Educate Better, More Prepared Citizens

Statewide Initiative 5

Music education

What subjects make them better citizens? Why, the ones we cut first, of course.

Entire books have been written about ways to reform our educational system, and they offer a wide variety of diverse – and often opposing – solutions. But this piece is about fixing cities … which, as frightening as it is to admit, is easier than fixing our educational system.

If we were to focus on three actions that would be a) impactful, b) achievable and c) (at least theoretically) simple to make a positive impact on our urban centers, they would be:

Stop Trying to Prepare Every Kid for College

We’ve been sold a vision of America in which every person has at least a baccalaureate degree, and it’s created an environment in which we see any child who’s not “college material” as an utter failure destined for a lifetime of minimum-wage hell.

For the smart inner-city minority kid who knows his family can’t afford a four-year degree, we’re telling her pretty early that the “normal,” accepted route to the top is blocked. We’ve not only created a sheepskin ceiling, but we beat kids to death with it.

In the meantime, the skilled trades – in construction, machining, patternmaking – are crying for candidates, and our cities are crying for jobs.

The educational establishment will say our jobless rate is the result of kids who “aren’t prepared for the jobs of the 21st century” (which simply whaps those kids with that sheepskin one more time). But it’s really a matter of allowing children to be exposed to career paths that don’t require a four-year degree – and helping their parents understand the nature of today’s skilled trade occupations.

Running a five-axis CNC mill isn’t the gritty, greasy job we think of when we hear “machining.” It can be rewarding and fulfilling, and has more in common with a computer operator than it does with the picture in our mind of the guy in oil-soaked overalls standing knee-deep in swarf.

Best of all, a kid who takes the skilled trades path still has other options open. He can go to college while he’s earning decent money and eventually move on to something else. Which seems a little smarter than graduating from college – with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt hanging over his head – and, in many cases, no guarantee that he’ll be able to find a decent-paying job in his field.

Our k-12 education system needs to expose children to a wide variety of career paths instead of herding them, like cattle, into one of two pens: college, or failure.

We seem to be making inroads in this direction. The Snyder administration has made STEM education a priority. But as a society – and more importantly, as teachers and parents – we need to recognize that $30k in student loan debt might not be the best way to launch a career.

Make Arts Education a Priority

When a school district gets in financial trouble, what’s the first thing that gets cut?

The arts, of course. When resources are scarce, we can’t waste them on foo-foo la-la frills like music and pretty pictures. We need to concentrate on readin’, ritin’ and ’rithmetic.

Now, we can easily see the first problem here just from the standpoint of elementary motivational psychology. It’s like telling a toddler that, yes, she has to eat her vegetables, but we can’t afford any pudding.

But there’s a deeper and far more sinister result from this.

The Research Institute has developed what it calls “developmental assets” – characteristics or qualities that are markers of a child’s social, intellectual and emotional development. Which assets children have – or don’t have – at certain age levels can help predict, among other things, whether or not a child will end up practicing high-risk behavior: alcohol, drugs, crime.

Most longitudinal studies consistently note one developmental asset in particular that appears to get grade school children off to a stronger academic start and steer them away from high-risk behavior: creative activities.

The arts.

The first thing that gets cut when money gets tight is the one thing that most likely will make that child a successful student and productive citizen.

The creative expression and challenges offered by the arts enhance problem-solving skills and create a more rounded individual – one better equipped for, as they say, the jobs of 21st-century “creative economy.”

Yet as I write this, schools are laying off most of their “arts” teachers. Why?

Because while the arts might be the best preparation for the important test we call “life,” they don’t figure much in the be-all and end-all, the alpha and the omega of our educational system and the political system that provides its funding: the MEAP.

Which leads us to …

Stop Teaching to the Test

As we have attempted to take a more “businesslike” approach to “managing” education we’ve developed programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. They’re well-intended programs that make an effort to fix an educational system that is, if not exactly broken, certainly not, as teachers often said about me, “performing to his potential.”

The biggest flaw with these programs, though, is their most onerous and malignant reliance upon “metrics.” Because the metrics, in this case, are standardized achievement tests.

The flaws in such testing, such as cultural bias, have been well documented. But those aren’t even the biggest problems here.

Perhaps the largest problem with our over-reliance upon standardized tests to measure the performance of children, their schools and their teachers is that it has created a system that teaches to the test. School is no longer a place where young minds explore the world, discover new ideas and shape their passions.

It’s a place where they commit to rote memory a set of facts that are on a test. This treats music, the visual arts, literature, history and philosophy as unnecessary “extras.” But in fact, they are how we create well-rounded, thoughtful, curious people – people who have the capacity to become wise, instead of just smart.

We have a lot of smart people in the world. We don’t always have enough wise ones.

Standardized tests don’t measure the most important things school should impart upon a child: the love of learning. And the irony is that the children who do, indeed, most love to learn – who are the children who become the inventors and statesmen and entrepreneurs – often don’t perform as well on standardized tests. Because their minds aren’t standardized.

Worse, standardized test scores become a yardstick that measures not the object that needs measuring, but the shadow it casts in a particular kind of light.

I’ve often said that using a school system’s MEAP scores to predict how well my child will perform is a little like predicting my heart attack risk based on the statewide average cholesterol level.

Yet at the first sign of lowered achievement test scores, websites such as citydata.com make their lists, politicians pontificate and parents panic. The most involved parents pull the best students from that school or district to somewhere “they’ll do better” – even though, in all likelihood, those children would do well in anywhere.

Our submissiveness to test scores then has the bizarre side effect of drawing the best children and the most involved parents out of the schools – and away from the peers – that most need them.

Standardized tests have their place. But their place should not be the supreme arbiter of every aspect of our educational system.

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