Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bredesen's higher ed plan: A good idea?

The rationale behind Gov. Phil Bredesen’s plan to reform higher education in Tennessee goes something like this: Northeastern states with highly educated citizens attract businesses which offer higher paying jobs. So, let’s tie educational funding to the number of graduates produced. Decrease funding for educational programs that don’t produce enough college graduates and give more money to those which produce a high number of graduates.

Am I the only one who sees the possiblity that under this kind of budgetary blackmail educators will be forced to dumb down curricula to produce greater numbers of graduates?

It takes a successful businessman’s mentality to come up with a plan like this. And that’s what we’ve got in our current governor, Phil Bredesen. Amazingly his plan gets support from both Democrats and Republicans in both houses of the state legislature. This in itself should be a warning that the governor’s plan may not be such a good idea.

But what’s really behind the high graduation rates in other states? For example, how much do they spend on elementary and high school education?

How about a comparison of graduation rates in states with an income tax and those with no income tax? How do high-grad states compare with low-grad states on the availability of public transportation or health care? What about a comparison of the educational levels (or IQ scores, for that matter) of state legislators in high-grad states and low grad states?

What the governor’s proposal seeks to do is the kind of tinkering conservatives used to call “social engineering:” that is, improve the life-style (this used to be called “welfare”) of Tennesseans. As a businessman he figures the best way to do this is find a way to attract high wage companies to our state. Since states with higher graduation rates have more high paying jobs than Tennessee, he devises a draconian scheme to penalize higher educational programs that don’t produce enough graduates. This is a simplistic solution to an incredibly complex problem and represents the short-term, “bottom-line,” "results-oriented" thinking which successful business people apply to problem-solving.

Under his plan Tennessee may produce more college graduates. But what good would that do if they are poorly educated college graduates. Creative, innovative human beings which drive all successful human enterprises cannot be produced through an assembly-line process. In fact, it is just that sort of process that discourages creativity and innovation.

Bredesen is correct in asserting that our state’s educational system needs overhauling but I'm afraid his “business model” will only make it worse.