Our Children Left Behind

What do children really need to get a good start in life?  If what I’ve read from many sources is correct, there are three key factors that set a child on a path of future success, both in terms of being employable as well as in terms of having a generally healthy life:

♦ Prenatal and early childhood healthcare.

♦ Proper nutrition, eating and exercise habits starting from infancy.

♦ High-quality early education, including preschool and primary school.

All three of these should be the case regardless of the neighborhood, city, state or country in which you live.  That’s an awful lot to bite off and chew, I know. 

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the education aspect of how we raise our children.  (While broadly applicable to all nations, part of my following comments are based on my perspective as an American.  My apologies and I hope the rest of the entry will be thought-provoking for non-American readers, too.)

American children are well behind their international counterparts in reading, writing, maths and science.  They go to school for fewer hours a day and fewer days a year than their peers in the academically leading countries.  The quality of schools and the availability of texts, equipment and teachers varies widely even within a single metropolitan region or state.

alphabet This leads me to wonder whether we are doing enough to prepare our children for future success, considering that future employment success relies increasingly in knowledge economies, a market which America no longer has cornered.  There are many definitions of success, but surely one of them is being equipped to earn a meaningful living.

At the same time, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world and states with tough but senseless sentencing mandates like California’s “Three Strikes” law see ever-increasing prison populations (and an ever-increasing average age of prisoners), adding unbearable costs to a bankrupt budget. 

Could it be that there is any correlation between these two?  Could our lack of a quality education, especially in demographic areas that are traditionally challenged in an socioeconomic sense, be the cause (or, at least, cause) of the crime?

This is one of those issues that, when I think about it, the answers seem really obvious.  The connection between the ills that we do not want plaguing our society and the things we do (or fail to do) that would help, stare me in the face.  Maybe I’m the only one who sees this and what I’m seeing is incorrect?

Doesn’t it make sense that we as members of society would benefit greatly if the quality and quantity of education received by our children was increased?  Here are some things, in no particular order, that might contribute to a solution.  Let me know your thoughts.

Year-round school.  Right now, American students get a summer break of about three months.  This was useful in agricultural times when the students were needed at their parents’ farm to help with the crops, but in this day and age, it seems unnecessary.  The average student loses about one month’s worth of learning during the long summer break.  Let’s follow the lead of many other nations (and even some school districts within the US) and move to a more year-round schedule.

More days in the school year.  American students spend about 180 days in school each year, about 15 less than the average in other developed countries.  Some countries, notably those in East Asia, have students in school more than 200 days a year.  Over the course of 12 years, that is the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of lost education.  (Data from an article in the Economist.)

Longer school hours.  American children spend less time in school than their peers and have less homework.  More hours doesn’t necessarily equal a better education, but considering that after school most students are going home and turning on the television or playing video games, I suspect we could do something more beneficial with that time.  Maybe that’s where the following idea comes in:

Restore arts, music and the social sciences (including civics) to the curriculum.  In the past decades, we’ve seen an increasing emphasis on “teaching to the test”.  Largely, though, this hasn’t resulted in improved performance of American students.  Instead, their knowledge is more and more lopsided, focusing only on the silos of information in which they will be tested.  Other subjects such as the arts and music tie into success in maths, sciences, reading and writing.  Social sciences also work to produce educated, engaged citizens.  Ones who know how many states there are and how laws are enacted, for example.

Guaranteed equality in resources.  Schools within a given state should all meet a certain minimum standard of resources, including teaching materials and teachers.  It doesn’t make sense that because of accident of birth, a child growing up in a wealthy suburban neighborhood will get a better public education than a child born in a poverty-stricken urban or rural area.  If we are going to tackle larger societal issues such as public health and crime reduction, those children growing up amidst poverty are the most in need of educational resource minimums.

More parent and community involvement.  Parents seem less involved in their children’s education than they used to be.  Teachers report a lack of discipline and reinforcement in the homes, making their teaching jobs more about policing behavior than about educating.  On the flip side, though, security and liability fears make it so difficult for adults (parents, let alone other members of the community) to get involved in their local schools.  Once-a-year safety classes, registration and background check requirements, etc. make it extraordinarily difficult for people such as retirees, who might have the time and inclination to volunteer, to get involved.

More compensation for teachers but also an expectation of higher performance.  A lot of these proposals will mean more work for teachers, a professional group who Americans pay little respect and little salary.  From my time spent in Asia, I’ve observed that teachers here are respected second only to parents and clergy.  If we want our teachers to work harder, we need to start compensating them for the important role they play: shaping the future of our citizenry.  At the same time, there are teachers out there who don’t love what they do and aren’t very good at it.  Just as with any other profession, there need to be performance standards that are rewarded and those who don’t achieve the standards should not be in the profession.

These are just some ideas and aren’t going to change the world, I know.  But it seems that these types of ongoing, intractable problems have some pretty pragmatic solutions.  Why is it so hard to put them into place?


0 thoughts on “Our Children Left Behind

  1. Having a sister who is a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher of middle school math, I have heard plenty about this subject. She laments the lack of parental support. She has students that are bright but refuse to do the homework or who have learning difficulties but are mainstreamed. She doesn’t have the ability to pour the information into their heads nor does she have any say so concerning which students she is assigned. With these conditions, no one is learning to their full potential and in your plan the teacher would be punished. You forget that corporal punishment is alive and well in many of the countries. I’m sure if she could cane trouble makers and track problem students into a “work training school” her success rate would go through the ceiling. The problem is  very complicated – there are no simple solutions.

  2. I agree with you, kids just need better work ethics. When I emigrated to the US from Asia when I was 8, I came with mathematical skills 3 grade levels more advanced than my peers!I think the major problem lies with the parents. Having been a music teacher for 6 years, I’ve noticed that the students that do the best are the ones with parents that check up often on their kids’ progress, and that ask for guidance in getting their child to succeed. I feel like many parents see teachers more like glorified babysitters. Kinda having a, “I’m gonna leave my kids to you, you do all the magic” type of mentality.

  3. Education is a huge concern of mine, and I’ve been talking a lot lately to friends that are teachers, as well as my mother who works in the school system about what the heck is going on. I agree strongly that better education could have some heavily positive effects on some of America’s problems, including your mentioned problem of jailtime and lawbreaking.I think that lower education should be much more heavily standardized; not necessarily just through tests like the SAT but also through curriculum adjustments. I moved high schools in the middle of my third year, and I realized for the first time that what one school teaches as subject X might not be subject X at another school. That causes HUGE problems for transfer students, and it only furthers the divide between economically disadvantaged school districts and those that are more well off.I also agree very strongly on the benefits of a restoration of arts education. Music, visual/studio arts, and creative or just “fun” writing are SO beneficial to students, and I think they’re historically one of the greatest strengths of the American education system. However, lately more and more programs are being cut nation-wide and it pisses me off. Foreign language education is also one of the first things to go. Schools are ignoring the fact that there are different kinds of intelligence, and students that may have strengths in areas that aren’t reflected on a standardized test get lost, confused, and left behind.

  4. I don’t understand why we keep backing away from the obvious answer to this question. It has little to do with the schools, and little to do with curiculum. Those haven’t changed much since I was a kid. It has little to do with the length of the school day, or the number of school days. We like these answers because they exonerate us. It has everything to do with our unwillingness to be parents and role models. Get a cat, for Christ’s sake. Don’t feel obligated to have a child just because you feel fertile today!

  5. You know, according to the Indian system of hierarchy in terms of respect the order is mata (mother), pita (father), guru (teacher) and devo (god). Mother, Father and Teacher commands more respect than God!

  6. I think this is a really important issue. I have a few friends that are teachers that have brought up some of the same points as you have. I used to work right across the street from the DoE and that building annoyed me everyday because apparently someone decided that in order to drum up support for No Child Left Behind, they needed to build gaudy little red school houses at every entrance to the building that said No Child Left Behind on them. All I could think is perhaps that money could have been better spent if it went to real schools who really need money for their students instead of fake plywood ones. My teacher friends have said that some of the older teachers tell them how much has changed for the worse since NCLB took affect. Teachers are almost forced to teach to the test because if their students fail, then the school will lose funding. One of my friends from high school works in a pretty rough middle school and she was terrified of her classes not passing these standardized tests because a lot of times if the students don’t pass, the fingers point back at the teachers who could be really good teachers. It’s just not a good program and I don’t think that it’s made anything any better and perhaps things are worse now. For me, I think the first step of making American education better is removing NCLB.Good post!

  7. know what? i think it’s mostly everyone’s problem. education should be free for everyone especially for the young. fees keep going up and it comes to a point where education looks like for people who can afford to pay the bill. i also agree with bringing back the arts, music and social sciences. it brings appreciation and sense into being. i know kids nowadays are more into video games which makes their perceptions in life limited.

  8. Americans have no need for a good education and still can be successful. They have got a good system which attracts the best talents from all over the world. Nearly half of the Nobel Prize winners are Americans but few of them were born in the U.S.A.

  9. There are too many distractions for children in this country. The numerous television sets, cell phones ( i phones ), internert games, DS, Wii, Nintendos what have you. While some stystems have educational channels, personally I think the children are glued to their sets and games, once they come home from schools. Parents are working full time and don’t have too much time between their work and the house work, to channel precocious minds. These are some of the pitfalls I have seen around here. No child left behind is such a lame excuse for dissheveled minds. A truly smart kid will have to suffer in a class room with someone who is mediocre at best.During our early years here, we lived in St.Louis. We had a huge map of USA on one of the walls, and we would mark all the places we had traveled to and seen. One night we had a couple over for dinner, Mohamed’s colleague and his wife.  They asked me where I was from, and I replied that I too was from India, just like M was. The man then said, ” I wouldn’t know where to even look up to find India.” I was aghast. Then the wifey said… ” go look at the map, I am sure you will find it in this big a map!!” That was the only time we had them over. Most children and adults of this country, I have seen have a very rudimentary knowledge of other countries. It is a pity. Thanks Chris, this was an excellent post.

  10. One of the things yours post seems to not acknowledge, is that the greater the role the Federal Government has played in Education, the worse performance has been. The same could be said for even local government. You also make absolutely no hint to how and who would pay for this.One of the reasons why our universities are the envy of the world, is because they are market based with little interference. This has been changing, and their slow decline has been directly coorelated to that fact. Even still, our universities produce people with real knowledge far beyond the “free” degree factories of Europe, India, and China. One of the massive problems with government education is that it’s failures means that you only need more of it. Privatized education must yeild results to succeed, both in value of education and affordability to the consumer. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s better than what we have now, or what Europe will EVER have.The other thing is that the rights you espouse in the beginning are only beholden to the parents who birthed the child. We may all have rights to pursue education, but you have no right to pursue it through my paycheck, nor I through yours. People seem to forget that. The kind of socialism/centralized planning you have here is not fair, only leads to us all being equal in poverty, and enforces mediocracy in all things.I used a bit of strong language here, and I’m sorry if you take offense, I meant none. This sort of thing is just one of my major concerns with our country.

  11. Thanks everyone for adding such thoughtful and interesting comments to the discussion.  I really appreciate it!@Magniloquentia – Thanks for your comments and certainly no offense taken.  It is completely okay for us to have different perspectives on this subject.  It is a tricky issue.  You see, I’m generally in favor of less government involvement, too.  But here’s where I see a breakdown in the “you have no right to pursue education through my paycheck” argument:The lack of good basic healthcare, education and nutrition for a young child growing up in poverty, be it in the rural areas, the urban areas or elsewhere, is going to end up costing me and all of society in one way or another: crime, violence, drug addiction, emergency room admissions, homeless people on the streets, etc.  Many of those societal ills trace back to the person having had a poor start at life and, conversely, those who succeed in life almost all start having had those three basic needs met.I don’t want to pay for other people’s education and healthcare at all!  But from a pragmatic point of view, it is like going to see the doctor when you first discover a bump rather than waiting months or years until it is too late to do anything.  It is much less expensive on me and society to ensure that all children have access to a good start to life.  What they do with it is up to them, their parents, etc.  @ZSA_MD – Thanks for sharing that experience.  Yes, the number of people who do not appreciate the size of the world amazes me, just as does the number of Americans who don’t have a passport and have never traveled overseas.  I realize it takes some money to do that, but even places like Mexico and Canada are not that far away.@choyshinglin – Good point, America as a whole does attract a lot of talent and that will help fuel success for America as a whole for many years to come.  A poor education system, though, will still give short shrift to the success of individual Americans.@Renatojr3 – Thanks for your comments, Jon.  Taken from a global perspective, Ameicans are fortunate that there is 13 years of free education available to them.  Not the case in other countries.  Now if we could just improve the education they are receiving!@TheCheshireGrins – Thanks for your comments Meg.  I have mixed feelings about NCLB.  I do think that there is a role to be played by having some type of testing.  What you don’t measure, you don’t know.  But we’ve managed to put the testing ahead of the learning, which is backwards.@Dezinerdreams – That’s fascinating Vivek!  I didn’t realize that but the priority really makes sense.  Some fundamentalists may not like that order, though!  =)@Tom L – Tom, I agree that the involvement (or lack thereof) is an important contributor to the problem.  I’m not sure that I would agree that the other factors are minimal to nonexistent.  To your point, though, which movie was it in which a young Keanu Reeves said something to the effect of, “They make you get a license to drive, but they’ll let any idiot be a parent”?  People procreate without giving much thought to the responsibility they need to take on.@Wangium – And yet during these tough economic times and the changing world around us, a better education is even more important!  Thanks for adding the economic perspective to the argument, Jason.@secade – Thanks for adding your thoughts.  Good points to consider, especially about the decline of foreign languages in the curriculum.  In this increasingly globalized age, we should be emphasizing the importance of communicating and understanding others, not cutting it!@Rm2046 – Thanks for adding that perspective, Jimmy.  I’ve observed the same thing here in Thailand, as far as parents really expecting a lot more from their children.@murisopsis – When I was doing the volunteer English teaching at a rural school in Samut Songkhram province, I was always amazed with the level of respect I received from the students.  They certainly weren’t perfect little angels, but they stood up when I entered the room, thanked me when class was over, and listened to what I said.  When I told my sister, who is a primary school teacher in Kansas, about this, she was green with envy.  Maybe we are spoiling the children by sparing the rod!

  12. It was interesting reading the comments posted. As a teacher I have found that the system is not looking at the needs of individual students. Instead, the system groups students and passes them on to the next grade level even if some of them may not be ready for the next grade. Many school districts are afraid of lawsuits and will allow parents to dictate what should happen to their child even if it is not the best thing for that child. Also, due to NCLB students are not receiving services that they need because they will form a subgroup for testing. If that subgroup doesn’t pass the test then the entire school does not pass. Speaking of tests scores, I think that it is important to note that the United States compares its test scores, which include all students no matter their ability, with other countries test scores that represent only the brightest students. Many of these countries have filtered the students into the appropriate studies based on their abilities. That idea is not always realized. As an educator, it is very frustrating that educators can see the problem and even voice it, but the politicians in charge don’t listen.The lack of parental support in another reason for the decline of our education system, however I won’t spend the time on that subject because I could write all night about it.Chris, you made some very good points and as a parent of small children, my husband and I work very hard educating our children not only through the school systems,with a lot of involvement, but through real like experiences that so many children seem to lack.

  13. @christao408 – What you’re not paying mind is that it’s still theft. The street mugger has few qualms taking another’s money because it suits his/her purposes too. Perhaps the mugger has a family to feed and educate as well? How does government sponsorship make it any more moral? The other point so many seem to ignore, is that those who care to pay for other can. You want to pay for x child’s future out of altruistic concerns? That is your choice. You have your proactive disposition, and you have charities. There is no reason to coherse others. Life is not fair. We are not all born with the same cards, and there is no means of countering that through goverment without enforcing mediocracy and poverty through punishment of success.Even without the moral/legal standpoint, public education still fails miserably when compared to the performance of even private institutions geared toward middle class families. I also find it peculiar how people endlessly rant on the omni-importance of superior education, yet wail that it costs too much when they must choose between 2 cars, a television in every room, and eating out 4 nights a week versus private school. This very same principle applies to heathcare. Furthermore, it is the very insititutions of Medicare and Social Security that drive up costs by anywhere from 5-15%. That however, is another topic.

  14. @Magniloquentia – I think we see this subject from two different points of view and I regret that this blog doesn’t present an ideal forum to discuss it in greater detail, as I’d certainly like to understand your perspective better.  Thank you, though, for sharing your points.@Wangium – That would explain your perspective… =)@oldpartner – Thanks for giving us a teacher’s perspective Jenn.  As both a parent of school-age children and a teacher, I know you have the opportunity to look at this issue through two lenses.  I’m sure those multiple points of view help you be both a better teacher and a better (more involved) parent.

  15. Wonderful points, everyone. This is not a simple issue as we can see, but very complicated. I’ve also been on all three sides of the desk, so to speak: Student through graduate school, teacher of preschool through middle school students, and parent of two children who received a public school education even though I taught in a private school at the time. As s student, I experienced just about every type of teaching there was, either personally or as an observer. I learned the most when being guided in how to learn the subject rather than being spoon-fed the subject. It seems to me that is still the most practical and effective teaching method. It takes into account the ability/learning style of each individual in the classroom. Assessment is necessary, but needs to be the end, not the means to an end. Current thinking puts the cart before the horse, if you’ll excuse an old cliche.As a teacher, I was expected to be knowledgeable in my subject area and demonstrate the ability to communicate my subject to my students, engaging them in ways that led them to understand the subject through questioning, exploration, performing, then assessment. I was most effective when I had a network of colleagues in my subject area, when I had the support of other faculty members and school administration, and when parents were active in their children’s educational lives, not only in my subject area, but in all aspects of their children’s education. In my experience, teaching was a life-style, not a job. However, compensation for this life-style is much to low. As a parent, I expected that my children would take school seriously, discplining themselves to the business of school to the best of their ability. What they found, I believe, is that, while hard at times, there was also enjoyment in their accomplishments. Our job was to be available to answer questions, clarify when we could, provide suplemental instruction if necessary (although I hate to say it made me angry to have to do this sometimes as I felt the teacher in a couple of cases just wasn’t doing his/her job adequately), be active in school activities, and help with classroom activities as we were able. Obviously, education has been a top priority in our family, trickling down through the generations. I fear we are the exception, rather than the rule. That is where the difficulty lies. Until parents begin demanding the best, most effective education for their children, regardless of race or socio-economic status or learning ability, there will be no reform in the educational system in this country. This must begin at the local elementary, middle, and high school in each school district in every village, town, city, in every state in that order. It is a very tall order. Comparing ourselves to other countries is a waste of time. Deciding what we want for our children, how we want our children to learn, how we want our children to function in their future are all questions that need to be answered before any changes will begin to be made.

  16. Good post Chris. When I came to Canada, I was about a year ahead in terms of math skills. I think education isn’t a top priority anymore. My parents skimped and saved so we could attend a decent high school. I remember getting called out by my vice principal and headed back a NSF cheque that was for my tuition fee. He wanted me to give it to my dad. I used to help out with my company’s campus recruiting. I would say about 67% of the cover letters and resumes I read were pockmarked with major grammar errors, sentence structures and were more or less slapped together based on resume books. Several years ago, I spoke with a teacher. He had to buy classroom supplies for is own students because there wasn’t enough in the school budget. Maybe it’s up to each and everyone of us to do a bit more to help. (e.g. volunteer work, mentoring…).

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