Learning, Smoking, and The Long Arc of Change

       When I think about the huge job of improving education outcomes among our students (especially our poor students) in America, I think about the amazing turn-around in behavior about smoking over my lifetime.

       It is nothing short of a modern-day miracle that smoking has declined so dramatically in the United States over the past 50 years.  In 1965, 42.4% of U.S. adults were smokers.  By 2003, that number was cut in half and in 2013 we were down to 17.8%.  And, of course, our population has risen quite a bit over this timeframe from 194 million people in 1965 to over 320 million people today.

       No one in the United States in 1965 would have ever believed that Americans would give up their love for smoking so dramatically.  Even with today's relatively low rates of smoking, nearly 70% of current smokers want to stop smoking.  It is nothing short of amazing the way this addictive behavior has changed in the United States in just a couple of generations.

       I believe that our public schools can look at this incredible event, this long arc of changed behavior, and that we can use it as a lesson for tackling the equally difficult task of improving the educational outcomes of our students.  We can examine the efforts that took place (and continue to take place) that convinced people that smoking is bad for you; and (perhaps) we can undertake similar efforts in our public schools.

       First of all, there was a national effort to inform the public of the dangers of smoking.  This began with the first surgeon general's report that provided proof that smoking was bad for your health.  Of course, there were lots of people of that didn't believe the contents of this report.  I'm sure there were people who pointed to relatives and friends who lived well into old age and smoked their whole life--and, therefore, refused to believe that smoking was bad for your health.  But more and more information came out from public and private sources about the dangerous health risks of smoking and eventually it became very hard for people to believe that smoking wouldn't harm their health.  As smokers died from lung cancer and other diseases, people began to link these deaths to their habit of smoking.  This gave people a personal connection to the ill effects of smoking and it convinced them to never smoke or to quit smoking.  As they grew up and had children of their own, this knowledge of the evils of smoking was passed on to the next generation.  And so, what started as a national effort from government sources, slowly became a combined effort of government and private resources that worked together to bring down the rates of smoking in America.


       I believe that a similar combined effort is underway in our public schools today.  We have a government that believes in the value of education and is dedicated in improving the education of our citizens.  We also have many private efforts underway that are striving to do the same.  We also have segments of our population that don't believe that education is important.  As with the smoking example, they point to friends and relatives that quit school in eighth grade and grew up perfectly fine.  But (as with the smoking example), we also have generations of parents that have regrets of not doing better and trying harder when they were in high school.  They look at their peers who went on to college or some sort of vocational training and now have higher-paying jobs.

       I believe that we can change the behavior of Americans toward the value of education--and all of the hard work that this entails--over the next generation.  I believe that we can see a country with higher high school graduation rates and higher college graduation rates.  And when this happens, we will reap the benefits of a more educated society.  We will see less crime, less people on welfareless obesity, and a strong economy.  And I believe that this will happen within the lifetimes of our current high school students.

       We can do it.  We have done it in other areas of our society and we can do in education too.  We must do better and we will.


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