What is education, really?

The idea of general education for all is a noble notion. That we offer educational opportunities to all persons from all races and walks of life for “free” has come to be understood as a kind of inalienable right in the United States.

Yet, is everyone truly prepared for the privilege, let alone the responsibility, that comes with participating in this process?

To many parents and families, schools have become day-care solutions, pre and post-school day purgatories where kids are fed and monitored. To educators and legislators, these same schools are now laboratories where the students and their teachers try on the new trends like the latest fashion and live out the theories of doctoral pipe dreams.

In some cases, school has become nothing more than a petting zoo where platitudes are showered bountifully upon students just for showing up, dotting i’s and crossing t’s on tests prepped for them by teachers prepped to teach the test itself — for testing is the ultimate, and most debilitating, barometer by which a school’s failure/success is measured. And now, thanks to the hyper-competitive field of “charter schooling,” the corporate model has invaded, as opposed to infused, the system with an energy that approaches calamity, for charter schooling only works for certain kinds of kids and certain kinds of families. But, it worked in that other school district nearby: grab that template and slap it on, willy-nilly, cut the check and away we go!

This is how things have always progressed in education, so this charter school revolution replaces the last transformational educational protocol, and it goes on and on.

The business of education has made some folks very, very wealthy along the way. But where’s that moment when someone stands up and says the truth and is unapologetic about it. To attain an education is a wonderful achievement, and to be educated is a gratifying rite of passage, but does everyone “need” an “education,” let alone “deserve” one?

In the varied and grand undertakings to improve education and educational opportunities, the focus has missed its mark because it assumes that “education” is good for everyone — for the market, yes, for schools basically train and socialize students not to be thinkers but merely consumers. But what is an “education,” and how can getting one be made more meaningful and pertinent to all who take advantage of the opportunities that exist? Until we come to some consensus that “education” is about priorities and not rights, until we accept that students failing is just part of the great Darwinian tangent along the continuum that is this competitive, capitalist society, until we get real about training some folks to be workers and just workers and making that training a serious endeavor, we will continue to fail most students and produce an inept, improperly educated workforce which will burden the companies and corporations who hire them to get them up to speed with the basic skills they need.

What is an “education”?

There should be some form of preparation and training offered to normalize all individuals for the workforce — for isn’t that the true reason “everyone” gets to go to school? — but not all persons qualify for what constitutes a standard form of educational preparation, and surely not all persons appreciate what receiving an education means.

Access to a quality education should not be limited to the elect or elite, but authorities should address the point at which a student is not eligible for the kind of broad-based, liberal arts education we continue to value. No one likes to use the word “tracking,” but for a more effective use of funds to take place, students should be assessed for skills and abilities at a reasonably early age, and this can be done by using placement tests — not the kind of testing for learned knowledge given each year.

We can begin to assign students to areas which better address their needs. Non-readers can take language arts classes where reading expectations are set to their levels. Kids who are not exceptional at math and science can take the mediocre-kids track and see success at that level. We can jumpstart skills and trades teaching — vocation schools — to assist those students who, by the time they reach high school, are not college material.Kids can always, “test out” or “test up,” but when they trend downward, we need to be realistic in our evaluations.

We see education through too sentimental a lens.

We need to lay a solid, pragmatic foundation to establish a core of classes in technical areas. Students are being prepared to become viable members of a workforce that is diversifying as we speak. We can tailor programs and guarantee certificates, even diplomas, in those areas and let kids intern or apprentice in meaningful jobs, and again, offer the chance to move up, to improve oneself – this process is already in place in civil service jobs where employees can “upgrade” their positions by taking classes and then taking a test and, in the process, increase their income as well as enhance their resumes.

Why not consider the same outcomes as a suitable end for kids who may need more practical training and preparation? Literature is a wide and varied field. Reading a novel may not be the most important thing a high school kid needs to do, but being able to read a set of instructions to assemble something or follow directions to complete a task — now that’s a skill we could use more of on any given day, even amongst so-called “geniuses.”

A school should feel safe: strength in low numbers

Schools are meant to be havens, but often, nowadays, they turn into hell, and which level of hell you’re trapped in totally depends on the “program” or programs your school hosts. For all the myriad solutions offered to save kids and salvage the “system,” the most obvious scenario is often acknowledged but little pursued serious: maintaining small class sizes with low student:teacher ratios.

Schools have become educational superstores which promise solutions that they can’t deliver because they lack the proper staffing.

Give me a school that is well-staffed across the board, take away all the high-tech advantages, leave us with just quill & parchment, abacus and blackboard, and you can still turn out high-performing, high-functioning students because teachers’ attentions and students’ needs can meet at a happy medium when class sizes are small. So much money is spent on the upper-crust of education: the administrative, bureaucratic, policy-making and technological aspects of education.

If funds were redistributed and the focus was placed on hiring to attain optimal classroom sizes (say no more than 10:1), any teacher can tell you to give her/him a set of low-tech classics — Legos, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, Etch-a-Sketchs, Monopolies, Scrabble, Boggle and the ultimate Chess/Checkers/Backgammon All- in-Ones — and they’ll turn out a killer army of cool kids prepared to unleash some serious knowledge.

What constitutes a “school”: making more classrooms via practical means

To accomplish the goal of guaranteeing lower student-teacher rations, you need more classrooms — i.e., you need more schools. So, who is going to fund, let alone, build these schools? Remember all those stimulus dollars that needed to put to use? Know all those vacant buildings which developers always re-purpose for commercial or rental properties?

Who says a “school” building has to be one thing or another? Schools (can) come in all shapes and sizes. Along with small class sizes and safe settings, proximity is the key. Kids who go to schools close to their homes, who can walk to/from school, are less likely to have issues come up with travel and before/after-school arrangements.

Ideally, where schools provide a daycare-style option, students can remain after-hours to do homework in a safe, monitored environment. Parents can participate more if their kids’ school is within easy access. More jobs can be created for after or before care counselors, tutors or monitors — or teachers can apply for these positions and make additional money. Parents and principals can be certain that kids will be able to use those wonderful resources the district spends so much money on.

In the end, we need to past our highfalutin sense of purpose and move forward to infusing our curriculums with realistic alternatives to the traditional education model. We are losing students left and right because schools are being asked to raise kids. Schools function best doing what they do best: teaching kids. We can bring all kids together when they first start, but after third or fourth grade, when we begin to see the separation in talents, quietly introduce assessment and placement tools which can help educators direct students in the right direction. Otherwise, we will continue to fail at this noble experiment, and no amount of teacher evaluations and time on test prep will bring about a better solution.

Let’s get real about the role of education — what it is, who it’s intended for, and how it should be addressed/applied.

Guest Author: Renard Boissiere

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Categories: Beliefs, Morals, Health, Medicine, Politics, Law

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