Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where's the finish line?

In honor of the mid-term election, Yahoo! Mother Board is asking us to join the conversation at their new feature, Ask America. I was disappointed that their Education topic only offers us two choices: higher standards or more money (which is not Yahoo's fault, but the candidates'). In order to truly reform education, we need to re-frame the question.

For the past few decades, the two-party system has failed to offer radical enough solutions. While I'm an Obama supporter, I don't think his stance on education offers enough change, and I'm not sure what the Top is racing towards.

I've recently seen two documentaries on education, Race to Nowhere and Waiting for "Superman". If you have to choose between the two, see Race to Nowhere, but see both if you can, or see what you can. We need to start talking about this more.

It took until 8th grade for Sylvia to have a reason to want to do well in school. She wants to go to an arts high, and knows that in order to be admitted, she has to maintain a certain GPA. So she's working harder than she has in the past to keep her grades up so that she can go to a school that lets her do what she really wants to do: dance every day. She knows that in order to stay in that school, she will have to keep up a GPA.

That school happens to be my alma mater, and I know how the academic teachers frame their lessons. They know their students are interested in the arts, so they pay particular attention on how their subjects correlate to the arts. A history lesson is also a lesson in the history of art at that time. A math lesson can be better understood with the elements of music theory. English literature is interpreted and analyzed much like a script.

We spend so much effort prioritizing education in the yearly milestones of standardized tests instead of the overall goal of education, and our children just aren't getting it. Over a million drop out of high school every year. That's unacceptable, and affects us all. It leads to higher crime rates, higher prison costs, and fewer people able to support themselves, let alone their families. We also have just learned that an alarming number of college students drop out after their freshman year, costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

We forget that brains don't fully mature until the age of 25, and expect them to understand an adult's reasoning for school: "who said school was supposed to be fun? They just have to do it." Particularly when so many of their classes and teachers and administrators are solely focused on passing the standardized tests, students are not seeing the long-term benefits. A young mind needs help connecting the dots.

Instead of telling our children to stop playing video games, why don't we show them how video games are made? Instead of telling them to get off their social networks, why don't we show them what it takes to create such a site? Everything they love involves creativity, math, reading, writing, and even a sense of history and the future in order to be relevant and popular. We need to capitalize on what motivates our students.

Some of our "low-performing" teachers are probably suffering from the same lack of motivation as our students. I don't think anyone goes into the profession thinking it will be easy, but because they want to make a difference. I've also found direct correlations between my daughters' grades in certain subjects where their teachers are either confused themselves or lack enthusiasm. Their textbooks are District-mandated, their standards are state-mandated, and their Principals may be mandating how they run their classroom. We need to offer teachers the support they may need to keep the class on track, but still let it be their class.

We need to broaden our "standards" to include what really matters: allowing each student reach their fullest potential. We need to make it okay to not go to college and help some students into trade schools to earn a decent living and provide valuable services. And for anyone that does want to go to college, we need to make that achievable without entering the workforce tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Education affects everything else. Without a strong workforce, our economy will suffer. Without work, crime and the need for government assistance increases. A weakened, deficit-burdened government decreases our security and international standing. An uneducated, impoverished society does not make for a healthy, strong society.

We need to stop racing, and instead, guide our students to their own individual paths to success.


Amy said...

Great post with a lot of really interesting insights. In preschool, teachers focus on what interests the kids to help them get excited about learning...but somewhere in elementary school (probably around the time standardized testing starts taking place), it's less about a passion for learning and more about checking things off the list. Thanks for sparking an interesting conversation!

Vinomom said...

As always, I love to hear your point of view on things. Maybe teaching is where YOU need to be! I've certainly seen the difference first hand how a great teacher can turn kids around.

I love also that you mention trade schools and that not everyone has to go to college. What if you love the way things work and want to be a mechanic? Or love to build and want to be a carpenter? It's gotten to the point where these trades are looked down upon and these people are seen as "without ambition" - but I can't even change my own oil, let alone rebuild and engine.

I think those teachers that are "burnt out" need to find themselves reinspired or take a hike. I can get by with the bare minimum at my job if I wanted to - but I'm not shaping kids' lives.

Great post.