A disturbing pathology has arisen within the American Educational System, both within K-12 and Higher Education. Policies implemented throughout all levels of the United States educational system and changes of attitudes within families are resulting in American students that are not adequately prepared for current or future employment, and worse, woefully ill-prepared to face the challenges of a 21st century multi-cultural globalized world. This is the first of a series of essays meant to identify weaknesses and offer solutions.
In the opening days of the Spring 2011 term the Mansfield Independent School District (TX) began a plan to implement the teaching of Arabic within the school district. Mansfield ISD administrators recognized Arabic as a “language of the future.” A $1.3 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education rewarded Mansfield ISD with the funds to build this new program. All may be for naught, as once word of the teaching of Arabic reached parents, efforts to begin putting plans into place were put on hold. Parents were upset they were not informed of the new program. Parents confused the teaching of Arabic with Islam, and mistakenly thought religion was the premise of the Arabic program (CBS/DFW; KHOU). Mansfield ISD includes Chinese and Russia, as well as 7 other language, in district curriculum. Arabic was not available until the grant.
The controversy illustrates two sides of a difficult dilemma, educators who recognize the need to better prepare students for their future, and parents who exhibit ignorance in the face of a changing world. Furthermore, the controversy illustrates the tremendous obstacles faced by U.S. educators trying to improve educational content, and employers who need properly educated employees. Standing in the way are both ignorant parents and school administrators who allow cultural and religious bias to distort, corrupt, and hinder the communication of necessary skills designed to maintain a competitive U.S. labor pool.
Providing education and transferring the appreciation of education to children can give us nice warm and fuzzy sensations, that we are opening eyes and minds to a vast universe of amazing phenomenon. In practical terms, educators are really trying to provide children with a set of tools that will improve their lives, teach them how to think, and prepare them for handling the stresses, challenges, and details of their day-to-day lives.
What can we do, what ideas, themes, and behaviors should we as educators and mentors try to put into practice throughout our school year to ensure our students are best served by their time spent in our classrooms? Below, I have compiled a list of ideas to address deficits passed along from K-12 education into Higher Education.
- Be Honest: I believe in being blunt; not everything is good, not everything is a great idea, or even a good idea. If a student is obviously working below their ability, the student needs to be called out – never in front of peers, though. Embarrassment will generally get you no where. When helping direct a student towards a potential career path, be concrete and direct. The idea that anyone can be anything is a concept that only applies to 5-10% of a class. The remaining 90% are going to find themselves limited to a subset of career fields based on their innate talents and skills and education. Some will be talented in music, others not. Some will be talented in math, others not so much. People need to learn to be honest with themselves, and help others be honest with themselves.
- Guidance Counseling for All Students: Every single student needs a Skill and Interest Assessment. These are children, not adults; we cannot leave serious decisions for children who have little knowledge. Their brains, emotions, and minds are still developing. Not they we have to tell them what job or career should be pursued, but students, the educators, and the parents need an inventory of a child’s skills and interests. Then, the students could be coached through their academic career. In Germany, students are directed into academic paths based on aptitude tests. In Japan, not only are students directed into academic paths but also career paths based on the economic needs of the country. I am not advocating a similar system in the United States. A system like Germany’s or Japan’s would help the United States makes sure we always had skilled people in all important employment sectors. However, a student who knows his(her) talents and skills in 10th or 11th grade may be less susceptible to academically wandering in college. A definitive educational path would reduce money spent in college, and reduce time spent in college.
- Write, Write, and more Writing: All people need to be able to write. Writing helps organize thoughts and ideas. Writing helps us think. Writing help us foment our own ideas before we communicate those ideas to others. In as much math helps us keep up with our finances, writing helps us organize our thoughts and communicate with others. I remember diagramming sentences, discovering run-on sentences, and other grammatical pitfalls. Writing is not hard. Writing is not even hard to do well. Instructors need to communicate that writing is not merely an exercise. Writing gets a person hired. A cover letter may be the only conduit by which a potential employer learns about a employee prior to hiring. A sloppy cover letter and the associated resume gets thrown-away. A report for an employer or a client rife with errors loses credibility. Sloppy work is a reflection on the student, the educator, the school, and parents. Educators need to show by concrete examples that simple skills like writing make a real difference.
- Not all children are created equal: This idea that all children are equal is horrible. Not all children read at the same level, write at the same level – perform at the same level. The notion of “No Child Left Behind,” seems nice but supporting policies are ridiculous and misguided. In the 70s and 80s, my school district grouped children based on performance. Three groups, “Advanced,” “Moderate,” “Need Help,” plus Special Education. Nothing is wrong with grouping kids based on skills. Some children need considerable attention. Some children do fine in all areas. And some children learn fast and can handle advanced topics. Teaching to the middle is a bad idea. Teach to the group ability. Allow the “Advanced” kids to help instruct those in the other groups. Make the advanced kids help, too. Techniques such as putting advanced kids in charge of reading, and helping mentor in math have found amazing success in Japan.
- Identify regional employment and careers: There are some jobs that seem fun but are pointless to pursue. Like a high school history teacher. Or, art history. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with these jobs. The problem is the glut of people that already have that education, and the limited number of available jobs in the field. The U.S. Department of Labor produces the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The OOH details hundreds of jobs in the United States, from employment growth, salary growth, to necessary jobs skills, and where in the U.S. employment growth is expected. Students need to be given this handbook to study. Period. The OOH is an example of a free tool that should be used to direct a child’s academic energy.
- Bring in parents, community leaders, scientists: I know most school districts have something akin to “Career Day,” or “Career Discovery Day,” or maybe even a week. A day, even a week, is not enough. Parents representing as many career fields as possible should constantly be brought into classes to discuss their career. Educators should constantly involve jobs and career information within the lesson plans. Students not only need to given learning objectives, but career-oriented objectives. And those objectives should match the geographic region of the school district. By geographic region, I do not mean “state-level,” I mean “the South,” or the “Northeast,” or the “Great Plains.” I firmly believe that students who can be assessed as to skills and interest, plus be exposed to career information, will be more likely to graduate college in less time, with less debt, pass into their adult life with less stress, and be more successful.
- Encourage discipline: Discipline in schools is a challenge. Parents who refuse to discipline their children, who hold schools responsible, are a blight on education, and blight on the United States. Anyone who stands in the way of discipline in education is responsible for furthering ignorance. Discipline runs the gamut from corporal punishment, when necessary, to the perseverance required to write an 12-page research paper. Part of discipline is providing appropriate environments for learning. For example, many schools are reducing the number of recesses and the minutes spent at recess. Horrible idea. Children have energy that needs spent, that once spent, allows them to focus on non-physical tasks. Providing appropriate amounts of physical activity can help children focus, and create fewer disciplinary issues.
I tell my students this story. My elementary school had three male teachers, the gym teacher, and two 6th-grade teachers. Mr. Benyo and Mr. Anderson were very likeable, amiable fellows. And, stout fellows in good shape. Mr. Benyo was tall and lean, like a point guard. Mr. Anderson was as tall and muscular, like a football running back. These fellows were also responsible for doling out swats. Each had a large paddle, speckled with holes, mounted above their chalkboard. Every day, those paddles were on display. And, they were used. Not frequently, but used nonetheless. As a 1st or 2nd grader, when the sounds of SMAK! echoed down the corridors of school, followed by wailing, your soul would huddle in your rectum. Teachers would leave their classroom doors open for the first swat, letting everyone in the room make sure they heard that sound before shutting. Some kids would start crying, anyway. Those swats would set the tone, though; an example of one student, maybe two was all that was needed to maintain order for months.
In those days, parents would say, “by all means, swat away. And, I’ll back you up when Junior gets home.” Today, I know for sure that does not happen. Parents are more interested in being ‘friends’ with their children, not mentors, or even parents. Parents constantly cross boundaries with their children. As a result, children behave as if entitled to respect without doing anything to earn respect. Children treat teachers and administrators disrespectfully, with their parents explicit or implicit permission.
- Homework: Homework is not busy work. Students think so because they don’t see the point. Our jobs is to show them the point. How do we do that? Homework has to include relevance. In our society, technology can help expose relevance. The Internet can bring into the classroom real-world examples of why history is important, why sociology is important, why math and English is important. Lesson plans can communicate terminology and concepts, themes and ideas, and when coupled with real-world examples, can provide powerful insights and relevance. Have students calculate differences in income over their working life depending on salaries from different careers. Bring disciplines together. Economics should draw from math, English, sociology, and psychology, for example. All educators need to be unified when grading writing assignments. All classes should create writing assignments and grade them according to proper English grammar rules, and make students continue to do work over until correct. Go to university-sponsored seminars and workshops. Seminars and workshops for a specific discipline, like geography, or history, draw from all other disciplines and train teachers how to pull disparate bits of information, put those bits together, and make something new and interesting. And, the nice treat is usually those workshops are free, provide college credit, and may even provide a stipend. From my own parental involvement, coupled with my own experiences from growing up with a mother who taught all levels, from preschool to Special Education in high school, I get the sense that parents are a good portion of the problem. Parents, in total, are responsible for influencing poor choices in school districts, and making poor choices at home, and setting bad examples for their children. Individual parents might be doing fine, if they are supporting teachers, if they enforce homework rules, if they enforce discipline. Otherwise, those remaining parents are part of the problem. And, over the last two decades of laissez-faire parenting has infected our educational system.
- Use Your Life/Experiences: I recently received an email from a student. She related how she was an elementary education major, looking forward to my course, and would like to travel outside the United States, “after retirement.” I emailed her back, thanked her for her interest in the course, and explained to her that waiting until retirement to travel was doing no one any favors. “You need to travel outside the United States at your first opportunity." Every opportunity in life can be used as a teaching moment. By traveling abroad now, she could use her traveling experience in her classroom. Communicating those trips to students sets a good example for young people, planting seeds of excitement. Why did you choose a degree in Education? How did you like college? What was your best experience? What would you do over again if you could something differently? What other jobs have you had? What did you learn from those other jobs? So many times people are afraid of giving away information, fear that information will make them vulnerable. By hiding information, we hinder building that student/instructor connection. Students get the impression faculty are grown in labs, in secret research centers, and by talking down to them, by hiding the personal costs that we have made in our lives to position ourselves in front of chalkboard, we only perpetuate their thinking. Show them that you are human, and show them what your education has meant to you, show them that even mistakes are valuable as long as that mistake becomes a learning lesson, and you have a chance of making an impression.
- Advocate, Support, and Fight. A portion of the reason behind these essays is the rise in anti-intellectual sentiment being expressed across the country. When local politicians publicly speak-out against college and university courses, wonder why an electrician needs a history class, or a why wielder needs a course in English 101, or World Geography, those comments have power. Personally, I find comments like those reprehensible, and within a governing body, like a state legislature, I not only find them reprehensible but borderline grounds for dismissal, if that were possible. Politicians that act against improving the foundations of society actively advocate for a mediocre society. Educators are suppose to be a bulwark against ignorance and bias. In fact, educators should take an active role within their classrooms to remove bias and ignorance wherever those issues arise. Another recent example, noted earlier, is the teaching of Arabic. Arabic is a language. Islam is a religion. A Muslim is encouraged to have some working knowledge of Arabic to read the Qu’ran. Arabic is spoken by Arabs, Kurds, Berbers, Egyptians, Moroccans, and others, by Jews, and Christians, and Muslims. People regularly conflate Islam and Arabic, wrongly connecting both. As educators, we are responsible for fixing these mistaken connections. For the United States to have a fully functional participatory and representative Democracy, an educated populace is required, is MANDATORY. As educators working to build an educated workforce we are also working to maintain form of government.
Advocating may mean standing up to ignorant parents and spineless administrators. Advocating may mean putting ourselves outside our comfort zone, and taking heat, taking criticism. The bottom-line is making sure our children have better lives than we had, and that we leave behind a better society than we were born into.
We, as educators, can be our own worst obstacles to teaching. Our own complacency. Our own lack of vision. I certainly am not perfect. I ask my own students to “prove me wrong” a challenge to see if they will take up my gauntlet. And, on occasion, students have proven me wrong, and we all learn. Any potential educator that says, "I teach 4th-grade math; that’s all I need to know” should not be in a classroom. Administrators can be obstacles. Principals and superintendents who are people-pleasers, who avoid conflict or making tough choices, or have problems supporting faculty are toxic. Parents, many of whom may never have set foot on a college campus let alone taken a college course, can also be toxic obstacles in advancing education. Teachers, educators can have students, parents, administrators, the community, and even other teachers as toxic obstacles. The profession can be very satisfying, but to those that have a strong backbone. Otherwise, teaching can be a source of immense dissatisfaction, frustration, and fast burn-out.
I hope my comments help, at least in some small way.