Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Proposed Solution To The Education Problem

I apologize for any lack of cohesion with the arguments I made in my previous entry; my impassioned burst of writing was fueled by some very strong feelings and was typed well beyond the cloak of midnight had fallen on the Isle of Staten.  As a result, I failed to mention a few key points that I feel would have helped to focus the thrust of my argument and, more importantly, provide a proposed solution or at least an idea of how we can tweak the current system.

Though I spoke generally of the education system across the board, I will admit readily that there are undoubtedly exceptions to the rules I laid out, whether they are schools or individual teachers.  These bastions of sensibility, sadly, are not in the majority, particularly when it comes to disadvantaged schools and their students.  Some teachers might try to tie in things like personal finance into their courses but again these cases are in the minority; too many students graduate without even the slightest understanding of what credit is, why it is important, and how they can go about maintaining and improving their own.  Though a given subject teacher can offer a rational and reasonable explanation for why he or she teaches a particular element, it still doesn't explain why it should be taught instead of something that might be of far greater value to a given student.  Teaching some abstract mathematical theorem might be useful in the sense that it helps a student learn how to think differently or more efficiently but when that student is in the eleventh grade and cannot add and subtract let alone grasp side-angle-side, the issue becomes one of relevance.  Another example from my own subject would be teaching the nuances of metaphor to a twelfth grader who is reading at a fifth-grade level or going over critical lens essays for the English Regents with a kid who cannot write a complete sentence or read at all (that one's from personal experience; that same kid is now in the military and he managed to make it at least to his senior year without being able to write more than a simple sentence or read anything more complex than a picture book).

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that we are focusing on preparing kids for college and basically shunning the rest.  When it comes to a school filled with disadvantaged, disenfranchised students who have been pushed along through the system for ten or eleven years without picking up even the most basic skill set, one has to ask: what is being done to help them?  For the kid that is going to graduate but for whom college--even a community one--simply isn't an option, what life-skills are they being instilled with?  If they can't even fill out an application for a job at a fast food restaurant, then what was the point of their thirteen years in the school system?  It's kids like that that keep me up at night, wondering what I can do to make a difference not just for any one in particular but for the vast majority that I'll never get to teach or even to meet.

Take a look at what's being taught in the New York City public school system.  What types of courses are these high school kids taking?  The answer is: the same ones kids in 1912 were taking.  You've got math, science, English, history, gym, lunch, and the occasional arts-related program or elective.  THAT's what is comprising their entire education just before they enter adulthood.  What sense does that make when the things that are important in today's society--the types of jobs that are available or opportunities that are open have almost nothing to do with those things?  Where are the courses in graphic designing?  In psychology?  In software development?  Hell, even marketing and the other business-related fields!?  What preparation are these kids getting for the jobs they'll most likely be filling assuming they even go to college?  Where is the guidance and grooming for students who are better suited for civil service jobs?  And what about trades?  How about the kid who failed every single math and English course he ever took but is an absolute prodigy when it comes to assembling and disassembling things?  Where's his mechanics training or engineering experience?

I propose that we induce softer change in the earlier grades and more radical adjustments in the later ones.  Let's teach more generalized material throughout a broad cross-section of subjects to our elementary school students; it would be not unlike the first two years of college during which students take "core" courses.  Let's ratchet up the sophistication and complexity of the things we're teaching them and stop coddling these kids and treating them as if they can't handle the loftier areas of a given subject.  Why not teach calculus in fourth grade?  Why can't we delve into Shakespeare with a bunch of eleven year olds?  Just because we haven't doesn't me that we shouldn't or couldn't.

So the elementary school students gain exposure to a broad array of subjects and topics.  By the time they reach middle school, they've begun to develop a sense for where their strengths and interests lie.  If you have a kid who is gifted in math, why not introduce her to other more focused math-related courses?  Let her explore physics and statistics while supplementing that with enough of the other things to ensure that she is well-balanced.  Teach the basics of reading and writing across the board; use social studies to introduce simple counting and other mathematical concepts.  Elementary school teachers are already well-versed in a multitude of subjects, why not just increase the level of their experience?  High school subject teachers are already trained to a greater degree in their respective areas, so why not have them delve even deeper into them?

Middle school can be used as an opportunity to help direct students towards their ultimate courses of study.  The subjects that they encounter here should be more specialized but still general enough to help them to gain a better understanding of where they want to wind up.  Math and humanities are great but they won't necessarily help a kid determine whether or not he or she wants to become an economist or a dermatologist.  Let's use these intervening years to provide them with insights into different fields, maybe include observations or tag-alongs with various professions to give them a better perspective of what it means to be a surgeon or a state trooper.

High school, ultimately, would be a precursor to college.  Here, they would focus mostly on the subjects that are relevant to the fields that they'd like to pursue and would be provided with an equal amount of real-life preparation.  Instead of having personal finance electives, make them not components of a given course's curriculum but mandatory courses in their own right.  For kids who aren't learning many of these things at home perhaps due to their socio-economic standing or a situation where their parents simply do not have the time or ability to teach them, high school could be the time that they pick up the necessary life-skills to succeed.  If by the time they reach high school it's clear that they are not destined for greatness, then why not utilize those four years for helping them to prepare for whatever employment it is that they are best suited for?  Provide them with transferable skills and experience that they could use to enter the workforce and then move their way up to bigger and better things. 

All I'm saying is that there are far too many students, at least in New York City, who graduate high school with no clue as to what they want to do with their lives and a dearth of relevant life-experience that will help them to function sufficiently on their own.  The paucity of knowledge that they leave school with is in no way enhanced by the drivel that they are fed in their subject courses but is rather diminished by it; instead of learning about things that would help them to lead more productive and satisfying lives, they spend their time memorizing things they will ultimately forget and will wind up none the better-off for learning.

Let's stop being afraid of change and embrace it on our own terms.  We've gotten lazy as a society and the most we do is bitch about the laws and changes that are handed down to us; even our protests have lost the fervor and zeal they once had.  Remember: there's safety in numbers.  If enough people feel the same way about something and band together, then it becomes possible to effect change.  Maybe the problem is that everyone's too busy nowadays to make that kind of emotional and temporal commitment.  They're more interested in their phones and tablets than they are about the futures of their kids.  And I hate to break it to these folks but when it comes to fixing our education system...

there isn't an app for that.