Can We Fix our Education System?

At a recent education event, President Obama stated “Not long ago you could drop out of high school and reasonably expect to find a blue-collar job that would pay the bills and help support your family.  That’s just not the case anymore.” Ironically, a recent documentary titled “Race to Nowhere” addressed the pressure we are putting on kids today to excel in school. It is truly a challenge to find a way to fix our education system as we not only watch a 68.8% graduation rate on a national average according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center but high achieving students on the brink of burnout.

This particular film “features the stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.”

It is certainly a top issue in today’s political arena. My belief is that we must find a balance between those teetering on dropping out with no concrete plans for their future and those that are under enormous pressure to take on classes that may lead to burnout, depression and illness. An example is the recent registration for my daughter who will be entering high school. She was offered AP classes as a freshman as well as upper level classes.

We discussed this at great length and came to the conclusion that she could bypass taking an AP class as a freshman and concentrate on the transition to high school and succeeding in her honors classes. It is a similar path her older sister took, who when she was a freshman, was not allowed to take AP classes. She did well in high school and was admitted to a top state college. Of course, with the changes in classes offered to freshman, I can only hope this approach will allow my younger daughter the same opportunity to be admitted to this same college. Frankly I do not know but what I am certain of is that there are other colleges that will consider her academic achievements without the undue pressure of taking a college level course at 14 years old.

There is no question about the importance of receiving a quality education and the economic impact on our country from high school drop outs. At the same time, we must recognize that there is no “one size fits all” approach that works. From national television talk show personalities to our government leaders, many are weighing in on what is the best way to fix our education system.

Here I offer some suggestions:

Offer Alternative Education Tracks

Traditional schools are not working for everyone. Once we accept this statement then we can work on a fix. I believe, barring any major learning disability or illness, that students display aptitude and skills in specific areas. I witnessed this firsthand when my daughter was in first grade. She had a young boy who the teacher just did not like. The teacher found him to be disruptive and unfocused. As a parent volunteer, I found him to have a natural ability in the arts. His drawings were far above a first grade level and he had already mastered almost perfect cursive penmanship. But the teacher berated him on an almost daily basis and continually embarrassed him in front of his peers. I don’t know what became of him ten years later but what I do know is that if he had perhaps been put on a creative track, his confidence level and perhaps a future career may have been mapped out early.

We must find a way to offer students who are underperforming in a traditional classroom setting and offer them an alternative education track. We have under enrolled schools that could potentially offer various education tracks. Sure, there are some magnet programs currently out there but we need more. By engaging these students at a young age and embracing their strengths, not only are we building the foundation for a strong future for them, but also reducing the risk of them dropping out due to constant criticism of what they are not doing.

Offer Real Life Skills Classes

Students today have a somewhat pie-in-the-sky view of what real life is like. They aren’t necessarily thinking about paying for shelter, food, transportation, health costs, and clothing or even basic money lessons. One of the most valuable field trips my middle-school age child went on was called “JA Finance Park.”

JA Finance Park is a month-long economics education program that introduces personal financial planning and career exploration. It is taught to middle grade and high school students by classroom teachers. At the end of this program, students visit JA Finance Park to put into practice what they’ve learned about economic options and the principles of budgeting. Assisted by their teachers and a staff of trained volunteers, they have the opportunity to actually develop and commit to a personal budget.

And while I know many of the students found it to be a little on the boring side, many more were unhappy with the careers assigned to them, including my daughter. She had a job where she made an annual salary of $21K. She quickly realized that after paying for the basics, she had little left over for entertainment (movies, dining out) or for splurging on a new outfit. And while perhaps 8 th grade may have been a little young for her to fully grasp the concepts taught, based on conversations we have had since then, she has a really good basic understanding of finances and how the economy works. She also knows that she wants a job that will pay more than $21K a year and recognizes that the primary way to secure a strong job in the future will be to earn a college degree.

These little life skills should be taught in high school. Some may argue that it is a parent’s responsibility to educate their children about finances and in a perfect world, it would be. But we do not live in a perfect world and many students are not being taught about finances and how real life works. They don’t know anything about checking and savings accounts, the cost of putting food on a table or getting to work.

If we start teaching our student’s the skills they need to succeed in the real world in high school, then perhaps we will be raising a generation that understands personal responsibility and accountability.

Keep the Good Teachers

Again, this is only my personal opinion but an issue I feel very strongly about. I recently read in our newspaper that 1400 first and second year teachers would be losing their jobs. Some will be hired back for the fall, but my guess is many more won’t. What is mind-boggling to me is that they are losing their jobs to mediocre teachers. We’ve all heard about these teachers or even seen them in action. They don’t enjoy their jobs, they don’t even like kids and many more don’t even know how to relate or engage them.

At my job, I get to keep it if I am performing up to the outlined expectations. If I deviate or do not fulfill my responsibilities, then I risk losing my job. There is no seniority or protection. I am not sure how we got to a place where a poor performing professional kept their job because they had been there for many, many years.

There is a risk in what I write because many teachers do not believe they should be judged on merit alone. Certainly I recognize that no matter how much effort a teacher makes, there will be students who do not succeed but those are isolated cases. If you take into consideration a teacher’s entire student body and measure them on parent and student feedback and performance, then I do not believe the good teachers need to worry.

Perhaps the ones that are screaming the loudest are the ones that deep down know they are not the school’s strongest teachers.

The bottom line is that our education system needs fixing. Past models do not work in today’s environment. We must find a way to create a future generation that can succeed, not just financially, but personally so that we reduce the economic impact of having students fall between the cracks.

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