A Race To Nowhere: How To Fix the Crisis in Education

May 05, 2011

The movie "A Race to Nowhere" in my opinion, has hit the proverbial nail squarely on its proverbial head. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the movie is a documentary about the struggles students face in our current national school system. If the information is used appropriately and taken in the right context, it should change our educational system for the better.

It is my belief that children from grades 5 and up are pushed too hard in school. America provides all students with a standardized education. Students take similar core classes at each grade level. Each student takes the exact same test and the same measuring tool is used to evaluate each one of their performances. Additionally, students are pushed to take some classes that are irrelevant to their academic goals. During my years teaching high school, I have come to realize that not all students need to take Precalculus yet many are pushed to believe they must. Colleges will judge them on the number of high-level classes on their transcript. As a result, students cram in as many of these classes into their schedules regardless of the necessity for these classes. Even the middle school students that I tutor are expected to perform levels above their mental capabilities.

For this very reason, I am an adamant proponent of exchanging standardized education for individualized education. Kids are given too much information and allowed too little time to apply it. Teachers in the public school system are given insufficient time to provide vast opportunities for students to use the knowledge for real life applications. They are given a long list of objectives that must be covered in an unrealistic time frame which is then followed by year-end exams that are used to evaluate overall performance. In addition to too much education being crammed into one school year, the problem is exacerbated by it being the wrong kind of education!

Harold Gardner introduced the idea of different intelligences and I whole-heartedly concur that children are gifted in different ways. In many school systems students are bound to learn not according to their natural giftedness and their individual learning style but instead to the homogeneous goals set forth by the local school system. Beethoven would have failed if tested according to his athletic abilities and Michael Jordan probably wouldn’t have coasted through music class. Plainly put, most students are tested according to a standardized curriculum not according to their strengths.

Now to the topic of homework…are students given too much? I believe that they are, especially in the higher grade levels. I am definitely not advocating assigning no homework but a happy medium needs to be struck for the educational health of our students. A realistic amount of meaningful homework on a regular basis is a good thing for kids. For instance, I give my Algebra students each the assignment of polling ten other students with the question of what amount of money they would pay for prom. We then use the data the next day to create a linear graph to see how many tickets we need to sell to keep the cost down. This kind of homework is meaningful to what is being taught. It is low stress, realistic and fun in a sense that it initiates conversation among students. Giving students freedom of interpretation within assignments allows students to choose the direction that is most fitting to their interests and strengths. If children are educated by more flexible objectives, their natural curiosity, capacity and resilience for education will return. They will gain autonomy in their own learning and learn to take risks and gain surprising insights about the world they live in.

I would like to shift my focus to another area of concern that I am very passionate about. There is too little emphasis on early education. I spent time researching schools when my oldest was about to start kindergarten.  Many people's reaction to me was, "Does she really need a great education in kindergarten?" Absolutely! Both my daughters had Mrs. Frantz. Mrs. Frantz has a Masters Degree, a wide range of teaching experiences and she is an exceptional teacher. My daughters are both stellar readers, both reading two levels above their grade and they consistently perform high in mathematics skills tests. The beautiful thing is they are learning and they aren’t even aware that they are developing these higher level skills. When I ask them what they did in kindergarten, they say they played. Early education is where children develop their love of learning and it is where they build the foundation for their cognitive schemas.

I am thankful every day that my children attend an excellent school - St Matthews. My children gain information and they are also given many opportunities to apply it. Miss Deem, my daughter's first grade teacher, is an outstanding teacher. She is well-read and creative in her approach to teaching. She gives my daughter three assignments per week in her writing journal. Is my daughter forced to do one specific assignment? No! Miss Deem lets students choose from ten different assignments. Each activity appeals to different interests and learning styles. Miss Deem supplies parents with a constant flow of additional resources we can use to help educate our children at home. Most recently, Miss Deem gave parents a list of optional homework. Parents have the resources to work with their children at home and parents are given some power over choosing to have children do the homework or not. Parents are the best evaluators of their children's needs and stress level. It is a great way to embrace parents and teachers working together to monitor a child's education.

Since my girls attend an excellent school, does that mean I am off the hook from educating them? Absolutely not! I am just as responsible as any other parent to monitor, stay involved and supplement by living a quality of life that provides a rich educational environment for my children. It's easy for me because I am surrounded by other families who provide a similar lifestyle for their children and they reinforce my ideals.

There are ways to have students practice skills that fit into daily living. Not all free time is created equal. If teachers were to ease up on the amount of homework then parents could help choose more relevant learning experiences for their children that help them spend their time in a more productive manner. I can choose to let my child watch three hour of TV a night or I can limit it to one hour and replace the other two hours with a nature walk (educational), baking or cooking (educational), or playing a sport in our back yard (physical fitness). These are ways to spend quality time with the family while children play and learn. Think of how many hours your child spends wastefully watching TV or playing video games. I don't want to hear the argument that video games teach hand and eye coordination. A child can develop good hand and eye coordinate in one hour a week! If we replace a child's free time from doing homework with less beneficial activities then we have lowered our standards for learning. Instead we create a warm loving environment for our children to laugh, love, grow and learn.

What is our focus as educators and as parents? Do we help them align their goals with their interests and gifts? Do we provide rich educational experiences? Do we nurture their natural abilities and help them become well-rounded educated citizens that will bless the world with their gifts. I recently watched the movie "The Miracle Worker" which portrayed the life of Helen Keller. Helen couldn't see or hear but with parent and teacher working together, they were able to help her accomplish things that most would have thought impossible. Helen Keller learned to communicate, graduated from Radcliff College with a bachelor degree cum laude and then became a strong advocate for the deaf and mute around the world.

The outcome of parent and teacher working together for a child's education is a child that succeeds on a personal level while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This child also becomes a healthy and strong contributing member of society.



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