Friday, July 30, 2010

Are High School Students Really Prepared?

Are High School Students Really Prepared?
Kevin Bryant

Two plus two is four, the earth revolves around the sun, four times five is twenty, osmosis is a chemical process, Paul Revere was not the only rider on the night of his famous ride to warn of the start of the British invading the colonies, Shakespeare wrote Romeo & Juliet, the first 10 amendments to the constitution are called the Bill of Rights, the first man to die in the Revolutionary War was black, “Ur BFF IDK?” is not an acceptable way to write “I don’t know who your best friend is” and no state east of the Mississippi River is bigger than the smallest state west of the Mississippi River (Hawaii excluded for those who like to get really technical). These are basic statements that any high school student should know long before they are ever handed a diploma, but sadly many do not.

I wrote to a half dozen or so current or former high school and college educators and asked them if schools were preparing our kids for life beyond high school in areas other than math and science. These current and former educators are from the west coast, the east coast and parts in between. I have great respect for each of them and consider them to be outstanding in their career field. The comment below best sums up the overall responses that I got.

One reason you see so much about math and science is because math and science are so important in terms of assessment at the state and national level. Schools are judged by those numbers, money is funneled to the schools because of those numbers, and parents want their children to have a good foundation in math and science because of the perception that those scores are more meaningful.

My daughter graduated high school last year. I asked her some simple questions the other day and as I suspected, she didn’t have a clue as to what the correct answers were. Those simple questions I asked her included: “Obama is what number President?” She didn’t have a clue, “How many members make up the Supreme Court?” She answered “12”, “What did Truman Capote do for a living?” and her answer was…..”Wasn’t he a gangster?” She did get the following question right though not by normal means did she know the answer: Is Obama a republican or democrat? When she said democrat I asked her how she knew that one. She told me because had he been a republican, I probably wouldn’t dislike him quite as much. I had to give her some credit for figuring out the right answer.

There are so many students today that can’t speak a complete sentence much less write one. When they actually do try to write a complete sentence, half the words are spelled wrong because spelling is no longer considered important enough to be taught beyond the elementary years or stressed at the high school level. We have spell check to take care of that for us. If you recommend remedial classes for a student, it’s alarming how many parents will protest because of the embarrassment it will bring upon their child. If I were an employer or an admissions person at a college or other institute and someone misspelled half their words on a job or entrance application, that application would immediately go to the bottom of the pile and by the time I got back to it, the likelihood of there being a slot remaining open is practically zero.

Here in Kansas City, the annual school budget for the KCMO school district is approximately $1.2 billion per year. The district for years has been nothing more than a bottomless money pit. Compare Kansas City school district to that of Omaha, NE. These cities rank 30th and 31 respectively in the nation in size yet Omaha’s annual educational budget is just over $500 million per year. That is less than half of KC’s budget for those of you that graduated high school within the last 5 years. There is less than a 600 student difference between the two districts. KCMO school district in 2009 had more classrooms than did Omaha yet Omaha ranked higher in almost every educational category. So it’s quite obvious that money is not the problem.

There are several factors that come into play when it comes to the quality of education our kids get in public school. First off, let me start by saying that I believe that the most dangerous union in the nation is the NEA or Teacher’s Union. When the former head of the union recently gave his farewell speech, he stated it quite plainly. He said that the purpose of the union was not for the betterment of education. The primary purpose of the union was power and money. Now, I believe whole heartedly that there are many fine teachers out there that do the job because they love it, they want to educate the youth of this nation. Why do a job for half your life if you don’t love it. Unfortunately, I believe 10% of all teachers and principals in the public education system are there strictly for the paycheck, perks and prestige that come with the position and nothing more. Teachers have been well respected in communities for more than two centuries now and that respect has been rightfully earned by many, but not all. The union members know that all they have to do is last long enough to be tenured in and unless they are convicted of a crime, the school district basically can’t fire them without risking a lawsuit. What other job can you get where you get multiple weeks off every summer and you still earn vacation days during the 10 months that you actually work? Let me be clear, not all our public educators are in their position primarily because of the perks. I believe that those 10% that I mentioned are the ones dragging public education and the 90% fighting to do their jobs correctly through the mud and our communities are suffering as a result.

Another serious problem with public education is school boards. For one, school boards have way too much authority and in many districts, abuse that power. The power of the school boards should be regulated by the state. School boards should have the power to review and recommend changes to school policy, not dictate school policy so long as it falls within the guidelines of the state. They should have the power to amend school policy or a decision made by a principal or superintendent by a vote of not less than ¾’s approval so long as their decision falls within guidelines regulated by the state. Far too often politics and personal interest come into play on school boards. I think that if you have a child currently enrolled in the school district, you should automatically be disqualified from holding a seat on the board. If you hold another public office, you should be disqualified from sitting on the school board.

Arguably the biggest problem with public education comes from the federal government itself. Why should the federal government be mandating to schools? What dictates that some senator or representative from Connecticut knows more about what kids need and how to educate them in New Mexico than those that serve in the New Mexico state houses who have personal vested interest in those school systems? What gives big brother the right to mandate that schools will spend more money in this area of education and less in that that area? What sense does it make for the federal government to have a department of education in the first place when every state in America has their own? How ridiculous is it that the federal government collects taxes from people of all states, uses that money to pay those employed by the federal dept of education then gives that same department money to give back to the states and dictates to them how they can use it? I know there are several different channels that the money flows through, but it still comes out the same way. What purpose does the federal department of education serve anyway other than just being another government entity that uselessly and needlessly sucks up federal tax dollars? Sorry, common sense here, dissolve the DoE and let the states keep their own money. That makes a lot more sense to me.

It is my belief that every high school student (grade 9-12) should have at least 2 full years of U.S. History and 1 year in some other Social Science area. However, in one state that I got a response from, the requirement for the entire social science field is only three semesters. In that state, the requirement for English is 3 years, but you can substitute a year if you take drama or some other approved elective.

Administrators do the best they can considering that they must balance what the state and federal governments mandate and they have a limited number of days with which to accomplish those requirements and must do so with limited budgets. Now, in the era of shrinking budgets, imagine yourself as a district superintendent in the state of Texas. Your budget was just cut by another 10%. You must now decide where you are going to have to cut to meet all the requirements that you are mandated to meet. Far too often those cuts are made in areas of arts, yet the football team is still allowed to keep its 12 member coaching staff when 5 will do. The school board and the district would demand the superintendent’s resignation if he messed with the football program. The school marching band will not be allowed to participate in the Christmas Parade in a neighboring town because there is no money but some kid who lives 200 yards from the school can jump on a bus and ride it to school so he doesn’t have to walk off any of the 3000 calories he acquired from eating McDonalds the night before. Make him walk to school or have his parents bring him and the parents will be protesting at the next board meeting calling for the superintendent’s resignation. You are the superintendent. What do you do? Get rid of 7 coaches? Reduce the size of the bus fleet and limit service to only those living a mile away or further? Cut money from the band, music and art classes? Perhaps you cut some funds from each. These are the decisions being made everyday. Schools spend a fortune in athletics yet less than 1 in 50 high school student athletes will ever play at the college level. You actually have a better chance of getting into college on a band scholarship than you do an athletic scholarship yet funding for band will be cut long before athletics.

One teacher stated that we need to make grades K-12 year round. I know of no such school that lacks air conditioning so summer heat would not be a factor for consideration. With the advances made in farming, it is no longer beneficial for farmers to have large family to help work the land and it is reasonable to assume that with advances in farming and equipment, students who do live on farms can easily attend school a full day and still be productive after the school day is over. Many of the teachers I questioned favored a longer school year but did not explicitly say how long to extend the school year.

Another concern was brought up by every teacher but one. History, Civics, Geography, Government……..these classes are repeatedly being used by districts to provide coaches and other non-subject matter experts places to fill their day so they may justify drawing a full paycheck. Growing up, I had some of these as class instructors. All they could do was read directly from the book. History, Geography, Government….these are not just facts to be remembered long enough to pass a test then forgotten. These are all full of wonderful stories of who we are, how our nation was formed, what events took place that shaped our country and formed our government. I’m paraphrasing one teacher but her comment was that how can any young person today make an intelligent choice when voting if they do not know why our forefathers created the constitution, what is in the constitution and how government is supposed to work in accordance to the constitution.

In closing, I am going to use another comment from a 30 plus year educator:
I do agree with you that we have to know our history, but more than that, we have to understand it. Somewhere along the way, we have to instill the importance of all knowledge to students. We have to build on those foundations of learning to read and write and do arithmetic and add the basis for thinking and understanding. I wish I had the answer for how to accomplish that. (I’d be really rich by now if I knew.) Research tells us that “teacher quality – not star principals, laptop computers, or abundant electives – is the crucial ingredient for (student) success.” We are also told that: “It’s not how much money you have, apparently, but how you spend it. And it’s not only what you teach, but how you teach it….” I guess it boils down to this: We have to hold teachers to a high standard. We also have to hold administrators accountable for providing the best possible teacher for every subject and not just accepting a warm body in front of the classroom. When we can get that done, then we will see students who have that well-rounded education, not just in math and science, but also in history and English and all those other content areas.


barb p said...

The number of conversations I have been in regarding these things are countless...some with teachers, we were all in agreement with what Kevin has said here. It seems to me too many of the people who believe the same way are out numbered...the majority is ruling...many of them are not "true blues". My opinion...

Clay Boggess said...

It's no wonder we are turning out students who are one-dimensional in thought and deed.

pamela m said...

I think the bottom line (your last paragraph) is the key. You have to teach children to think, to take the facts and make a decision ,based on those facts. You can find facts for any subject imaginable but if you don't have the ability to analyze them ...what is the point?
I think you left out another key ingredient and that is parental support. If a child has homework and the parent does not show any won't get done.
What does a child learn from this???? School work is not important.....
You also mentioned 10 month jobs and days off. What you didn't mention was not being paid for the 2 months in the summer and if you ever hang around with a bunch of kids you are going to get germs constantly because their parents send them to school sick. Believe me we need sick days.
Also, no overtime like in the private sector. The best thing about retirement was ceasing to think about what had to be done before I could even begin teaching. Every evening, every weekend and over the summer too. Prep Time Baby for NO pay.
As for school year round....I guess where you are from, the schools may be air conditioned but not in Baltimore City .
When you talked about testing running the curriculum you were correct and that is mandated Federally. We tested for math and science but there was a test that involved the thinking/writing process and when that test was in use we had a curriculum that was the best I had encountered. The kids had to think, use the given facts, and then write out their answers and defend why they gave them.
Our curriculum stressed writing ,reading ,and thinking skills. ( Just what was needed) Of course that lasted 3 years and then the test and curriculum were changed.
As for the NEA, I never dealt with them, but the local union, the BTU was powerful but not to the degree you stated. It defended teachers from false accusations and believe me when I tell you there were plenty. Some administrators go after teachers who are Union Reps, especially if they are verbal in their criticism. Parental abuse toward teachers was rampant. Students assaulted teachers and nothing was done by the administrator so the Union stepped in.
Man, I didn't mean to go on like this but I think you may be a bit naïve on some aspects of the teaching profession. If you want a job where you can just "collect" a pay check, education is not the place to be. Good in depth article though!