Friday, September 25, 2009

On Education in America

This is from April, 2007.

The State of Public Education

I was surveyed a while back, a month or two ago to be slightly less vague. The survey was about my education in NC public schools. Whether I'm successful after it, if the classes adequately prepared me for college, that kind of stuff.

The classes were, for the most part, adequately satisfactory. It's all the other crap required of students that didn't help one iota.

Academic courses are useful for college students. They enforce study habits, teach you stuff, and prepare you for the work load expected of you in college. However, not everyone needs to go to an institution of higher learning.

I got great grades in school, did well in college too. I couldn't find a job though, at least not one in my field. Having spent months looking in the classifieds for jobs, I came to this conclusion: vocational skills are in great demand. Schools are focusing on academia at the expense of blue-collar training. And there's more money to be had in blue-collar labor than in academia. Much more.

Schools realize they need to better prepare their charges for the real world. Officials just don't have a clue how to do it. They think that requiring students to do some public speaking, writing tests, and a vague "Project" will prepare them.

Well, those ideas won't prepare anyone for anything.

I had to do the speech to graduate High School. I barely passed. Later, at Appalachian State, I had to take a public speaking course, as required by my major. The professor, the Dean of Admissions, was one of the best teachers I had. He said he liked to teach at least one course a year, citing that it helped him stay connected to the needs of the students. (If more administrators shared his dedication...) He cared about our success, taught us how to write and then perform a speech instead of merely saying "Here's a topic. Give me a speech." Consequently, I now have no fear of public speaking, and can pontificate in public quite well.

The moral of that anecdote is that an ancillary assignment in addition to all other courses doesn't get the job done. Teachers have to take enough time from instruction as it is with disciplinary action based on dress code violations and the like. Making them proctor speeches, when most kids don't know the first thing about them is counter-productive. It took a semester long, three credit hour course to get me to give a good speech. School boards expect kids to do it without any lessons?

Instruction time is valuable. Teachers need all of it, and if they're not using it completely, it's detrimental to their pupils. Wasting time with ancillary, half-assed requirements is of aid to no one.

That being said, here's what to do about making American schools better. American school systems accept everyone. Foreign school systems have a school for the college bound, a school for the service industry bound, a school for mechanically inclined individuals, etc. When 87% of Japanese kids score in the 98th percentile, it's irrelevent data to Americans. The test is administered only to the elite. So: quit comparing American schools to foreign ones.

Second: Kids need to be better behaved. That's not an easy problem to solve, but the solution lies at home. Good parenting makes for well behaved children, which makes for more attentive students, which gives the teacher more useful learning time. Parents need to take responsibility for their children, and not pawn them off on the free babysitter that the state provides. That free babysitting service has an extremely high, extremely fast burnout rate, and said burnout rate is in direct proportion to the number of bratty young'uns a teacher has in his class.

Three: Prepare students for what they want to do, and don't waste their time with courses they won't ever need later in life. Vocational programs must have funding. Give the mechanically inclined their auto-shop, their carpentry classes, their metalsmithing. Give the college bound their courses, but don't force the Future Farmers of America to take AP European History. It's exactly like the foreign school model (surprise!) which, incidentally, will give American number crunchers some hard facts to analyze and compare.

Mostly though, parents: take note of your kids. Encourage them to pursue career paths in fields they enjoy. If they like tinkering with Legos, suggest engineering to them. If they've gotten 20 speeding tickets, maybe you ought to take them to the dragstrip sometime, or pick up a pamphlet for Nascar College in Tennessee. Make learning fun for them. Lord knows the schools aren't doing it.

New material given the pseudo recent changes in the economic climate:

Classifieds don't exist anymore. There aren't any jobs to be had. But those with a vocational background and experience will always be able to do something. The Sears Auto and Tire Department might not be hiring, but if you've got your own equipment, there's nothing to stop you from running a 'donations accepted' car clinic in your church parking lot every week.

Enterprising individuals with a good skill set can go as far as they want to. Everyone needs and will continue to need plumbers, mechanics, roofers, carpenters, machine operators...etc, etc. People won't always need Microsoft Office 2000 certified Fortran programmers. Or Ph.Ds specializing in Siberian folk art.

It's important for people to love what they do for a living. But it does them no good if what they love doesn't put food on the table.

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