Are We Failing Our Kids?
Is compulsory education still the answer?
I'll never forget what an old English professor said while discussing the state of education in the US.
“Remember we are the only country in the world that has attempted to prepare all of our youth for higher education.”
I'm beginning to wonder if the grand experiment to educate everyone was a mistake. Pushing all kids in the same direction is not working.
I remember clearly the last high school orientation night I attended as a parent, where high school counselors laid out the future possibilities for students. They spent half the evening talking about the merits of the coursework required for university-bound students. They spent the rest of the evening explaining the coursework necessary for the second choice — state colleges.
There is no mention of junior college options. Forget about non-college careers — those were clearly frowned upon.
Have we made a mistake with compulsory education in the US? Are we meeting the needs of our students? I'm beginning to wonder if our educational goals are a bit short-sighted.
Has our educational system met your needs, your kids’ needs, your grandkids’ needs?
Over 1.2 million high school students drop out every year and most of these kids have pretty much made up their minds during junior high, according to DoSomething.org. It's not realistic to push every kid in the same direction and expect them to thrive.
Only 36.3 percent of US-born Americans have a college degree.
It appears we are failing to meet the needs of 63.7 percent of our youth. We are making a big mistake in forcing all of our children down the same narrow path. Not everyone is college-bound, so why do we treat them as if that's the only acceptable course of study?
Worse yet, we are attaching a stigma to any choice other than pursuing a college degree.
My oldest son eschewed college and took a job through a friend after high school. He began as a grunt, working in the field, taking measurements and marking obstacles for future fiber-optic lines.
He hung in there and soon graduated to become the team member making the drawings and taking critical notes while the grunt working for him crawled around taking the measurements. All the while, he was making exceptional money.
That was his entryway into the telecommunication industry, where he moved into sales. His career as a salesperson of high-end telephone systems for big business has provided a terrific living for his family. He has made more money than any of his college-grad siblings — but he's always been haunted by the stigma attached to skipping college.
Many people make a great living in sales because they excel at people skills, skills that do not require a college degree. Never sell a salesperson short. Good ones have incredible skills for understanding customer needs and meeting those needs with their companies' products. Salespeople drive our economy.
Our educational system does not even acknowledge sales or all the fields associated with the trades. Yet when you need a plumber, you need one desperately to stop the leak. He does not need a degree in mechanical engineering. He needs to be good with tools and have the knowledge and physical skills to fix your problem.
When your toilet is flooding the house, do you care if your plumber went to college?
Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, auto technicians all make a good living because they have excellent physical skills and the knowledge to apply those skills to solve all sorts of practical problems, from building a house to repairing your car. Yet over the past twenty years, high school shop programs have been systematically gutted and dismantled as too costly to operate and too dangerous to insure.
My youngest son took a wood-shop class in high school but all of the power tools, from table saws to wood-turning lathes, were deemed too dangerous for student use. He completed one project all year using only hand tools.
That’s like taking a computer coding class where the only computer you can use is an abacus.
Many students have no interest in attending school and that forcing them to attend creates discipline problems. As a junior high teacher, I've had first-hand experience with students who don't want to be at school. They can make life miserable for the teacher and rob instructional minutes from students who wish to be in class. One or two can be efficiently dealt with, but three or four disruptive students in one classroom can pose a real problem for everyone in the class.
Motivating students to want to be in school could be accomplished by ending compulsory one-track education and providing more options. As early as junior high, students should be able to opt-out of the traditional path and join a program that better suits their needs.
It could be as simple as apprentice programs where kids learn in a real-world environment. In a real-world situation, the apprentice has to measure up or lose their position. Unlike our present school system, the real world does not put up with f*ck-ups.
Moving away from compulsory single-track education does not mean kids stay home and play video games. That's not a real-world option either. If students are kicked out of their paid apprenticeship positions, they return to school to continue life-skills-oriented programs combined with community service on-the-job training to better prepare them for their next apprenticeship opportunity.
I believe that the first seven years of school should still be mandatory, but the focus narrowed to acquiring competence in reading, writing, and math. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32 percent of fourth-graders and 24 percent of eighth-graders aren't reading at a basic level. Fewer than 40 percent are proficient or advanced.
Fewer than 40 percent proficient is not acceptable.
After hundreds of years of reading instruction in the English language, you would think that we would have the method down pat — we don't. In the same NPR article cited above, teachers complain that they were not adequately prepared to teach reading. As one teacher remarked about her college preparation for reading instruction:
“They were very broad classes, vague classes and like a children’s literature class,” she said. “I did not feel prepared to teach children how to read.”
I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. There was not one class offered in the elementary teacher preparation program that focused on reading instruction. I entered the field of education after attending college ill-prepared to teach reading.
In addition, the entire reading instructional framework swings on a pendulum between phonics-based instruction and whole language-based reading instruction. The educational hierarchy does not even agree on the best method to teach reading.
Reform needs to begin with teacher preparation. It would be terrific if the educational community could settle on one or two methods of reading instruction and focus on those so that as new teachers left college, they would be prepared to teach reading.
I could argue that reading is an essential life skill for any career. Right now, teachers leave college unprepared to teach kids how to read and are left to apply whatever program is adopted by their district in the last language arts textbook adoption.
I think better strides have been made in the reformation of math instruction in the US — although most parents would probably disagree. It's often referred to as New Math. There is nothing new about it as far as the basic concepts of math are concerned. We (everyone up until about ten years ago) were taught rote formulas and methods for computations like long division.
New Math focuses on developing a deeper understanding of what is happening when we divide two numbers rather than simply teaching the rote procedure to get the answer.
If we focused elementary school instruction on reading, writing, and math, our students would be better prepared for middle school and have the necessary skills to choose an apprentice track if they desired.
We have to be mindful that just a little over one-third of our students will complete a college degree and design new courses of study to meet the needs of the two-thirds of our students who will never graduate from college. We must offer students a choice so that they buy into the track they have chosen.
Along with that choice, we need to remove the stigma associated with foregoing a college education. We need to remove the compulsory nature of our one-track-fits-all system and replace it with a plan that offers choice combined with responsibility.
If the college track does not suit, there's the fast track to gainful employment through the apprentice trades program. If a student fails to meet the standards of the real-world trades program, then the life skills/community service option is available until another apprenticeship position comes up.
Sitting home playing video games is not an option.