Education, what ails ye?

When tackling the subject of education in Lawrence County, everyone has an opinion. Educators blame problems on everything from the Common Core to the block schedule, which has been estimated to cost 40 hours of learning a year, to the socio-economic situation. Once upon a time, Lawrence County schools churned out the best and the brightest anywhere. Many went on to college to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, and other professionals requiring rigorous college courses and competitive graduate/law/medical school entry. Today’s graduates are finding it much more difficult to compete.

The lower socio-economic reality facing Lawrence County factors most strongly into the decline. Many career-minded individuals in specialized fields must choose to drive or live elsewhere. So they take their college-bound students with them to school systems where their children are offered competitive classes with children and parents who want a stringent education. Sadly, too many children in this county have parents who are not motivated to push their children to excel.

There is a culture here of parents who argue with teachers that they are “pushing my kid too hard,” or “making it too hard for my kid at school.”  I fully understand that all children are not cut out for college; certainly vocational training is the best route for many. Having excellent carpenters, artisans, plumbers, electricians, welders, hairdressers, and massage therapists, for example, is vital for everyone’s quality of life. But if education in this county is too heavily structured around those careers, not only will we keep turning out kids unprepared for a more rigorous post-high school education, we will not attract businesses to this area. How many CEO’s families would choose a high school without a live AP English teacher and a real physics teacher?

I argued this point years ago in Loretto when the plumbing and physics teachers left the same year. Another educator told me, “We can’t hire a physics teacher! I doubt we could get 6 kids to sign up!” After this conversation, I substituted for the new plumbing replacement, who happened also to be a coach. I talked to the children all day. What I found was that of all the students, only 2 or 3 had any intention of working in the plumbing business after graduation. The rest? They were put there because they had nothing else to take and their parents/guardians did not know they could challenge the placement. They stayed outside 2 or 3 block class periods a day on job sites and not in the classroom, and after six weeks of class, had not opened their books once.  I don’t wish to pick on the vocational teachers because their instruction is invaluable, but my point is that you can force children of low socio-economic status into plumbing but somehow can’t even encourage capable students to take physics that is not online? How about we find a physics teacher who is also a coach? Combine problem solving with technology and mathematics? In other words, encourage the use of technology by combining fields.

The following are additional suggestions to help the educational issues ailing our county:

1. Put emphasis back into challenging courses as other schools systems never stopped doing. I understand the focus on graduation rates = federal dollars, but this concentration has not improved the quality of education. It has merely kept unmotivated students in school.

2. Eliminate the block system. Go for a 7 or 8 period day. Teachers might have shorter plan periods, and we might have to apply for grants for iPads, Chromebooks, or Android Tablets, etc., so that extra books are not needed, but this great-in-theory-horrible-in-practice model has killed advanced college-bound courses like upper level biology, chemistry, English, physics, mathematics, social studies.

3. Stop emphasizing standardized testing. Our students should be out exploring habitats, working on projects in greenhouses and horticulture, collecting and identifying species, and experimenting, not cramming to take tests and to reach somebody’s idea of common learning. Standardized testing is forcing unmotivated children into classes that are tested (thereby “dumbing down” classes) and killing creativity, individualized learning, and dynamic teaching. Our public school children will never be able to compete with their private school peers, who still benefit from challenging classrooms without so much testing. Since this issue is mandated by the state, we must lobby our representatives and make our voices heard as well as choose candidates who understand the outcome of pervasive testing.

4. Work harder with students to figure out their life plans. One boy recently found out that he couldn’t catch up to follow his dream. His health sciences course was not enough for pre-veterinary classes. He would have needed advanced biology and chemistry classes in high school just like any premed student would. He didn’t realize this and was unprepared. These classes must be rigorous as they are in public schools elsewhere as well as private schools.

6. Educate parents about what classes children need for careers and offer or mandate seminars for struggling children and their parents who need a wake-up call to the importance of hard work in high school.

5. Stop giving hand-outs and test-answers-disguised-as-study guides and stop the open-book tests! These are not challenging anyone, just passing kids along with no hopes to be able to think up new ideas or challenge old ones. Kids should be listening, taking notes, and being forced to formulate ideas and discuss them.

If we build it, they will come, so the idea goes. If we don’t fix education for the brightest, we won’t be able to attract the brightest to invest in our county. People looking to relocate—people who are searching for a good standard of living for their families, want a great education for their children as much as skilled labor around them. They also want the assurance that even if their children do not come back here someday, we will have educated them to go out into the world and make a difference.

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