Education reform: the whole child left behind

Too much of our focus on education reform misses a point: children aren't numbers. And the first step in dealing with the dropout issue is to connect with them.

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A classroom in the Laotian school in Ban Na Muang.

Too much of our focus on education reform misses a point: children aren't numbers. And the first step in dealing with the dropout issue is to connect with them.

Along with all the other national crises, including the federal deficit and the state of the economy, American education is under attack at all levels.  Everyone has an opinion on what to do. Politicians, CEOs, the guy next door. Underfunding, outdated curriculum, poor math and science performance, and  high dropout rates are all discussed, along with, yes, blaming teachers for the whole mess.

Looking back for solutions when things seemed better is of no help because today’s world is far different.  Kids with two parents come home from school to an empty house because both parents must work to survive.  The other half of our kids have one parent and their parents aren' t home, either.  For the students, homework or study time competes with television, texting, and, as they get older, part-time jobs.

Agreeing on a reform plan for schools and paying for it is a challenge equal to the problem we are having agreeing on a national budget. Three themes have monopolized current thinking. One is a strategy to halt the excessive high school dropout rate.  Another is to have all kids ready for college. The last is to put emphasis on math and science.

In considering all of these, however, we are at extreme risk if we overlook some of the basics about young people: their need to find a place in the world; the differences among them in their interests as individuals ; and the differing nature of the experiences that can inspire them to become interested in learning. While tending to neglect the real lives of students, our education reformers focus endlessly on their own prescriptions.

The long-range goal of education reform is to generate those additional college graduates so that we can compete in a world economy based on technology.  In the current political climate it would be heresy to mount any argument that math and science are unimportant. What isn’t being asked is whether higher levels of math and science classes are necessary to work in a tech field?  For example, reformers don’t seem to make a distinction between the skills necessary to design a computer and the skills to operate or service one.

While it seems obvious that America should not be left behind in education, we have often become obsessed with dozens of solutions.  Charter schools or the No Child Left Behind Act, promoted with much political fanfare, have rarely made education that much better.  Fraud in testing has become a scandal in No Child Left Behind, and misuses of funds in charter schools have occurred all too often.

While it’s unfashionable to recite old sayings, sometimes they are worth repeating. Remember “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink”? Simplistic yes, but it seems to fit some of our problems. You can put teenagers in a multimillion dollar school, equip them with the latest in computers, curriculum, and teachers with graduate degrees, but far too many kids will still not score well in math or will even drop out.

There is an aspect of contemporary American culture that may not serve us well. When something bad happens, our culture demands we find someone to blame. In education, this thinking has come to play a big role: If kids aren’t motivated, it must be the teachers who are at fault.  There is seldom any mention of the role of parents or the community in the examples we set.  Did we notice that we pay Metro bus drivers twice what a beginning teacher makes?  We seem to re-elect our legislators even if they can’t agree on a budget.  We are willing to pay $100 bucks to watch Kobe Bryant of the Lakers play basketball knowing he keeps his $21.6 million per year job even if the team loses a few. The example we set is: why study math or science if you can get elected to public office or you can play ball?

The reality is, the more we learn about how the brain actually works, it suggests there is no one perfect way to learn or teach anything.   Even more complex is understanding that much of what we learn is based on a part of our brain that asks, “What’s in it for me.”

While we seek reform, we must remember we are doing some things right. Could it be that here in America our very different approaches to education may, in the end, have an advantage in creating minds, that by questioning everything, are open to imagining new ideas? We all ask “why” as a way of life. We Americans, are at times frivolous, undisciplined, dissatisfied. We complain and challenge authority and, yet, Americans are the most productive workers in the world. We invent gadgets to reduce work or to simplify repetitive tasks. We allow ourselves to test the limits, to try and fail at any number of ideas that mathematically should’t work, but do. We are unpredictable and, as a way of life, find multiple ways to solve problems. We have invented more things than any other culture ever has. And we do all this with an educational system with which we always find fault.

Without saying we shouldn’t improve our educational system, we might put in perspective that we have done some things very well. Our cities, school boards, parents, and teachers across America have, in two centuries, educated and trained more kids to higher levels than ever before in the history of any nation. We forget that in 1910, 2 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. The United States has turned out more creative people per year than any other civilization in history.  But can that lead continue?

Where did we learn to be curious, to question, to challenge an idea? As often as not it was a parent, a friend, an uncle, or a member of the community. I know a boy who, on his way home from school, stopped at an electronics repair shop. The boy watched, pestered the owner, asked questions, and somehow created a mentor by default. The boy learned electronics. After school he built radios and high fidelity amplifiers. His curiosity led to an interest in physics and science. The boy’s teachers had nothing to do with creating the motivation, but they were able to do their job better because the boy had found a reason to learn. The boy had solved the educational riddle. He knew what was in it for him.

A history of what or who inspired our most successful people might show that they were motivated as often by someone outside of school as they were by a teacher. The point is that education comes from everywhere in the community not just schools. It is preposterous to believe that schools should or could do it all.

There may be something to learn from one our previous attempts to introduce educational reform.  This occurred during the Sputnik era, beginning with the old Soviet Union's launch of a satellite 1957.  U.S. high school curriculum had traditionally required courses like algebra, trigonometry,  calculus, physics, and chemistry.  When the Russian satellite soared overhead, America realized NASA didn’t have enough trained engineers to enter the space age. There was immediate response to toughen our high school curriculum.

The academic world in our universities responded by generating new math physics and chemistry curriculum that significantly raised the bar.  Arguably, it worked because we got to the moon first, but there were unintended consequences.  Bright, exceptional students flourished in these new more advanced science classes, but average and below students not only failed, but stopped taking the new high power classes. Since few, if any, of these kids intended to design space craft it made little difference. The result was they took the least demanding courses in general science to satisfy graduation requirements.  The mass hysteria and so-called educational reform generated by our leaders and the academic community solved one problem, but created another.

Our education reformers missed the point. Advanced classes do not cure the dropout rate or improve math scores for average or poor students.

I hate to bring up Bill Gates, but he serves as the perfect example of the dilemma we all face. As one of the world's richest men and one whose influence is derived from his technological and business experience, he is listened to as an oracle on public education. But, remember, Gates was a university dropout and his schooling wasn’t in public schools. He had great parents who nurtured curiosity as part of his growing up. If we look at what made him a success, it isn't changing the curriculum and method of teaching in public schools.

We might ask if all thel gurus on educational theory who went to prestigious prep schools and Ivy League universities know what’s best for a kid from Aberdeen whose dad is a logger, or a kid from West Texas whose dad still runs cattle, or a young person who has no permanent home because he and his family are migrant workers. Of course we want them to able to receive the highest level of education possible, but we need not design a whole system around college-entrance curriculum.

We must recognize that every kid is driven by experiences that aren’t measurable. We need teachers and school systems that offer subject matter that keeps kids interested in school, like music, art, auto mechanics, drama, photography, sports, electronics, building robots, or computer technology.

Solving the dropout problem is only made more difficult by eliminating the courses kids like to take. First, you need them in attendance, offering them something of value, before you can teach them anything.  High school kids are trying to discover who they are. They want a place, a tribe, a teacher, or a subject where they can be valued while they are trying to make sense of the world. They will join gangs or other associations if other, better choices aren't available. Believe it or not, what most kids want most is someone who likes them, pimples and all.  Many just want to be sure someone cares about them and will listen if asked.

Everett has had some success fighting dropouts by assigning roles as mentors to every adult in the school, including janitors.  The success there has nothing to do with whether the janitor has a degree in math, it has everything to do with whether he or she cares about an individual kid.

Obviously, we shouldn’t fall behind teaching math and science, but while we are seeking reform, let’s not forget what a miserable place this would be if we put all our emphasis on teaching the sciences and somehow forget that the students are kids with names, not numbers on a test score.


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