One-track education thinking doesn't work well for all

Today's dogma is that we must set higher educational standards to prepare all kids for college. But what about those who are less interested in academia and more oriented toward getting a good job and contributing to society that way?

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Cleveland High School will have a new incarnation under the plan

Today's dogma is that we must set higher educational standards to prepare all kids for college. But what about those who are less interested in academia and more oriented toward getting a good job and contributing to society that way?

In all parts of America there is increasing angst over our educational system.  It is fueled by poor test scores, increased dropouts from high schools, and dire projections of America’s readiness to solve the increasing economic and environmental challenges, which will require an educated population.

Solutions to the dilemma range from full time academies to teacher pay based on student testing, charter schools, lengthening the school year, and nationalizing the schools. The zeal for reform can blind us to some unintended consequences, one of which is that measuring human potential is among the least understood aspects of the ongoing debate.

There were times in American history when anyone willing to work could find a place in the economy. Farming, mining, fishing, and logging employed thousands. Immigrants provided labor to construct subways, bridges, roads steel mills, railroads, or factories producing goods for a growing America. Work was available for unskilled workers, whose back was the valued commodity.

While the undereducated are a vanishing breed, employers are now demanding more. In a climate of unemployment, competition for jobs finds employers requiring a minimum of high school graduation. A growing number of employers require college degrees.  There is an assumption that the degree requirement may a screening method as much as it is a way to measure a potential employees ability to fit into a corporate system.

The growing concern for our educational system comes from many directions.  America, in general is doing badly, especially in reading analysis, math, and science. The media report that, test wise, our kids don’t rank as high as some kids in third world countries.

Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat suggests that the rest of the world has growing numbers of smart, well-educated people and America can’t afford to sit back and squander its intellectual capacity. Understanding this message gives greater meaning to the slogan that "a mind is a terrible thing to waste."

However, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much. What the media sometimes doesn’t mention is that not all nations attempt to educate every child, as does America.  That fact alone skews test scores.  Many industrialized countries run school systems that are very different from America's.  Almost all those school systems are regulated by central government and many offer different educational tracks or pathways to achieving an educational goal.

One such track might focus on academic training that leads to a largely government funded university education, and another track might focus on equipping students with the skills that lead to good jobs.  And, while many industrialized nations do attempt to educate everyone, there remain many places in the world where only the privileged have educational opportunities, a fact often missing in news reports or congressional hearings.

What has become interesting, however, is that other nations, like Germany, are mystified about why our school systems focus so much on college as the ultimate goal.  They ask, why we have underfunded and failed to encourage education focused on skilled jobs? Other nations appear to have long since recognized that while a university education is of great value and must be encouraged and funded as a national goal, it should be available to those who are motivated and sufficiently dedicated to make the most of the experience. But they also recognize that not everyone wants to go to college, or should for that matter.  They also value training for employment.

The language we hear most from parents and education activists is that we want all our kids to be “ready for college.”  They ask for school systems, curriculum, texts and teachers oriented toward making sure that students can meet college entrance requirements.

Raising educational performance standards is a necessary goal, but in some instances it has created unintended consequences. The flip side to high standards is having expectations that are unrealistic.

Some kids flourish under the pressure of higher expectations, but some quietly implode while trying to live up to mom or dad's or school's expectations. It happens frequently with curriculum designed for college-bound kids being offered to students who will unlikely never succeed in college. It can lead directly to failure for those less capable.  Among this group, guilt, emotional turmoil, loss of self-worth, and feelings that they are disappointing their parents and teachers leads as often to repeated failure as it does to improved performance.  A common result is disruptive behavior, dropping out, and in rare cases suicide.  Adults may think otherwise but kids today are under enormous pressure.

While we are busy spreading around blame for a dysfunctional educational system, we must first determine whether we believe that all men and women have an equal ability to succeed in higher education.  We say that’s our goal and parents certainly want their child to be able to succeed in college, but the reality is that some of our kids never will.

To acknowledge that some kids are less able and may never be college-bound puts one in danger of breaching some doctrine of political correctness.  No teacher, school administrator, or promoter of educational excellence can afford the political fallout to even speculate that maybe little Johnny or Jane simply doesn’t have the mental horsepower to become a nuclear physicist, stereotypical rocket scientist, or new-wave environmentalist.

The reality is that some of us just aren’t equipped to understand higher math or solve the mysteries of quantum mechanics or comprehend what we mean when we discuss the “big bang” as the origin of life.  There are those among us who would choose to write poetry and don’t give a hoot if we get to Mars.

There is a very popular and useful slogan.  “Be the best you can be.”  Discovering just how good our best really is unfortuntately still baffles most of us.

Louis Terman who long ago developed the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests believed that such tests could help evaluate how bright a child was.  Ultimately broader use and sometimes misuse of similar tests brought the realization that tests alone were fallible because cultural differences, and environmental factors influenced the results.  In young people we simply don’t always know who has the necessary synapses to handle high-level academics.  Emotion, hormones, economic or social status, parents, teachers all factor in, and sometimes there is no explanation, other than just plain luck, for which way a child will drift.  We are dealing with the complexities of the human mind, not components in a computer.

The mystery of human behavior isn’t how we test kids or how much we pay or don’t pay our teachers; it is how we ultimately define what “being the best we can be” really is.

Complicating educational success still further is trying to fathom what your child really wants, assuming of course that they have the faintest idea.  What mom, dad, a school board, or a politician may want a kid to become may not be what the young person wants to become or work to become.  If junior wants to be a motorcycle mechanic or an interior decorator or a musician or a nurse and finds math analysis or calculus classes too challenging, you can bet that grades will show it. Or he or she will rebel and maybe drop out.

Unfortunately, the media and technology play a role that is likely greater than their teachers or parents.  While the media have changed over time, TV, computers, texting, Facebook, and advertising all are powerful influences on what kids want to become. The baby boomers saw Cousteau on television sailing the Calypso to investigate the mysteries of the deep. The result was a sizable growth in kids wanting to become oceanographers.  Currently, TV shows like CSI have created interest in careers in forensic science.

Another phenomenon that gums up the works is the way that highly educated people become the driving force in educational reform. Most of the curriculum for schools, including textbooks, are designed and written by academics, mostly from our nation's universities. While most are brilliant people, they also often fail miserably to understand how minds less powerful than their own really work. They often create texts and curriculum that only very smart people can understand. We then wonder why some of our kids feel overwhelmed and fail classes or drop out.

One example of this was a chemistry book at the university level written by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling. While his textbook was outstanding for gifted students, it was a terrible choice for beginners in chemistry.

You could put a kid with an IQ of 160 in a class taught by Einstein and they would probably drop out of school if what they really wanted to be was a fireman or a massage therapist or an actor.  Bill Gates didn’t take well to formal university education nor did Philo Farnsworth who, when only 18, applied for the key patents that made television possible.  He flunked out of high school and never went on to college.  There are thousands of geniuses, inventors and entrepreneurs who are school dropouts.

While the U.S. has made significant progress in education, we forget that in 1910, two out of every 10 adults couldn't read or write and only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school. Still, America developed technology and industry that changed the world. But the world is different now and this may not work anymore.

Is there a better way to run our schools ? Maybe, maybe not. There are, however, different approaches which we could spend more time studying. Japan, China, India, France, England, and Germany all have educational systems very different than ours.  Other nations don’t discourage university education, in fact their governments often subsidize it. But they also support and encourage a wide range of technical-training programs that lead directly to productive jobs.

Simplistically, they offer alternative pathways.  In effect they say, not everyone must be in a college prep program.  They acknowledge that there is value to train as a machinist or electronics technician, a die maker, robotic technician, or nurse. Their state supported schools in other occupations often move people directly into a job or apprentice programs.  They put as much emphasis and money on job-preparation curriculum as they do for college-bound kids. They can’t understand why America is placing so much emphasis on college when there remain so many occupations that require technical training, but not necessarily college.

We shouldn’t be surprised when kids drop out who don’t really want to be scientists but are forced to be in classes that lead to university levels of study.  It has been a common belief that learning Latin, mathematics, history, and calculus is of value because it trains the mind and develops discipline essential to future success.  It was very likely true 50 years ago.  Our current culture has created a different kind of kid, and it will mean that if they are to learn self discipline and good study habits, it will require our entire social structure to make it happen.  It is ridiculous to assume that schools can do it alone.

Test scores are low in many localities, both urban and rural. Blame seems to have fallen on teachers. Nationwide there are movements toward charter schools, and performance-based pay for teachers determined by the test scores of their students. Some argue that funding for education isn’t what it should be and you get what you pay for. There are few cities and states whose teacher pay is equal to what garbage truck drivers or bus drivers earn. Yet, we expect those teachers to perform magic on kids, many of whom the parents can’t even control.

Others, however, claim that it's the system of not expecting enough from kids or unclear criteria of how to measure student performance. Is it better test scores in math or science that hold the key to success in coming decades? And if higher test scores in math and science are a valued measure of our educational performance, are these scores of equal importance to authors, composers, musicians, professional sports figures, or even politicians who set the budgets?

There are those who blame America's educational system problems on our system of giving control of schools to local school boards.  It is they who most often decide how to spend the money, determine the curriculum, decide performance standards, and even what books kids can read. School critics point to other nations with better test scores where the curriculum and performance is mandated by central government.  Americans have resisted central government control over education, leaving each sub geographic area to make decisions on what they think best for their kids.  If we are to continue on this pathway, maybe we need to select schools boards using the same tests given to kids and basing continuation in office on how successfully the kids in their schools perform.

Wouldn't it be amusing if running for public office required that candidates to take and pass the test for U.S. citizenship along with the 10th grade state achievement tests given to our kids? If paying teachers based on the test scores of their students is a valid way to measure their performance, then let’s apply the same principles to our politicians and educational reformers.  It’s only fair, isn’t it?


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