There has been much reported on the problems with our education system: that students in the United States are lagging behind many of their peers in other countries in mathematics, science and reading. The typical response is to look at class sizes or at student performance on a per teacher basis to try and find solutions to these issues. There has been talk of “getting rid of ‘bad’ teachers and rewarding ‘good’ teachers.” There have been efforts to alter the curriculum to “better prepare the students for the test.” None of these efforts have enjoyed much measurable success in improving the scores of America’s students. Other countries’ students continue to outperform America’s and, in spite of being the world’s richest nation, America cannot even seem to crack the top ten in the rankings.
In examining this issue, it may help to examine what the goal of the education system actually is. The stated goal of education in the United states is to prepare our youth with the knowledge and skills they need to function as a productive member of our society; both in the home sphere (balancing an account, budgeting expenses and the like) and the professional sphere (technical training, specialized knowledge in a particular field like medicine or engineering or other career related knowledge). To this end, we have endeavored to develop curriculum that provides the basic skill sets to be able to achieve this goal for every one of our youth. Primary to achieving this goal, the areas of Reading, Mathematics and Science have been identified as critical or fundamental to all the rest of knowledge. Without these basic blocks to build from, none of the rest of education can be successful and neither can our youth become successful adults, as easily, without them. As our society continues to progress technologically, this will only continue to become an even more prevalent issue. Experts already are projecting millions of high tech, high wage jobs that will exist in America with no qualified Americans to fill them within the next ten to fifteen years.
Looking at the current trends has convinced some experts that the problem is with the teachers. They propose to look at teacher performance by studying student performance on a per teacher basis. They say we need to encourage more “good” teachers and remove the “bad” ones. This is a foolish strategy that can only further degrade an already strained education system. It is not as simple as “good” and “bad” teachers. There are many confounding factors and it cannot be reliably said that a single teacher is the cause of a group of students’ success or failure. It is not rewarding or punishing teachers that will solve this issue.
It has also been suggested that class size is the issue. Once a class contains more that the ideal number of students then the students’ performance begins to suffer. Again, this cannot be used as a reliable predictor of any student’s performance; this leaves the question of if this is really the cause of the issue either.
Current attempts to combat this issue have also attempted to alter the curriculum used within the classroom to better address the areas examined by the tests that are given to measure these metrics. This has led to decreased emphasis on such subjects as Art, Music and History; all of which are important for the continuation of culture and society. This is not a sustainable path either. Continuation of this approach will only hasten the degradation of our society as a whole.
Perhaps there are some deeper more systematic problems causing this issue. One of the things that must be considered is that, in America we cherish the idea of equality. In the education system this is manifested as providing the same education to all students. Equality has become confused with being identical however. Just because two things are equal does not mean they are identical. Algebra provides us with an apt example of this. Both x+y=3 and 2x+2y=6 describe the same line when graphed; the two expressions are equivalent or “equal” but they are clearly not “identical”. In our current education system, students are mostly treated as though they are not only “equal” but also “identical”. This is a fundamental flaw in our system and should be immediately addressed. While two individual students must be treated as being “equal”, they are no more “identical” than any other two individuals. Each has their own strengths and weakness when it comes to learning and each has their own areas of interest as well as their own learning style. Currently we are trying to shove oblong, triangular and rectangular pegs into round holes and then wondering why they do not fit properly. What is needed is a more individualized approach to education.
At this point many people may say but we already do not have enough teachers so how can we possibly provide this “individualized” instruction. Hiring and training more teachers takes time and resources that we do not have available and not enough people are training to become teachers anyway. The answer is not more or “better” teachers although this would likely help. For a less expensive and less time consuming solution let us examine what is currently being done by parents of students to help alleviate their concerns for their children academically. One thing which many parents, as well as college students, employ is the services of a tutor. If we were to move this service from being in the purview of the parents, and available only to those who can afford it, to being a standard part of the classroom environment, it could help to alleviate the issue by allowing teachers to continue to focus on the students as a group while tutors provide individual students with extra one on one instruction when needed. Not all students learn all subjects at the same rate and expecting them to do so is a failing on the part of the education system. We can afford to pay these tutors at a lower wage than what would be required to hire teachers to fill this role. It could provide at least part time employment for students and others. There would need to be screening systems put in place to ensure that the students are being taught by individuals with the requisite skills but this is not an insurmountable obstacle. Tutoring is an example of a strategy which has been proven to get positive results.
Another area we struggle with in America is the idea of cherishing that which is new, young and exciting while minimizing that which is mature, staid and reliable. In society this manifests as a tendency to ignore one of our greatest resources: our mature retired citizens. These citizens have accumulated a lifetime of knowledge and most I believe would be happy to pass on that knowledge if there were systems in place that would enable them to do so within the constraints imposed by their health, ability and time. If retirees could contribute to the education of the upcoming generations while receiving some supplementary income I am convinced that many would avail themselves of this opportunity. These citizens are uniquely qualified to provide not only tutoring assistance in the classroom but also career advice and other mentoring type services. There should be training programs in place to accommodate those who wish to engage in these endeavors.
America’s corporate citizens also have roles and responsibilities in our education system. It would behoove our corporations to work closely with our education system to ensure that the skills being taught to our youth are those skills which the corporations will need their workers to have. This right to influence our youth’s education comes with the responsibility to help ensure that education is properly funded. Our organizations of tradespeople should also be involved in this same fashion. They should also have a hand in developing our curriculum and have a responsibility to help ensure that the education system is properly funded. Without fresh workers to add to their ranks, such organizations are doomed to fade away. It is in the best interests of the members of such organizations to ensure that their skillset continues into the future unless technology has rendered it obsolete.
This brings up the idea that all students should attend a four year college or university. It has been much touted that the lifetime earnings of college graduates is much higher than that of non-graduates. While this is certainly true, it is somewhat misleading. The society we live in does not pay all professions equally. The same society does require all those professions to function properly. Janitors, plumbers, carpenters, welders, machinists, serving personnel, maids, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, electricians, teachers, tutors, accountants and more; all are required for our society to function properly. The idea that all these professions require a college education is ludicrous. Some do require secondary schooling while others are better learned in a specialty/technical school and still others are best learned on the job. Each option should be equally available to those whose chosen career path requires it and none should be looked at as being more or less than any other.
There needs to be both traditional four year secondary education and technical/trades pathways available to our youth. Our society requires both pathways to continue to enjoy the success we have traditionally enjoyed. This does not mean we should pigeon hole or label our youth and force them down one or the other path. It means our youth should be able to choose either path as they decide which it appropriate at that point in their lives. The goal of primary education needs to be to provide the requisite skillsets to enable our youth to succeed regardless of the secondary path chosen and to have the opportunity to experience what each path may be like. This means that electronics, metal and wood shop, auto repair, art, music, history, civics and so on; are all subjects that need to be taught at the K-12 levels at least in an introductory fashion. These are the subjects that had been a focus of most public education in addition to the language, math and science basics for most of our society’s modern history. This should not change.
What should change is the approach taken within the individual classroom. Consider the following two scenarios:
A teacher stands in front of a class of forty five students and goes over their lesson for half the class period. After the lesson, the teacher assigns homework and the students begin working. If the class period is one hour then there are thirty minutes remaining in the class period. Typically, the teacher will spend the remaining thirty minutes taking questions from students and working on the board to show the examples in the hope of answering as many of the students’ questions as possible. Since each question is likely to take at least two minutes to answer, this means that the teacher can answer at most fifteen question. This means that, at most, one third of the students will get to ask one question each.
A teacher stands in front of a class of forty five students and goes over their lesson for half the class period. After the lesson, the teacher assigns homework and the students begin working. If the class period is one hour then there are thirty minutes remaining in the class period. This time, there are one teacher and two tutors in the classroom. The teacher continues on as in Scenario A with the same results of answering at most fifteen students’ questions. At the same time the two tutors give five minutes to each student they help. In the thirty minutes they have each assisted seven more students and now the total number of students’ questions answered is increased to fifteen for the teacher and another 14 by the tutors for a total of twenty nine. This is now nearly two thirds of the students who have had questions be answered.
Notice that the addition of the two tutors in the room nearly doubles the number of student’s receiving help. Notice also that the amount of time spent helping each student was also able to increase for those helped by the tutors. Additionally, the normal progression of the teacher didn’t change from Scenario A to Scenario B even though the number of students helped increased dramatically.
It would seem that this is a change that could be made with minimal investment and without disrupting the current progression of the classroom. In light of the potential benefits, this is a change that could and should be made. Our youth and our society would be stronger because of it.