What do we want schools in the US to be?

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Facebook is an interesting space for thinkers. My Facebook use is primarily for connecting to family, mindless entertainment, and, if I’m honest, procrastination. Yesterday morning, however, two stories appeared together that both intrigued and startled me.

The first story was a short video from ATTN: Life. It decried a generation of adults who can’t boil an egg (30%), change a tire (52%), or sew on a button (70%). The proposed solution? “Bring back cooking classes.” I never figured out how cooking classes ever gave instruction on changing a tire, but that became a minor thought after reading some of the more than 3000 comments. Two themes divided commenters: these skills should be taught at home and parents don’t have time, so these skills should be taught at school. One commenter even said that the school system is outdated and that schools should change to meet “needs in the modern day.”  I’m reasonably certain that home economics, secretarial skills, and vocational education are products of the past abandoned in the 1980s in favor of higher cognitive skills that can be measured on high stakes, multiple choice exams. Or, as another commentator said, “A lot of young people don’t know how to fill out basic paperwork at a doctor’s office, file taxes, and cook, but god forbid we don’t know the Pythagorean theorem.”

The second story was a psychological look at the emotional fragility of college students. Seemingly unrelated to the first, it actually illustrated exactly why secondary schools no longer include the life skills classes that will evidently solve all the #adulting problems of the first story. Additionally, it describes the challenges many young adults face, challenges that far exceed the inability to boil an egg. In this article, the author, Dr. Peter Gray, interviewed teachers, professors, employers, parents, and students, trying to discern the source of what he called, “the declining emotional resilience of college students.”

He found that secondary and primary teachers often pointed to the interference of parents who demanded to know all the details of assignments and rubric, expecting their children to excel regardless of aptitude. Teachers also held administrators who pressure teachers to pass students no matter the amount of work accomplished in order to maintain the reputation of the school. Teachers, then, feel they are held hostage to unrealistic expectations of both parents and administrators. They feel compelled to award grades based on those negotiations, rather than the progress of the student. Those grades, then, set the student up for discouragement when they go to college, believing their efforts sufficient for high grades.

Professors also blame unearned high grades for student underachievement and subsequent frustration with the reality of merit-based grading systems. Professors explained that students expected unlimited opportunities to retake exams, rewrite papers, request explicit instructions and detailed rubrics, along with extra credit opportunities. The end result, according to these professors, is a group of students who can spout facts but cannot think for themselves or accept constructive feedback. One college counselor said, ” [T] oo many students had never had a job, needed to balance a checkbook, or any of that until college or even after college. Their parents did it all…You can’t teach life skills in a class.”

Employers complained of young adults who believed they did not need constructive criticism or that their degrees automatically meant they deserved promotions and higher pay. Poor evaluations were often blamed on employers not giving adequate instruction, a reflection of the need for a detailed rubric. An HR director said, “It appears the handholding by helicopter parents and our educational system has made it problematic for our youth to ‘attempt’ to hold onto jobs. Most believe all they have to do is ‘Get the job.'”  Employers tell of young employees so resistant to mentoring or coaching that they file HR complaints about constructive criticisms they take as personal attacks.

Parents and students both blamed social pressure and the economy for the lack of emotional resilience. Parents cite the increasing cost of college, the competitive requirements of extracurricular activities in high school (taken in order to gain scholarships to college), and a perceived requirement of employers for perfect transcripts. Students, in general, pointed to all adults as sharing responsibility for their inadequacies in #adulting.

In a sense, I think each point in both articles has merit. The vicious cycle of blame, however, will not resolve any of the problems, real or perceived. As I see it, we as a society need to decide what we want schools to do. Is it reasonable to expect all teens to gravitate toward college and the white-collar employment that follows it? Are colleges so competitive that only grade point averages and test scores matter for entrance? If that is the case, then secondary schools must push for academic achievement for all. The question about how to do that better is for another time. However, is college and business right for every student? Is there a place for honoring the trades as vital parts of our economy? Have we, as a society, fallen into the trap of believing only office jobs in corporate America or positions in a STEM field are worthy pursuits? If we have, then who will boil the eggs, change the tires, or sew on missing buttons?

I think, and I suspect research would back me up, that students should be encouraged to pursue, not college, but their interests from early in their secondary education. There will be those whose aptitudes will be for the STEM fields or business models or careers that require extended years of study. Those are the students colleges should be courting. There are also students whose talents lead them in vocational directions, where trade schools or apprenticeships would be both more appropriate and more enjoyable. We need fewer tests of Pythagoras and more opportunities to explore creative or mechanical or exploratory options.  As a culture, we are all part of the problem because we value showy achievements instead of joy. When was the last time a parent or a teacher proclaimed pride in a teen’s ability to rebuild a car or replace a faucet or wire a lamp? How often do we adults brag on the student who spends hours not playing online games, but building them? Until teens feel validated for pursuing their passions, they will continue to succumb to the pressure of a society that rewards data points, high salaries, and prestige. In the process, they will not have time, energy, or interest in #adulting. Why should they? If being an adult means kowtowing to the will of a competitive culture, why try?

So, the question remains: what do we want schools in the US to be?  We can continue down the path that looks to data to determine what success looks like or we can fundamentally alter our expectations, allowing students to become adults who do what they love with the exact training they choose. But first, the US culture must learn to value all work, blue-collar, white-collar, artistic, exploratory, technological, and creative.

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About mrsloomis

I am an accidental artist. I am an on-purpose teacher. I was terrible in art when I was in school. and I said more times than I can count, "I will NEVER be a teacher." God, in His divine sense of humor, has made sure I am now both artist and teacher. I teach high school literature and composition with a twist: I ignore standardized tests and teach my students to think critically from both sides of the brain. The left side analyzes the literature and composes mechanically accurate essays. The right side uses art and creative questioning to make the literature both relevant and exciting. So far, in 20 years, it seems to be working for me. My students consistently out-perform their peers in collegiate writing courses. My students also love learning, and taking ideas to a new a deeper level, which also serves them well in college and well beyond. Away from the classroom , I am passionate about my Lord, my family, my greyhounds, music, and naps. I love photography, digital art, running half marathons and just BEING. God is good, and I am blessed.

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