Trashing our educational system seems to be a popular pastime. Yet so many of us consider ourselves well-educated and well-rounded. How did that happen if the system is so bad? What important information did we miss out on? (Does this dangling participle matter?) What can be done in the current unionized and politicized state of American schools?
First of all, there’s a lot of learning available to everyone outside of the school walls, but it is not evenly scattered across America. Appalachian children have no access to New York City museums. Detroit children may never see a Broadway musical or witness the making of a Hollywood film. Some children are not given accurate textbooks or have access to the Internet. And yet, we invent ideas, art and businesses with and without these so-called advantages.
No one system of learning works for everyone. It seems to me that 75% of America can learn almost everything even while standing on their heads in the corner of a classroom. It’s the other 25% of America that suffers significantly under our public and private school systems. Of course everyone, from genius to average to challenged, deserves an improved and more relevant learning process, if we can agree on it.
I have visited “A+” schools with a team of dedicated, smart and effective teachers and administrators. They are well-funded with excellent tools including up-to-date technology. This is expensive and tends to exist in only a few communities. I have also witnessed crime-ridden schools of “lost” students and teachers fighting to maintain decorum and sneak in a bit of worthwhile learning while being regulated by irrelevant curriculums.
It’s not about creating “equal opportunity” of schools, but more about finding the best ways to teach real and worthwhile lessons to people of all ages so that they want to continue to learn and grow and improve as human beings. Everyone is different. Everyone learns differently. The skills and knowledge that sticks is either drilled into our heads (i.e. multiplication tables, “1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”) or learned from our peers (i.e. survival, smoking, bullying and pop culture).
Here are my thoughts on the most troubled aspects of our school system.
1) We are all defensive and fearful. Teachers are afraid to lose their jobs. Administrators are defensive about the hard work they have put into making a good environment. Parents are defensive about their children. Let’s be clear: all children have problems. So do all communities, families and schools. This is not the important issue. The discussion must become: how does my child learn and can s/he learn more relevant and supportive information?
2) Teachers must know more than their students. Not every teaching applicant should be allowed to teach. Finland is credited with the world’s most effective schools due to the high level of expertise in the teacher’s field. American college professors must have advanced degrees in the subject…but not public school teachers. Why not?
3) Junior high school and the early years of high school are about social development, and yet we either ignore it or we aren’t good at addressing it “Moby Dick” is a great book but is rather irrelevant to a 14 year old who is being bullied. We must focus on the student’s strengths at each age and adjust our curriculum to their capabilities.
4) In 2014, no one can succeed in America without a computer and Google. A classroom has its value, but understanding how to use the Internet to find information, knowledge and wisdom is essential for life skills. It is no longer an option, but a basic necessity.
5) Survival skills education has not progressed much further than “Home Economics”. How do you budget your life? What value is the stock market to keeping a family afloat? How do you save money if you’re being paid minimum wage at McDonald’s? How do you balance a checkbook? How can you not drive your parents crazy, and should you? Should you read newspapers (online or printed)?
6) History is often white-washed. My public school history courses included three years alternating between European and American history and never ventured past World War II. The Korean and VietNam Wars, and current events were minor blimps in the curriculum, probably for fear of too much political controversy. Immigrant history and the slave trade were discussed in conversation but there was nothing about the rich history of African, Native, Hispanic and Asian Americans. The old adage that without the study of history, we are destined to repeat it, seems to hold no weight with some school boards.
7) American culture is a melting pot and a powerful force throughout the world. Yet arts education is designed as a fun after-school program rather than the essence of American business, science and teaching arts. The same collaborative skills taught by team sports is available through theatre, dance and music. And the lifelong tools from these subjects can be used in every job. Additionally, the visual arts and creative writing have great powers to heal emotional turmoil and develop the soul.
8) Science is not the devil. Neither is faith. When school boards deny the possibility of evolution, climate change, sexual health issues and religious faith as valid avenues of study, then education fails us all. Education should discuss everything and anything. And parents should be invited into every classroom (they have much to learn too).
9) No one learns reading or comprehends mathematical concepts at the exact same age. Some teachers encourage parents to hold their children back from first grade until they mature an extra year in order to prevent the stigma of failing at such a young age due to no fault of their own. Many parents don’t heed this advice because of the “social stigma” of having an older child in first grade. The concept of grade level expectations is wrong. A student progressing at their own pace is a better idea.
10) Grading is a terrible idea. There are many reasons for not being able to complete a course of study, including family and personal problems. Why penalize students with a permanent mark against them? Other options: take the course over, written evaluations, personal discussions. Evaluation is helpful. Grades are not. But this is a competitive society, you say, and students must learn ‘survival of the fittest’ rules. A youngster does not need to believe s/he is a failure, but must learn to be the best and do the best s/he can in every situation. I believe that’s a better spirit of competition…from within.
To be continued….