What is N.H. getting for its education dollar?

We’ve got a brand new year and a brand new governor, and education is looming as a subject slated for attention … again.

Unfortunately, while education is a subject worthy of continual attention, our interest seems to concentrate only on how to pay for it. The price tag is so exorbitant, one would think a closer examination of what we’re paying for might be in order. What are we getting for all this money? Will New Hampshire grads be better equipped to compete in the global job market?

My heart goes out to people who can’t make change without a machine to tell them what it is. Giving them a quarter to cover the 17 cents to reduce your coin change is a real stumbling block when the machine says to return 83 cents.

When such problems are a challenge, how can these people survive, or even thrive, in this new economic age? Math isn’t everything, but subjects like algebra and geometry do teach us how to think logically on a range of non-mathematical issues. In an age when innovation and technology are continually changing business processes and livelihoods, thinking is a very valuable skill, one which is hardly taught in our schools.

This wouldn’t be so bad if school systems around the world were doing the same. But they aren’t; we are being left behind by many countries. Bangalore in India is becoming a high-tech Mecca because of superior math education in their schools. Their kids grow up to be formidable programmers. Yes, wages are lower, but when Microsoft, Intel and other companies bring Indian programmers over here, they get paid as much as we do, so lower wages are far from the only attraction.

In many European and Asian countries, speaking several languages is the norm. Call centers are migrating offshore to the consternation of many. Again, rates may be cheaper, but it’s a definite advantage to be able to hire people who can handle calls in several languages.

Speaking is one thing; writing an intelligible letter or memo is quite another. It’s no surprise some companies now have writing tests as part of their hiring process. If we haven’t mastered the language we use every day, it’s quite likely we haven’t mastered anything else either.

In the marketplace, we want the very best at the cheapest price, and we want it now. Many of us aren’t good enough to satisfy ourselves as customers. We think we should be paid well for mediocre performances, yet we want to buy superior performances at reduced prices. Of course, poor math and thinking skills enable us to fail to see the error in such logic.

Regardless of campaign promises, there is no president or governor who can equalize such a playing field. If we want to keep playing, we have to get with the program — and that means dramatic, not incremental, improvements to catch up with the world leaders.

So yes, we have a new governor. Like the last one, he’s a businessman, so he has to understand what we’re talking about here. If we continue to do what we’ve been doing, things will continue to get worse. We have to change what we’re doing to improve the results.

The previous administration named Fred Bramante chairman of the state Board of Education. He has some interesting “real world learning ideas,” and I hope they survive the change in administrations. I also hope Governor Lynch commissions a study or otherwise gets the data to show just how poorly our average grads compare with the grads in countries to which we are losing jobs.

Yes, it will be upsetting, but the real numbers may motivate us to actually do something about it.

Dean Kamen claims we have a cultural problem, and he’s so right. We value sports and entertainment far more than science and technology.

Education shouldn’t be just teaching subjects, but also creating the desire to learn. When teaching adults in industrial settings, we have to sell them on the benefits of knowing and using what we’re trying to teach. Why would it be any different for kids?

Will Rogers used to say, “Thank God we don’t get all the government we pay for.” I agree, but wouldn’t it be nice to get more of the education we pay for?

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham whose column, “Improving Performance,” appears regularly in New Hampshire Business Review.

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