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Sunday, October 9, 2011

My Vision for America -- Part IV

As we have said, education is a primary key to America’s future.  Friedman and Mandelbaum in their book, “That Used to be Us” go even further by declaring that “Today…more than ever before, our national security depends on the quality of our educational system.”  They connect education quality to economic growth which is the key to national power and influence in today’s flattening world.  They quote President Obama on this same subject: “the country that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”  This is why Friedman and Mandlebaum have concluded: “Today, what matters is not how your local school ranks in its county or state but how America’s schools rank in the world.”

We have explored one of the six areas in which they say our schools must improve, i.e. the need to have excellent teachers and principals.  To that, I have added my own thoughts for improvement.  It is now time to explore the other five areas, but first I offer once again my own Purpose Statement for Public Education which I believe must overlay all that I say about education reform.

To involve an entire community of educators (administrators, teachers, students, parents, volunteers and other interested citizens) in the teaching of traditional and foundational curricula (history, English, mathematics, science, language, technology);  in the drawing out of experiential learnings (through the arts, simulated games, business internships and problem-solving) and in the discovery of skills, talents, concepts, beliefs, values and verities, in order to produce accomplished individuals, informed citizens, critical and independent thinkers, lifetime learners, cultural literates, world-class workers and competitors, and compassionate human beings willing to advocate for the welfare of the human family.”

The second area of improvement must be parents who are more involved and demanding of what will pass as quality education.  This also speaks to the third necessity of having students who come to school prepared to learn.

This must start before parents actually have children in school.  It starts with excellent pre-natal care.  It starts with as small a thing as playing classical music when a child is still in the womb.  It starts with reading to children at very early ages.  It starts with parents teaching the alphabet and letter sounds and the recognizing of objects and body parts.  It starts with an attitude on the part of parents that children can start discovering and learning as soon as they exit the womb.  Parents have a responsibility from the moment of conception to find out, to discover, to research how they can be educators for their children.  That means that society needs to be more focused on helping parents to realize this goal.  We need school districts concentrating on how they can assist parents of pre-school age children.  If public schools are to become community centers of learning, we need districts to provide home visitors who can teach appropriate education skills to parents.    

When their children are in schools, parents need to be more like Chinese parents, like Amy Chua who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” who issued a wake-up call to American parents.  As she said in her book, “Studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children.  The Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future…arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.” 

While there may be a fine line between such involvement and “making your kid neurotic”, in general, Friedman and Mandelbaum believe that Chua has two things quite right: the need to hold children to the highest standards that push them out of their comfort zones, and the need to be involved in their schooling.”  Trophies for everyone is a travesty on standard-setting.  Rewarding kids simply for effort is short-sighted;  they should be rewarded for excellence, and American parents especially need to learn this.

Clearly, parents need to be involved in the life of the school community.  A PTA of the past is not adequate.  We need parent mentors and teachers in the classrooms.  We need parent organizations who become advisers to their districts and their school systems.  We need parent representatives who will meet with other parents and express their frustrations, ideas and opinions to the system overseers.  In other words, parents must organize to push for policies, standards and actions that will challenge their schools and their children while also caring about their futures.
A fourth need is for politicians who push to raise educational standards.  Politicians need to understand what we have already said: that education is the key to our economy and our position in the world.  Politicians must themselves become educators and learners.  As a whole, they themselves are inadequately prepared to be either.  They need to become better informed on what is going on in schools throughout this country, and throughout the world.  Perhaps an education “junket” to understand best practices in education would be a better use of tax dollars than some of the “vacations” that some politicians have disguised in the past as “learning experiences.”
Politicians, especially governors, cannot be content with the standards they set under “No Child Left Behind” legislation.  Some states set standards that were blatantly inferior so that students could pass the tests.  Some governors have now laid off teachers and administrators and shortened the school week or day, in order to save money.  Was this action based on educational criteria, or simply on the need to cut spending?  In my opinion, they are sabotaging the long-term growth and competitiveness of their students, their citizens, their economies, and their states.  Governors need to raise standards, fund best practices, test against personal education goals and against other countries, connect education with real jobs through internships, increase education hours, push community service as learning, and invest heavily in teacher and administrator training.  That’s a beginning.

Finally, we need neighbors ready to invest in schools even though their children are not there, and business leaders committed to raising educational standards in their communities.

We cannot make enough progress in our public schools unless neighbors appreciate, and involve themselves with, the schools in their neighborhood.  After all, the status of their schools greatly affects the whole neighborhood.  A good neighborhood school draws concerned and competent families and therefore the economy of a neighborhood may depend a great deal on the health of their schools.  Go to board of education meetings, organize to demand better education, join with parents in their efforts, but most of all, become involved in the schools as volunteers, as mentors, as classroom aides; in whatever role will enhance the status of that school as a healthy learning community.

Business leaders have a unique opportunity to influence the education and development of students and their schools.  But, where are the business leaders?  Increasingly, they are less interested in the big picture that includes educational endeavors, than in their narrow concern for profitability.   With all the money they spend on lobbying for their own interests, could they not devote some of their lobbying toward improvement of education in this country?  It’s really in their short-term and long-term interest to be more active in influencing legislation which will support higher education standards, top-notch technical schools, world-famous teacher training academies, school re-construction, and classroom resources.  Why isn’t there a coalition of leading companies intent on doing this? 

Why aren’t Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Verizon, etc. joining together to make sure that every public school has high-speed broadband communications capability, has powerful laptops for every student, and desktops for every classroom and lab?  I don’t know the definitive answer, but emphasize that it is imperative for the future economy.

There are some good examples of internships for high school students in local businesses and some corporations.  That kind of on-the-job experience is vital for students of all kinds, but it is currently just a trickle.  Business leaders need to be in the schools and classrooms as well, giving presentations on how businesses operate, what they expect from employees, and how to go about getting interviews and jobs, and even internships, with their companies.

Business leaders need to push politicians, not only about the quality of American education, but they need to push for immigration policies that will attract talent to this country in high-skill jobs.  A view that restricts such immigration, or that restricts education and careers for foreign students, is again short-sighted in terms of our economic health and growth.  Business leaders need to come out of the shadows of corporate greed and get involved in producing an education system that will benefit us all.

Friedman and Mandelbaum have a conclusion worth your consideration: “we simply cannot escape the fact that we as a society have some catching up to do in education generally.  When you are trying to catch up, you have to work harder, focus on the fundamentals, and get everyone to pitch in.  Give us a country where everyone feels that he or she has a real stake in improving education…and we promise you the best teachers will become even better, the average ones will improve, and the worst ones will truly stick out.”