Pick your head up off the desk! Stop sleeping. Wake up! Pay attention. Are you listening to me? What did I just say? Stop tapping your pencil. Am I talking to myself? I’ll wait. I’m still waiting. Do you want me to call your parents? What’s wrong with you? Go stand in the hallway.
Do you remember hearing this refrain from your teachers? You can probably recite it as readily as the chorus of your favorite song. It remains a sad albeit common reflection of life in school in the 21st century. Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves is “What’s wrong with us?” How have we let our children down for so long without making curriculum and instruction changes that inspire students to exercise their civic responsibilities, prepare for their futures, and become faithful stewards of our planet? It’s time to confront the reasons why students are so disengaged in American classrooms.
This article examines the problem with the American system of education and proposes a solution that will require courage, vision, determination, patience, and confidence to implement–the same traits the most influential pioneers in American history displayed as they built our nation. If we want to produce the next generation of innovators and leaders, our model of education should be no less ambitious. To scale the walls of achievement and reach new heights, our strategy should mirror the conviction of our goals.
Despite a national effort over the past decade to improve student performance with the enactment of testing initiatives, the United States currently ranks 15th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math. These results reflect a national failure to educate students to mastery and recognize and nurture skills vital to students’ future success in the workplace: ingenuity, communication, civic engagement, leadership, collaboration, and participation among them. Equally alarming, state tests do not prepare or measure students’ ability to use state-of-the-art technology–one of the key drivers of the 21st century economy.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) offers a myopic examination of a child’s value. While stakeholders agree that teachers must educate the whole child, the NCLB system of measurement evaluates only a fraction of a child’s potential. Students receive no credit for singing, dancing, drawing, speaking, problem solving, building, or playing an instrument even though many students will build a career using these talents. A student can start a club to help end genocide in Africa, hold a car wash to raise money to pay medical bills for a paraplegic classmate, or organize a trip to a nursing home to read poetry to elderly residents but it will not count toward their overall performance as a student; only the test matters in the end. How can we expect to graduate well-rounded students if we don’t shine a spotlight on and credit them for the good deeds they perform along the way?
NCLB’s testing pressures negatively impact teachers’ interest in instruction and students’ engagement in the learning process. Replete with unrealistic goals (it initially expected 100% of students to read at grade level by 2010) and a robotic pedagogy (known inside faculty lounges as a “test-prep marathon”), the legislation was doomed from the start as it lacked input and approval from the stakeholders charged with delivering it.
Schools operate in a vacuum. Politicians decide what students need to learn, teachers are forced to teach it, and students are expected to learn it. It’s analogous to taking your friends to the bookstore and telling them what to read. NCLB drained the fun out of learning. It turned schools into factories. It stole the energy and creativity out of teachers and it disengaged students beyond their already low-level of interest. The lesson lost in the process of rolling out this master plan was that it needed the support of teachers and students to work. It never had it, it still doesn’t, and it never will as constituted. Many of the politicians who authored and supported NCLB now admit it is an abject failure. More than a decade of damage has been done. Ironically, it’s the politicians who failed trying to keep students from failing.
The solution to the education crisis in America involves a multi-faceted approach that requires students to meet state testing requirements but also taps into the vast potential that exists in every child. Teachers should require students to demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing, science, math, history, and other subjects. Students should demonstrate content knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in these areas as part of an evaluation process that determines the depth and breadth of their education.
At the same time, teachers must provide students with more experiential learning opportunities, including but not limited to service learning projects. The overall evaluation of students should include these additional lessons. As a result, a student may perform low in math but excel in leadership; another student may need to improve his writing skills but receive recognition for an innovative idea; and yet another student may struggle in science but receive praise for demonstrating selfless acts of kindness in her community or courage standing up against bullying, cruelty to animals, sexism, or racism. These are a few examples of the many ways students can demonstrate their growth.
Professors in schools of education advise aspiring teachers to differentiate instruction and assessment to account for various learning styles and abilities yet when the rubber meets the road, students must demonstrate acquisition of knowledge on a test. This approach is inconsistent with the research on how students learn and show evidence of learning. There is a lot more to succeeding in the workplace and the global community than an ability to perform on a test. If a student excels on a test but he lacks manners, organization skills, leadership ability, work ethic, creativity, and refuses to collaborate with peers, is this student better educated than a student who may struggle on the test but possesses all of these other traits?
To answer that question requires a definition of education. Is education ensuring that students know how to read, write, and compute math problems? Is that all they will need to be able to do in order to survive in the workforce and in their personal lives? Did our system of education teach people how to avoid losing their lifetime savings in the stock market or their retirement money in the housing market? Stay out of jail? Solve the global warming crisis? End our climate destroying, cruel, unhealthy use of animal agriculture? Stay in good shape and health to avoid going bankrupt paying hospital bills? Start a new business or get and keep a job? If schools don’t teach these lessons, who will teach them? Legislators can continue to pat themselves on the back for spending so much time, valuable resources, and tax dollars on ensuring students master math and reading but they should also recognize the importance of teaching students a wider range of skills.
While recent Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) initiatives, innovative schools, and service learning projects provide encouraging markers of progress, stakeholders must design U.S. schools in ways that empower educators to prepare students to compete in the global marketplace. Ultimately, American students should learn to think innovatively, finding ways to build new businesses and solve their generation’s problems–creating alternative energy models, devising ways to reduce the national debt, developing plans to increase rates of employment, researching cures to diseases without testing on animals, and solving foreign and domestic policy challenges. Remaking schools in ways that engage students in the learning process–to add a purpose to their work–will help satisfy and retain quality teachers and prepare students to thrive in the workplace and their communities.
We can do so much better as a nation. Students should learn about their First Amendment rights by volunteering for an election, water conservation by attending an Earth Day event, emerging technologies by visiting technology companies, how to start a business by meeting with entrepreneurs, the importance of studying by visiting colleges and interviewing potential employers, the lessons of car and home purchases by visiting with a car dealership and real estate company, and the necessity of teamwork by interviewing professional athletes or a happily married husband and wife. Imagine if students could visit a farm sanctuary and interact with animals. It would change their eating habits, reduce health care costs and their carbon footprint, and increase mercy for animals. This shift will require a transformative view of education that values experiences over stodgy traditional methods of teaching and learning.
Although these opportunities require more planning, the lessons will endure. American education has focused too much on the amount of information it covers rather than the quality of lessons it imparts. The latter will ensure a quality education; the former ensures legislators feel good about themselves that students finished a textbook with little concern whether or not they learned anything. For too long, we’ve told students to read the classics. But what if they don’t like the classics? If the classics are so important, why aren’t more adults reading them? Are those books still classics if most students don’t want to read them, don’t enjoy them, and don’t get anything out of them? Or is it time to find new classics that match the time period and changing culture in which we live? Classics don’t have to be books; classics can be experiences and they can form the foundation of new classics.
It’s time to bring our students back from the hallway, to stop doubting their self-worth, and to stop asking what’s wrong with them. Teachers must be unleashed to find the best in every student and to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities ahead. It’s time for us to wake up and pay attention.