The Effectiveness of American Education

During the month of June, thousands of high school seniors participated in their high school commencements. Most high schools had salutatorians and valedictorians, as well as special graduation speakers. The student speakers as well as ...

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During the month of June, thousands of high school seniors participated in their high school commencements. Most high schools had salutatorians and valedictorians, as well as special graduation speakers. The student speakers as well as the commencement speakers probably waxed eloquent on how this year's class could make a difference.

The few commencements that I attended had excellent student speakers. Their messages were substantive. On behalf of their classmates, they thanked the faculty, administration, staff and their parents for providing them with exceptional opportunities to learn and to grow.

As I reflected on their words, I started to think as an educator and as a surrogate parent about whether or not we are really preparing our seniors to enter the world as responsible and accountable young adults. Have we given them the tools to survive or has our approach been a superficial overview of a variety of skills that have not challenged them to develop the right skills to survive and manage on their own?

The effectiveness of American Education is a constant topic in the news. People running for office can always grab the spotlight when they criticize American Education and suggest that our schools are not doing their job. Everyone is heavy on the criticism, but very light on the constructive steps necessary to improve our schools.

President Bush's Education Reform Policy signed into law on January 8, 2002 is supposed to give our schools greater support to meet stronger academic standards. It is supposed to give states and local communities greater freedom to empower their schools. It is supposed to support proven educational methods and afford parents greater choices on behalf of their children.

The major purpose in the "No Child Left Behind" legislation was to raise student achievement, improve overall American schools, improve resources and improve learning.

In general terms, in many quarters of our nation, American schools are improving. The bar has been raised and students are raising their scores.

However, the question to be raised is "how is this rise in achievement being met, what price are we going to pay?" In the final analysis, will our students be better off in the long run?

In too many schools, students are learning just to pass the standardized tests. Classroom instruction is framed around student achievement.

For so many of our high school students, school is not just a place to absorb academic information. It is so much more. Most students like going to school. They don't love going to class, but they do love coming to the campus, hooking up with friends and interacting with their teachers.

In some cases, school is the only environment where some students feel loved and cared for. These students find support and concern that is too often lacking at home.

A growing number of our high schools are becoming wastelands for human potential. "No Child Left Behind," the Regents Action Plan and the Compact for Learning have all attempted to address our students academic differences. They have tried to strengthen our students reading, writing and arithmetic skills. In fairness, some stride has been made. We are seeing some improvements.

However, just educating the student from the neck up is not going to prepare him or her for adult survival. They may be able to read, write and do more sophisticated math problems, but if they cannot problem solve, feel and think, they are not going to make it.

At these recent graduations, I was impressed that student speakers could appropriately quote from literature and make appropriate references to philosophy. It sounded so good in the context of a high school commencement.

How many of the seniors present got what the speakers were saying? That is to say, that they understood the message and more importantly, would actively act on what they heard.

The sad reality is that we have not done a good job in holistically educating our children to live responsible, thoughtful lives.

They are not adequate, critical thinkers or problem solvers. They are more focused on instant gratification and "me-ism" then on being a part of the larger world and trying to make it a better place.

Holistic education is very cost effective. If embraced, it would be the approach taken by everyone on staff from the superintendent to the support staff that maintains all the district buildings.

It is a way of looking at the world that does not fragment things. Instead, you develop a filter that sees everything as interconnected. You try to problem solve the whole, not just one little piece. It is a perspective that makes critical thinking a foundational concept for everyone to learn and use.

This method of learning focuses on the whole person, not just one's intellect. These skills and their development are to be integrated into every discipline and taught by every faculty person, no matter what his or her position.

If students love who they are and feel safe, respected and valued, they will hunger for learning. They will seek every opportunity given to challenge their thinking and their reservoir of knowledge.

So much of the mayhem our schools are experiencing is because of the corrupt class system that has emerged in recent times and the fact that our schools are no longer safe, loving, life-giving environments.

The social competition is lethal and out of control. The lack of respect for faculty, staff and administration in many school communities is unconscionable. Students are not held accountable. Too often, what we say, we don't do.

Too many students get negative labels early on in school that scar them for life. They never really get a chance to start anew.

Our discipline process is antiquated, punitive and largely ineffective. The desired change in a student oftentimes never comes about. He or she cosmetically complies to get over on the system. Good examples - our student handbooks and our ridiculous attendance policies that are rarely enforced.

What about the growing number of students who are not graduating from high school? Those invisible faces who get lost in the bureaucracy and never get included in a district's drop statistics. These students become almost non-existent.

If commencement speeches are going to be more than puffery, our students need to first reclaim themselves, then reclaim their schools and demand our schools become more humane, more committed to holistic education and more committed to empowering the total person to grow and become all her or she can be!