11 Reasons I Am Still Thankful for Public Education in America in 2014

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Bashing public education in 2014 continues as a national sport for U.S. media and politicians who compete 24/7 for public market share. But, the good news is that educators and parents are pushing back against mischaracterization of America’s public education with stronger voices than ever. I’ve updated this list annually and my observation is that the world is committed to changing education to offer more of an American model. It’s ironic that we’ve been moving to emulate what has been a mostly standardized, one size fits all approach to learning in other nations. Competing for high international test scores is not necessarily in our best national interests. To paraphrase Yong Zhao, Chinese-educated professor and fierce champion of America’s public schools, the invention and productivity quotient of nations is inversely proportional to high student test scores  – a decades old economic trend reported by ASCD.

While our public education system has room to advance, our educators continue to educate far more of our young people for more school years than either India or China. Our best students may not be as exam-driven as South Korea’s best or as international-test successful as the Finns, but overall our young people are far less self-abusive teenagers. Our young women today have far more educational and career opportunities than their peers in Japan, the Middle East or on the African continent. Children who enter the United States from third world countries are better served in our Statue of Liberty schools than in their own countries. We are dedicated to including, not excluding, special needs and immigrant children in our regular school communities and to keeping learning doors open rather than closed.

1.     In the People’s Republic of China, the decision was made in 2007 to fund nine years of compulsory public education for the 80% of young people who live in rural poverty and cannot afford the many fees attached to schooling in China. However, significant gaps still exist in meeting the target that all Chinese youth complete nine grades. Of course, if a student does get through and gets accepted into what would be our equivalent of high school, his/her parents are responsible for paying tuition to attend. If rural and poor, a mainland Chinese child is basically out of luck. Yet, chasing the American creativity dream drives the new Chinese national strategic plan – an American dream worth chasing.

2.    Talk about a poverty gap. In India, more than 40% of children drop out before eighth grade. An increased commitment of India to educating its young people has resulted in only 1.4 million school children not being enrolled in any school at all today – down from 9.6 million school children in 2010. When you realize that education is the fuel of a nation’s  future, you invest in it.

3.     In Mexico, only 68 % of children completing first grade will complete nine years of education. Thirty-five of these will go on to graduate from upper secondary school. Compulsory education now extends through 11 years of schooling, a relatively recent extension across the country. So close to us but so far away in education reality.

4.     In Afghanistan, only 1 in 2 children attend school and 45% of its 13,000 schools conduct classes in tents, lean tos, or under a tree. Nothing is more valued than education in places where access is a precious commodity.

5.     In Morocco, approximately 40% of females between the ages of 15-24 are illiterate and only 15% of first graders will graduate from high school.  Some things don’t change when education is reserved for a few.

6.     In Saudi Arabia women attend gender-segregated schools and are prohibited from studying architecture, engineering, and journalism. Girls in STEM, it’s one of many Saudi Arabia’s gender gaps.

7.     In Japan, gender gaps in society, workforce, and education continue into this century. Women make up only 46% of students enrolled in Japanese universities as compared to 57% of college students in the United States. In fact, Japan and Turkey are the only two nations where female college enrollment is not on the rise. And, Japan represents one of the largest gender gaps in the world, an issue of economic concern at top levels of the government.

8.     In South Korea, performance on exit exams is considered a “life and death” matter. Parental pressure and personal pressure lead to high suicide rates, inflated grades, and enrollment of significant numbers of students in private tutorial schools. Even the American military limits operations to provide maximum quiet on exam day. What does South Korea produce? Robots according to one South Korean professor.

9.     In Finland, 40% of teenagers in school reported being heavily intoxicated within the last thirty days, almost double the U.S. reported rate. We have seen the use of alcohol drop annually in the United States for decades  – a statistic that makes a health difference for our teens. Alcohol use among teens is an issue across Europe. Not all stats worth knowing get reported in standardized test data.

10.  In Germany, most special needs” students attend “special schools that only serve students who have learning or emotional difficulties. Learning community gets defined differently in different nations.

11.  America’s dreamers created the reality that all young people, regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity or religion are afforded a free, public education.

This gift, I do not take for granted.

American Kids as Creators and Inventors …..

 

 

 

On Fence Designers and Citizen Thinkers**

Who are the learners today who learn in the moment because of their own interests or because they need to do so? The learners who don’t just learn on command when we want them to learn? Where are the citizen-thinkers who tinker to learn and who get their hands dirty, perhaps earning a callus or two along the way? Could the “culture” of creativity and innovation we so highly prize in America be an outcome of skills we developed within families and communities as we fought first to survive, then to subsist, and, finally, to expand from East to West? Is that culture still breathing? Are our schools on their own when it comes to educating America’s young people? Are we in what America’s top CEOs call a creativity crisis? Where are our fence designers today?


When I reflect upon the ingenuity of early colonists homesteading in the Blue Ridge, it’s pretty obvious to me that despite a lack of “school” education, these families depended upon deep creative and critical problem-solving capabilities. Sometimes I wonder if schools were ever a source of this nation’s creative genius or whether our creativity and passion for innovation emerged as a socio-cultural skill of survival that continued to be honed across generations until… today.

Perhaps our capacity for creative genius is being dismantled not just by the longstanding reductionist, industrialized, one-size-fits all schools we have inhabited for generations but also by our current capacity to acquire the resources to buy, service or replace on a whim. Or, maybe despite our urge to still repair or fix things around us, our creativity’s being defeated by technology advances that lock us out of problem-solving possibilities. I suspect it’s a combination of all of these. As the digital divide fades away, will the next divide be between those who can create and respond in the moment with innovative solutions and those who cannot? How important are concrete experiences to honing creative and critical thought?

It struck me as I chatted recently with a local plumber at work with his seventeen year-old son that his son was learning something that most of our children are not. They were working on an older neighborhood home with a mash-up of pipes carrying water inside and outside, from well to drain field. I watched this young man work with his father to problem-solve the size and length of pipe needed, how to find underground pipes they needed to locate, and where to drill through an unanticipated concrete, not cinder block, footing.

I simply listened and watched as the two of them worked together, sorting through a series of multi-step problems that involved spatial relations, mathematical-analytical, verbal-linguistic, and kinesthetic intelligence; with a healthy dose of deductive reasoning on both their parts. They didn’t use any computer-based technologies, but rather a few old-fashioned technologies that most of our kids today can’t name, let alone use: the pick-axe, the shovel, the measuring tape,the level, the square, and the pipe-wrench. Many today disdain these tools as beneath them, but I was struck in watching these two at work that perhaps the lack of these tools in our children’s lives is one reason we as a culture appear to be losing our creative edge.

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

I think about my visits to schools over the course of this school year. While I love seeing new learning technologies being used by young people, I also appreciated second graders measuring with unifix cubes and handmade rulers, middle schoolers playing stringed instruments, chemistry students in goggles analyzing mixtures in old-fashioned test tubes, and kindergarteners with hands covered in blue finger paint. I loved the imagery created by the first grade teacher in her rocking chair reading from a picture book with children gathered on the floor, second graders chasing each other in a healthy game of tag, and high schoolers outdoors at lunch hanging around picnic tables and lounging on the ground.

designkids5

Comfort, Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking

In reflection, what I most value is the level of activity and engagement everywhere I look in our schools from fifth graders using iPod touches to race hallways in an in-school scavenger hunt to third graders dancing with their music teacher. Isn’t it this movement of thought processes that defines how we connect with our creative genius? When I see minds in action, not passively contained in rows, I believe that the intellectual juice of this nation can still power deep learning through the vast array of tools at our disposal, inside and out of the places we call schools.

library studio musicians

library studio musicians

These tools represent the dichotomy of our struggle to teach this techno-generation: how we capitalize upon using new technology learning tools while making sure our young people don’t lose the capability to use old technology tools as well. When we power up our young people with the “high-tech” learning tools we make available in our schools today, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we must still power up our young people with musical instruments, paintbrushes, Legos, beakers, bones, pulleys, picture books, woodworking tools, kitchen stoves, blocks and more.

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Our youngest children need to have their hands on a variety of tools, but our eldest do as well. All of our children need time to socialize face to face, not just in text bytes. I want our young people to graduate with the skills to problem-solve how to fix a leaky faucet or rewire a lamp that stops functioning. I don’t want them to always feel compelled to search the Internet for an “Angie’s list” problem-solver for all their household conundrums.

I want them to…

  • wander parks, fields, forests and their own yards, taking time to not just glance past a Viceroy butterfly or mantis but also to ask questions and seek answers about that which they don’t know
  • be inspired by music from a range of genres and time periods – to grow up savoring the natural world and the arts
  • understand scientific concepts that underpin how things work, what things are, and systems that explain and support life
  • engage in passionate dialogue about the rights of humankind through informed perspectives based on deep knowledge of history, politics, religion, and culture
  • speak a second, and maybe even a third language, but especially to understand the language of mathematics and,
  • see themselves as poets, narrators, conversationalists, and consumers of literature

I guess what I am really looking for is a nation committed to creating a learning renaissance with an infusion of enlightenment thrown in to extend and challenge the thinking of young people who represent the future. And, yes, I’d also like to see our young people use technology to connect, communicate, and collaborate with the world; to draw upon the experts, their peers, and the breadth of resources that together make pathways to deep learning universally accessible to all of our young people.

We now have the capability to turn on a faucet of learning opportunities unlike anything in the history of humankind. But, shouldn’t we make sure our kids don’t lose the capability to problem-solve as the best of plumbers and fence designers do while also learning to produce and create in the clouds?

** I first wrote and published this at Edurati Review.