a nuclear scientist, became world-famous by restoring classic Porsches. (He claimed he didn't want to spend the rest of his life figuring how to blow up people for the government.)

Red Adair, before his death at age 89, was paid over $1 million per day to extinguish oil well fires. (Do you know anyone else who can do that?)

And then, there was Steve Jobs. Need I say more?

If schools and politicians wanted real reform, they would stop trying to pound square pegs into round holes. They would put individual needs of students first. They would give up their political idealism, which over half a century has only led to inch-by-inch progress while ignoring mile-long failure.

Instead, each child would be given an opportunity to discover his or her individual talents. Courses would be designed to develop unique personal skills that could be used to make independent livings. College might or might not be an option, depending on where those discoveries lead.

Our present ways of doing things in education is simply not cost-effective. We can't afford it, and for far too many, the job at hand is not getting done. Radical change in educational thinking and purpose is the only way for our kids to occupationally survive during the next half-century.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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