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Monday, September 26, 2011

Vision for America–Part II

Following-up on my last Blog, it is important to continue to advocate for communal nurturing of children and youth.  Most important to that end is undoubtedly our educational system.  In order to discuss a Vision of education for the future, we need to see where we currently stand in this crucial area.  To that end, I turn to Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum whose latest book,  “That used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back”, provides us with some statistics about our current system.

--today, in 8 other nations, young adults are more likely to have college degrees than in the U.S.  Only 42% of young adults in the U.S. have earned at least an associate’s degree; in South Korea that percentage is 58

--about 1 in 4 -- 25% -- high school students in the U.S. drops out or fails to graduate on time; that’s almost one million students leaving schools, and high school dropouts today are pretty much condemned to poverty and social failure

--75% of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they failed to graduate from high school or don‘t score high enough on the enlistment test, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit; this failure of our under-performing education system creates a national security burden, according to General Wesley Clark and Major General James Kelly

--College entrance exams suggest that just one quarter of graduating high school seniors are ready for college; 40% of incoming freshmen at community colleges have to take at least one remedial class during their first semester

--young Americans today have almost identical college completion rates as their parents; in other words, there has been no improvement in a generation

--by 2018, the U.S. economy will need about 27 million more college-educated workers, but at current graduation rates, the Center on Education and the Workforce predicts we will come up about 3 million short

--figures that emerge from challenged areas are bleak:  a study in Detroit found that 47% of adult Detroit residents - about 200,000 people -- are functionally illiterate; about half that number have their high school diplomas or a GED

--a 2004 study of 120 American corporations concluded that a third of the employees in blue chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training

In earlier blogs (see 9/26/10 and 10/6/10), I indicated some other shortcomings of our American education system which I won’t repeat here, except to say that many countries posted higher scores on the PISA (international tests) than did American students.  Friedman comments:

“We don’t think of education as an investment in national growth and national security because throughout our history it has been a localized, decentralized issue, not a national one.  Today, however, what matters is not how your local school ranks in its county or state but how America’s schools rank in the world.”

“To prosper, America has to educate its young people up to and beyond the new levels of technology.  Not only does everyone today need more education to build the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are now necessary for any good job; students also need better education.  We define ‘better education’ as an education that nurtures young people to be creative creators and creative servers.  That is, we need our education system not only to strengthen everyone’s basics -- reading, writing and arithmetic-- but to teach and inspire all Americans to start something new, to add something extra, or to adapt something old in whatever job they are doing.  With the world getting more hyper-connected all the time, maintaining the American dream will require learning, working, producing, relearning, and innovating twice as hard, twice as fast, twice as often, and twice as much.”

In a past blog (10/22/10), I spoke about the “purpose of national public education” and concluded with a preliminary statement of purpose for public education that reflects what Friedman advocates.  With some slight revision, it went like this:

“To involve an entire community of teacher-learners (administrators, teachers, students, parents, volunteers and other interested citizens) in the teaching of traditional and foundational curricula (history, English, mathematics, science, language, technology); additionally, drawing out experiential learnings (through the arts, simulated games, and problem-solving) and discovering 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.”

My Vision for American education, then, starts with the necessity of a national purpose feeding into local strategies for public education.  National government, and the States, must act on this or we shall continue to fall behind.  My Vision includes a national dialogue and debate on this subject, to be led by the White House, culminating in a national White House Conference on Education that defines both the purpose and the strategy for public education in the 21st century.  I see a year-long period leading up to this Conference that would engage students, teachers, administrators, educators of teachers and ordinary citizens as delegates to state-wide and regional conferences leading up to the national conference.  This way, problems could be identified, broken down into issues and then fed into the national conference.  This is a massive undertaking similar to the White House Conference on Aging in 1981.  It would take much organization and targeting of the aspects that would go into the definition of purpose and strategy.  It would hopefully galvanize the country to focus on education as our “sputnik moment” in this century.

Secondly, since my Vision includes a national purpose for public education, it is important to look carefully and critically at the role of local school boards.

Out of the many tasks that have been delegated to school boards by the states, or which have accrued to them over time, three overlapping and somewhat contradictory responsibilities can be identified. First, the board is a policymaking entity and an elected body with a legislative and representative function.  Second, the board is an administrative agency that provides for the operation of the local school system and is ultimately accountable for the system's operation; an executive function. Third,  it has been granted some quasi-judicial powers, allowing it to investigate, render appeal decisions, and even hold hearings.

I do not for a second believe that we will ever see the national government replacing local school boards or state departments of education, but I do believe we need to see certain changes locally:

Policy-making should remain an important area in which school boards function; however, certain areas should become advisory only, such as in relation to the district's budget; performance indicators, and pupil assessment systems; curricular frameworks and standards for student achievement.  All of these require expert construction and execution, but they also require advisory input from the elected representatives of the people.

Policy-making should begin with the articulation of a shared vision and mission for the school district, taking into consideration state mandates and federal mandates, followed by the establishment of  goals and strategic objectives. Evaluating operations and analyzing gaps between current outcomes and desired outcomes should then lead to the development and implementation of strategic plans for the accomplishment of key objectives.  This must be an on-going process, and it must include the evaluation of each particular district in relation to schools in other countries.  School boards should be able to develop a Vision statement of what a competitive, world-class education consists, and should not shy away from making that the basis of policy for their district!

All hiring and firing of teachers should be placed in the hands of principals and superintendents, with school boards acting as appeal mechanisms.  All school boards must include representation from students and parents.  All school boards must come up with ways to engender broader monetary support than simply by property owner taxation and federal and state support:  all citizens need to pay perhaps through a small value-added tax dedicated to education support; corporations and businesses and foundations must also donate substantially.

Finally, what we mean by quality education must include the following, in my opinion:

-- an emphasis on science and math beginning in Kindergarten
-- art & music as part of curriculum beginning in Kindergarten and continuing through all levels
-- reading skills begin in Kindergarten, but there must be a pre-K emphasis on reading, especially in the home
-- one-on-one mentoring beginning in Kindergarten; some mentors should follow child through other grades
-- K-6 must put emphasis on training and skill development, but must especially concentrate on training in creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, use of technology, resilience, team functioning, innovation, collaboration and cooperation

And, we cannot ignore: 

--school buildings must be rehabilitated especially in poorer districts, so that learning environments are clean and inviting
--schools that are dangerous, badly staffed, educationally indifferent, and under-funded should either be reformed, closed, or made into a new configuration under new management, such as a charter school or specialized academy
--we have to raise the standards for all students, and emphasize that “average” is no longer acceptable. 
--we need more routes to good jobs, not just through college; we need high-quality vocational training
-- drop-outs must be reduced; one possibility: require community or national service for anyone dropping out of high school and include a required educational component
--everyone needs post-secondary education; high school education today needs to prepare graduates to attend a university, two-year college, or vocational college without remedial courses being necessary
--everyone in college must be prepared for the next step, which is to become a life-time learner with future personal educational goals defined before graduation

We can no longer tolerate average achievement, or getting-by, or dropping-out.  According to Tom Friedman, there are six things necessary to produce what the country needs: better teachers and better principals; parents who are more involved and more demanding of their children’s education; politicians who push to raise educational standards, not dumb them down; neighbors who are ready to invest in schools even though their children do not attend; business leaders committed to raising standards in their communities; students who come to school prepared to learn.  More on this next time.