And furthermore. . . .

On September 7, 2014, I posted on “Life after High School”   The post suggested a one year curriculum for high school students on balancing a check book; shopping; simple first aid; spending money wisely; relationships and respect; job interviews; nutrition; cooking simple meals; raising babies; investing; and so on. These are topics which a young person could put to good use after high school. Many kids will go to college. Many will not. But learning how to respect a spouse, show your best to a prospective employer, and deal intelligently with a screaming baby would be a plus for everyone in America.

But there are two additional courses that I would add for high school students.  History and economics.  Studies suggest that millenials are not taught the important events, participants or dates in American history.  And few learn the basics of economics.   The same might be said of a few of our political candidates. . . . 

Miles Ahead

[A repeat from September 3, 2015]  Donna and I were driving in Wisconsin with our 3-1/2 year old granddaughter.  We talked.  And talked. . . . .   There’ s a field of corn.” “There’s a field of wheat.” “Those are cherry trees.” “Look at the cows. They’re called Holsteins.”  Some terms we discussed in Spanish.  We went to a petting farm and fed the pigs and goats and cows. Learned about Texas longhorns, Brahma bulls, sunflowers, wells (complete with bucket), we counted bags of corn used to feed the goats and sheep, we looked at wild turkeys, discussed the purpose of silos, and . . . . . and on. And on.  All in one day. . . .

I pondered the fact that our granddaughter at age 3-1/2 is perhaps several miles ahead of disadvantaged kids — who do not have the “hands on” tutelage of parents, grandparents, caregivers and friends. I read an article that said that said that children from middle to upper socio-economic families will hear millions of words more than children born into poverty.  And this abbondanza of words forms a critical base for future learning, performance and advancement.   Add to this that children from middle and upper income families receive hundreds of thousands more affirmations of encouragement and fewer of discouragement (the reverse metric from welfare families).

Betty Hart and Todd Risley penned an incisive book on this vexing  situation:  The Early Catastrophe:  The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.   The number of words a child hears in the first few years of life is tied directly to educational achievement.  And is inversely proportional to problems a child may encounter later in life.  The big question is what do we do about it?    


What are the answers to the conundrum posed in my prior post?  Poverty and educational inequality.  How about if we start with not tearing down (and demonizing) middle or upper income folks as some in our government viciously promote.
How about providing education on varied levels – family dynamic; health; nutrition; learning; reading; interacting; socialization; drug or substance rehab as needed; etc.   Opportunity for everyone should be mandatory (though outcome cannot be guaranteed).   More charter schools; more vouchers; more magnet schools; more tutors and mentors; etc.   Unions are destructive to education and should be forced out of the way.  Let’s not spend more money (Chicago spends more on primary and secondary school education per capita than any other city and yet has among the worst results).    Let’s spend the money wisely.  

There is, however, a pivotal question:  how do you encourage welfare families to get on board?   How do you encourage family involvement in education which is so very crucial to a child’s learning process?  Would it be unreasonable to mandate some quid pro quo  You want welfare?   Then attend neighborhood classes.  You will be involved in your children’s education.   Learn about nutrition.  If you’re pregnant, you don’t take drugs. Or smoke.    And you get prenatal counseling.  And your children will get private tutoring. Mentoring.  Opportunity.

Is it unreasonable to have at least some expectation that in exchange for welfare, people ought receive some inspiration and education for getting off welfare.   And for stimulating their children with the opportunity that all of us want to give them.  The problem is many of our politicians insist that welfare recipients are “victims.”  And they want to keep the poor – poor – by bribing them with money to get votes.  Result – According to the U.S. Census Bureau, poverty rates are rising.   Wouldn’t it be a higher moral objective if we strive to make these people and their children productive members of society.   Where am I going wrong here?

A Race to the Bottom?

According to a 2008 study by the Illinois Education Research Council, Chicago Public School teachers scored an average of 19 (out of 36) on standardized ACT tests. This compares to an average score of 21 among all Illinois high school students and 18 of Chicago Public School students. Younger/newer teachers tended to have higher ACT test scores.   Conclusion?  Many Chicago teachers are likely unfit for teaching.   How about Chicago students?  A mere 33% of Chicago Public School students who enter high school will go to college.  Fewer will graduate.  In an article a few months ago (Philip Elliott; Associated Press), it states that only 5% of African American students are fully ready for life after high school.  Chicago’s educational system is dysfunctional and depressing.     

But there is a glimmer of hope.  When it comes to ACT scores, it was reported several weeks ago that academically the top 11 open-enrollment high schools in Chicago are charter schools.  This is reason for optimism.  I have a keen interest in education – and improving the “system.”  I’ve not been shy about editorial comment or criticism (e.g. see posts of 4/2/12; 4/5/12; 9/12/12; 9/17/12). 

Bottom line?  We need to recruit better teachers.  We need to dump lousy teachers.   We need more charter schools and magnets schools.  We need more tutors.  Mentors.  Accountability.  Family involvement.  Outreach to those who live in poverty.  We need to focus on non-cognitive skills as well as the cognitive.   If the Chicago Teachers Union and the politicians who support them continue to get in the way (which they do regularly on the issues above), they deserve the blame for our children’s failures.   As it is, they seem to be leading Chicago’s educational race to the bottom.  Are we there yet?  Giddyap. . . .

How Children Succeed

I just finished a wonderful book How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, a journalist and former editor of the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Tough addresses the controversial question of why there is an achievement gap between underprivileged students – and those who aren’t. 

The quick answer is that most educators believe that academic success relates to cognitive skills – the kind of “intelligence” that can be measured on IQ tests. However more and more, there is an understanding that non-cognitive skills (curiosity, socialization, character, self control, self confidence and “grit”) are better predictors of academic achievement.  The success of a student has less to do with “smarts” than with more ordinary personality traits such as the ability to stay focused and to control impulses. 

Non-cognitive skills  – such as persistence and curiosity – can actually predict future success.  College graduates who participated in New York’s KIPP (“Knowledge is Power Program”) were not so much the academic stars but the ones who plugged away at problems and resolved to improve themselves.  Grit. 

Are we surprised that children who grow up in abusive or dysfunctional environments statistically have more trouble concentrating, sitting still or rebounding from disappointments?  There is neurological/medical reason for this.  The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex which regulates thoughts and behavior.  When this region is damaged, a condition that often occurs in children living in the pressures of poverty, it is tougher to suppress unproductive instincts.  Studies show that early nurturing from parents combats the biochemical effects of stress.  The prefrontal cortex then becomes more responsive to intervention and the learning of essential non-cognitive skills.

While throwing money at the problem is always viewed as a solution, psychological intervention may be a better remedy.  KIPP is now experimenting with “character” report cards – designed to show students that such traits can improve with time.  For any educator, this 197 page book is a must read.   

Education: So what do we do?

Some said that while my Monday editorial critiques, it offers no substance — on reforming education.  I’ll add some thoughts.

How about if we pay nursery school, kindergarten, 1st, 2d, 3d grade teachers (the early grades) what we pay college professors (and college professors get paid what nursery school teachers make)?  Young children are virtual sponges.  They learn and absorb the most in these early years.  This is the time!  This is where we need our best teachers.  By the time children reach college, learning patterns are fixed.  Will this happen?  Should it happen?  Probably not — but you get my drift.

Longer and more school days beginning with the grades referenced above.  The U.S. averages 180 school days per year.  That’s right down there with Portugal, Haiti and Bolivia.   The average day is 6.5 hours.  We can do better.  We must do better. 

Unions represent teachers – sure – but they must be spokesmen for students.   The job is education.  Become champions of education instead of the trumpets of discord.   Blindly protect the worst teachers?  Everyone loses.   Strike for fewer work days and shorter hours?  Give me a break.  Work for the betterment of students?  Everyone wins.   And policy makers need to understand what it takes to be a good teacher.

Today anyone can become  a teacher.  Yet some teachers don’t have the ability to teach.   Raise the bar on teacher certification. 

Teachers deserve incentive pay and h.d.p. (hazardous duty pay) for working in tough schools.  Great results deserve meritorious compensation.   

Charter schools – yes.  Magnet schools – yes.  Vouchers – yes.   Tutoring programs – yes.  Require parental involvement (and educate parents while we’re at it) – yes.    Keep our eye on the ball — the objective is to educate.

Hold students to higher levels of achievement.  Let’s not “dumb down” expectations.   Grades are important.  You fail?  You fail.  Try again. . . . and again.  And succeed.  I’ve read that uniforms (or strict dress codes) improve student performance.  Worth a try??   

Teach computer literacy and typing early on.   Best course I ever had in high school — typing. 

Be creative.  Be inspirational.  Be learning-oriented.  Target achievement.  Develop a new mind-set.  Educate.  We can get there. 

Education – An Editorial

We spend more and more money on public school education and each year, the results are dismal.   Our educational system is flawed if not broken.  Why?    

I am concerned that teachers unions impede the education process by focusing on teachers — not education.  There is blind protection of the lowest common denominator (the worst teachers), opposition to charter schools, objection to longer hours and more school days and rejection of merit pay for great teachers who achieve great results.   And unfunded (and unfair to taxpayer) pensions drain state and local budgets.   And tenure?  Where did that come from?   No other business has such foolishness. 

A big negative in educational outcome is parental void.   We want parents to be involved in the education of their children.  But when parents are out of the mix, teachers must step up to a higher calling. 

The notion of federal control over education is not working.  Requiring states to send massive amounts of taxpayer money to Washington to be massaged and nitpicked by (and paid in salaries to) bureaucrats is draining and counterproductive.  The U.S. Department of Education (begun in 1979) has 5,000 employees and a budget of $94 billion(!).  I have a feeling that states can use that money more productively.  

School districts?   According to a 2002 census, there were nearly 14,000 in the U.S. (each a bureaucratic fiefdom unto itself).   And Illinois (a state that is nearly bankrupt) has nearly a thousand of them.  Can we consolidate?   

 We need to educate.   Those with good jobs and higher pay are normally better educated.  Those without solid education* are the un and under-employed.  Want to build the economy?  Education.  Want to reduce crime?  Education.  Want to reduce unemployment?  Education.  It’s the Rx for lots of things. . . .    

     *”Education” does not mean a child must be college-bound.   It can mean the trades, military,  associate degrees, agriculture and a host of other job and skill set training.  (See posts of 11/23 and 12/5)

Education: An Observation

I get on the train each morning and most of the people on board are reading a newspaper, a book, doing work or studying.   A few may be catching up on sleep.  I normally read. 

Some, however, mainly the younger set, are sitting there with earphones in, holding their Ipod or Iphone, slack-jawed, listening to music or playing video games.  And it’s that way for the whole trip.  And their 30 minute ride – this wonderful concentrated opportunity for learning or enrichment – at least from my perspective – has been a waste.   I have to wonder if there is anything that can be done (or should be done) to  discourage this trend.  Ban IPods or video games for anyone under a certain age?  Surely we all need “down time” but to focus on down time on a consistent basis at the expense of learning?  I dunno. . . .  What do you think?