Sunday, August 24, 2014

Three Wishes for Education

     As I begin my 27th year in education, I would like to look ahead and think about the three biggest things that I would like to see in education in the United States.  These things may happen before I retire (still a long way off), they may happen before I die (hopefully a longer way off [!] ); but I hope they happen.  So rub the lamp; here are my three wishes.

#1) Poor students learn just as much and just as well as rich students

     We are constantly bombarded with data that shows poor students having lower achievement than their richer peers.  We (in education) know why this happens.  It's not just that they lack money for adequate, nourishing food.  Students from poor families come to school in kindergarten already behind their richer peers.  They have less books in their home.  They have a higher percentage of parents who didn't finish high school and/or never went to college.  They live in more dangerous neighborhoods compared to rich kids.  They don't always have a space at home to study or to do homework.  They don't always have an adult in the home who can help with homework.  When they get sick, they don't go to the doctor as much or as quickly as richer kids; so they get sicker and they miss more school.

     The list goes on and on.  And it's all true.  Poor students have many, many disadvantages when it comes to schooling and learning.  Add to this list that all of their teachers went to college, graduated from college, and probably (most of their teachers) were never poor--since the percentage of poor students going to and completing college (still) remainings embarrassingly low for Americans.  So many of their teachers have little or no experience at what it's like to be grow up in a poor household.

     And so, for all of these reasons (and more) poor students in America have lower achievement than rich students.  I feel that America's public schools have a moral responsibility to these children to see to it that they get a great education and that they succeed in education.  It is our responsibility to prepare these students for the world that they will inherit.  It is our responsibility to see to it that each and every poor student does not continue the cycle of poverty but ends poverty for themselves and for their children.

     It is my number one wish that our public schools do a better job with our most vulnerable students.  In fact, we must do better.

#2 Learning is more important than getting grades

     It probably isn't fair to say this, but a lot of the time I feel that so many of our students are more concerned about getting grades than they are about learning.  I hope that isn't true for the majority of our students, but it certainly seems to be true for many of our students.  We created a monster when it comes to grading and it is out of control.

     Students stay up late and worry endlessly not about whether or not they will learn something, but instead, whether or not they will get this or that grade.  It has led us to a system where many students are great at (what I call) "playing school".  They do what they're told, they read the book, they turn in their homework, they take the test, they get the grade.  And one week later they couldn't tell you anything they learned from that unit of study.

     This is a major reason why so many students begin college and so few finish college.  Heck, this is a major reason why so many students do great in (say) Algebra 1 and do lousy in Algebra 2.

     We have to do a better job and emphasizing the learning and de-emphasizing the grading.  Students need to be rewarded for actually learning.  When they do, they will feel a great sense of accomplishment and will celebrate the learning--and care less about the grading.

     We don't give grades when children learn to ride a bike or play the piano or do a magic trick or hit a baseball.  Yet children find great enjoyment in doing these things--all without grades.  My second wish is for students to find enjoyment in learning--in conquering a difficult subject or a difficult learning task--and succeeding.

#3 All students graduate from high school

     The high school graduation rate in the United States is around 75%.  (Note: In our colleges, the graduation rate is even lower.)  This is a serious problem for our nation and is certainly a serious problem for the people who don't have a high school diploma.  The statistics for people without a high school diploma are awful.  Higher rates of unemployment; lower wages; higher percentages on welfare; poorer health; and (worst of all) a much higher chance that their children will not graduate from high school.

     There have been studies that tell us that many high school dropouts leave school for non-academic reasons.  They don't feel a connection to the school or they don't  feel as if any of the adults care about whether they stay in school or leave.

     We have to take a hard look at what we can do in our schools to keep students in school and to help them to graduate.  I know that this is being done in a lot of places--this isn't (unfortunately) a new problem.  But our economy in the United States is not kind to people who don't have a high school diploma.  This is a problem that can be solved and it will improve the lives of millions of young adults as well as improving the communities all over our country.

     These are my three wishes for education in the United States.  What are your three wishes?  Let me know.  Leave a comment or use the Twitter hashtag #ThreeWishesForEducation.

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