Category Archives: education

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 One commenter even said that the school system is outdated and that schools should change to meet “needs in the modern day.”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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An open letter to the Committee

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I am a conservative. I believe in limited government, lower taxes, and fiduciary accountability at every level of government. I am pleased and proud to see fellow Georgians Dr. Tom Price and Dr. Sonny Purdue as cabinet nominees for President Trump’s cabinet.

Having said that, as a teacher of more than 20 years with three children who have been in the public schools of both California and Georgia, I am APPALLED at the choice of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She may be smart, but she has no intimate experience with public schools at any point in her life or the life of her family. She has no education experience, no qualifications in her own education, and no connection to teachers or their students. How can this possibly be acceptable?

I have said for years that anyone with any influence in educational policy should be required to teach in a public school one day every year. Not observe. Teach. From preparing lesson plans that meet local, state, and national mandates to teaching the classes while ensuring all the administrative tasks are done correctly, balancing the individual needs of 35 students without assistance, and finding 90 seconds to eat lunch or even find the restroom. To have a Secretary of Education who has never spent any time in a public school as student, teacher, aide, cafeteria worker, or administrator tells the American people that the US government is no longer committed to the form of education promoted by our founding fathers.

Noah Webster wrote, “It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education should be adopted and pursued which my not only diffuse a knowledge of the sciences but may implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country” (On the Education of Youth in America). The current dissatisfaction with the state of the public school system has already broken that trust in “just and liberal ideas of government” especially when those with power over school policies do not trust their own system enough to be part of that school community. It is madness to think someone without any connection to the actual people in the actual public schools is in a position to drive policy.

Yes, there are serious problems in many public schools. I am currently working on a PhD in Teaching and Learning in order to find ways to improve schools both for students and their families and for teachers. Educators have ideas and answers that research demonstrates is effective both in teaching subject matter and developing character. The Secretary of Education must be someone who understands more than budgets or fundraising or donations. The Secretary of Education must understand the hearts of teachers who teach, not for money or power (for there is none), but out of a passion to teach children how to learn and how to love learning. He or she must be intimately involved with children who spend their days in closed classrooms preparing for high stakes tests, which ultimately measure nothing significant. A Secretary of Education must understand the needs of all students, from the youngest to the oldest, from the most-severely disabled to the most advanced. Our public school system must consider English Language Learners, multiple cultures, new literacies, technology, and diverse families. Wealthy, poor, working class, middle-class, and homeless students all have a place in public schools. The person best able to understand and meet those needs is someone who has lived the experiences of the public schools personally. Mrs. DeVos is not that person.

 

Please vote against her confirmation.