Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Schools vs. The Real World

(News-Herald, July 10) In late June, the Associated Press released the results of their poll of US attitudes toward education. They sampled just under 1700 adults (about 50/50 parents/nonparents), which is statistically valid albeit tidy. And they forgot to ask me any questions.

Education still rates as a big point of concern. Only terrorism, gas prices, the economy, and health care caused greater concern (immigration, same sex marriage, abortion, not so much).

The headlines reported the survey results as “public thinks schools not preparing students for life.” That’s sort of correct. The public thinks that schools are pretty okay for college prep, medium okay for workplace prep. “Giving children the practical skills they will need to survive as adults” came up short for the greatest number of respondents.

I don’t disagree. I think there are several reasons it’s at least partly true.

Schools reflect society, and as a society we don’t really agree on what skills are needed to be an adult any more. We know that India and China are producing workers with enormous motivation and computer skills, but they also possess the skill of being willing to exist on wages that would not allow an American worker to live in a van down by the river.

We want our students to value hard work and honor and ethical behavior, but one need not search long and hard to find success stories that involve none of these qualities. One of the ironies of No Child Left Behind is that it’s a school reform spearheaded by the most successful scholastic-slacker-with-family-connections in American history. But never mind the White House; young people need only look as far as tv to see people in their early twenties whose fame and fortune is based on their willingness to make their poor choices in front of a camera. What “real world” skills are demonstrated there, exactly?

Those excuses aside, schools fall short in preparing students for the Real World because schools generally fear the Real World. Part of it is habit—it makes good sense to keep young children shielded from the Real World, and so we just keep doing it on through high school. Part of it is fear of litigation—every time a student interacts with the Real World, schools are blinded by visions of a thousand potential lawsuits.

When people interact with the Real World, there is always a possibility that Bad Things will happen. Schools are often less concerned with preparing students for that moment and more concerned with making sure it doesn’t happen on the school’s watch.

When listing problems as “most” or “not at all” serious, respondents gave the highest urgency to lack of discipline, fighting/gangs, and getting and keeping good teachers. We’re fairly low on Venangoland gang violence. “Lack of discipline” is vague enough as to be meaningless. Getting and keeping good teachers has been a nationwide issue for years; young teachers are leaving the profession almost as quickly as colleges crank them out.

We are disadvantaged here because we can’t offer the kind of juicy salary other areas can; our advantage is that we can offer things like juicy housing costs. But very few districts anywhere behave as if they serious about recruiting, training, and retaining the best teachers.

Local school districts will be pleased to note that the respondents gave much less urgency to issues such as “condition of school buildings” and “access to athletic facilities.”

The majority felt that schools are worse than they were twenty years ago. I’m not sure I agree; at the very least, I’m pretty sure I’m doing a better job than I was twenty years ago.

The majority also felt that if more students finished high school and college, the US economy would be better. I wish we knew why exactly they thought so.

Responders were 70-30 in believing that classroom work was a better measure of student achievement than standardized tests.

One of the few times that parents and non-parents split in the survey was the question of linking teacher pay to student achievement. Parents were 50-50 on the matter, while the general population was 61-37 in favor of it.

And 80% of the parents called their own children’s school “excellent” or “good.” That’s typical; people tend to say that their own school is okay, but all those other schools are messed up.

It would be interesting to see how a survey like this would play out locally. Perhaps local districts can include it when they start merger talks.

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