Back To School To Learn...What, Exactly? Old Days, Old Ways, And Educational Priorities...

Old Harding, seen through the rubble of old Madison School. Are all changes improvements?  (Photo by Gary Rice)

Well, it's that time again. New clothes, backpacks, shoes, pencils, paper....You know the drill. It's time to get the kids ready for school again, and another school-year filled with challenges and adventures presents itself to our young people.

Schools can certainly be wonderful these days. Indeed, schools do so much more nowadays to address the needs of modern society, but of course, as in the past, there are always ways they can improve. Adding to this discussion would be the age-old and always controversial question regarding what should be emphasized in schools? A school day, after all, is only so long, and the give and take question as to what schools should be teaching during that time has been a controversial issue for as long as schools have existed. In the early 1800's, for example, many rural parents could see absolutely no need for their children to be taught classical literature and higher level mathematics when all they really "needed to know" was how to milk the family cow without getting kicked in the teeth or how to avoid being swatted by Bessie's tail as she searched for those barnyard flies. Indeed, our present system of summer vacations had much to do with the compromise that educators were forced to make with the farming community needing kids back home to work the farm in the warm months.

Yes, the question of what should be emphasized in school is a very old one.

As a retired special needs teacher with more than 30 years of classroom experience, I think many school districts, including Lakewood's, do attempt to offer a fair balance between academics, vocational choices, and the arts. However, the relatively recent state and federally mandated directives regarding high stakes testing and academics have sometimes come at a considerable cost to non-academic curricular areas and to practical learning skills that in the past were either expected to be taught at home or left to professional trade apprentice programs. Academic learning is fine, of course, but on a practical level, are there not a number of essential life skills that many schools have cast aside in our quest for a nation of scholars?

Is it not patently obvious, for example, that offering a course in lifestyle ethics would be beneficial to students? How about a course on how to be a better consumer? What about a course on basic home electrical, plumbing, and auto maintenance skills? What about a course on job interview preparation and other essentials regarding the world of competitive employment? Perhaps a course on basic law, personal finance, and money management would be in order? Scouting, for example, has offered some or most of those kinds of exploratory experiences (and more!) for many years through its merit badge system. Why have so many schools largely ignored that kind of stuff?

I have my own theory about the answer, but whatever the reason, the bottom line is that school drop-out rates, particularly in urban schools, appear to be an indication of the failure of so many learning institutions in responding to the diverse needs of their students.

You can, for example, push science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) all you want to, but unless you extend opportunities for all students to also explore other areas where they can experience success, you're still going to have problems with some students whose interests and abilities lie elsewhere.

Any time schools attempt to force all students through the same academic cattle chute, they will discover some students who will either be not quite ready or willing to go along with the crowd. Then, the drop-out rates start to climb, with the related societal issues that follow.

It's not merely a question as to whether all students can learn. Of course they can, but there are also the questions of willingness to study, motivation to succeed, home support, and developmental readiness, not to mention each child's innate strengths and weaknesses. Do all children learn to walk at the same time? Do all children learn to talk at the same time? Yet, in so many schools, all students (and their teachers!) are supposed to complete all tasks equally, all be on page 56 together by Friday, and all have equal success in the process. High standards are easy to set, but failure to provide support systems that will effectively assist students in need has so often been shown to be a recipe for educational disaster.

Once upon a time, the first eight grades heavily emphasized reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as basic study skills. As any teacher will tell you, those study habits and basic skills so necessary for success need to be formed in those first few years. High school in the olden days was a place for greater specialization of either academic or vocational tracking. Nowadays, more and more students are being required to take higher level academics. While that practice may seem laudable to lovers of academia, the scholastic bar is presently being set so high that many students experience great difficulty in one or more of the fundamental higher level academic areas of instruction, and that alone can endanger their graduation from high school.

The fundamental question here, to me at least, is whether the educational pendulum in American classrooms has swung too far in the direction of academics at the expense of vocational training, real life skills, and arts opportunities? Comparisons are often made with test scores from other nations, although those comparisons are sometimes unfairly made because other countries often have specialty schools that split off their non-college bound students into different programs and institutions. But the fact remains that academics, vocational classes, and real world preparedness must all come together to help provide America's students with viable options and opportunities so they might enjoy a successful post-high school future.

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Volume 10, Issue 17, Posted 8:13 AM, 08.21.2014