Fixing Our Broken Schools

NASHVILLE, TN   Tennesseans are met almost every morning with newspaper stories reporting the array of symptoms caused by problems in our state educational system.  Nashville faces the possibility that the No Child Left Behind law will require our state Department of Education to take over local schools next year. 

Education woes affect every state, but Tennessee ranks low in many of the national educational indicators.  This morning, the editorial page of The Tennessean revealed that the average ACT score of Tennessee students is lower than the national average.  “According to the ACT board, only 18 percent of the 50,000 who took the test in 2008 were ready for college-level reading, math English and science.”  Ouch.

The paper’s editorial staff tells parents to consider the transition from high school to college as a “come-from-behind project.”  That sound you hear is my jaw plunking down on my hardwood floor. 

Two guest editorials exemplify the difficulty of defining and solving problems in education.  The first one argued that the problem is our curriculum standards—the stuff our kids are supposed to master—are too low.  The second, suggests that if kids don’t learn the necessary skills by third grade, remediation becomes progressively more difficult each year, becoming nearly impossible by the senior year.  To solve the problem of poor college readiness, this editorial argues that we have start thinking about a student’s readiness way back in kindergarten class.  I think this writer has a point, but when’s the last time you saw a politician take a twelve-year view on anything? 

So, according to these articles, we should either make school harder, or start focusing most of our resources on kindergarten, first, second, and third grade classrooms.  Could these two solutions be more different?

I’m not saying this is an easy problem to solve.  Even coming up with a definition of a “good education” is like trying to grasp mercury in your hand.  Ask ten people on the street, and they’ll give you ten different answers.  Ten different experts will disagree as well.  If we could agree on what makes a good education, could we agree on how to implement and measure said good education?  Probably not.

So, what do we do?  Throw up our hands and hope for the best?   No, we cannot do that.  Our responsibility to our children is too great.

To have excellent schools, we must first change the way we think about learning.  Learning doesn’t begin in preschool and it doesn’t end after high school graduation.  Learning begins the moment a baby is born, and doesn’t end until we take our dying breath.   We are always learning, even when we are old and, supposedly, wiser.

Our brains are made to learn.  With every sound you hear, or thing you see, or smell you detect, your brain is performing an elaborate dance that enables you, almost instantaneously, to detect, direct, process, and tell your body how to react.  When we learn something new, our brain takes the information in, cross-references it with everything you already know, and sends it to the appropriate filing cabinet. There are lots of scientific words that describe this process more elegantly, but the idea is simple.  Our brains are lean, mean, thinking machines.

Until we see learning a life-long process, we will continue to be frustrated by the challenges that face our schools.   Children are in school only part of their time, yet they learn all of the time.  It isn’t possible for schools to “do it all” and we cannot delegate total responsibility for our child’s education to schools. We need to determine what schools do best—things which benefit from standardization, for example.  But to raise well-rounded lifetime learners, parents have to be the go-to person for their child.  Parents should be able to focus on providing an individualized learning environment at home that rounds out their child’s schoolwork.



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