What does it take to reinvent our educational system?
Why do communities care so much about kids? It is not just because strong education systems attract well-educated parents — the entrepreneurs, employers and employees that drive the state’s economic engine and citizen government. It is not just because failing youth and their offspring drain social service resources for decades. Maybe, too, we hope to spark in children the dreams we used to have, or still have, for something exciting, something better?
Despite our caring, we fail many children. Kids who grow up in poverty are three times as likely as others to be substantially below proficient in some subject. Boys drop out of school 50 percent more frequently than girls. Even successful students often avoid fields where jobs are plentiful: only 5 percent graduate in engineering, 5 percent in biological sciences, 2.4 percent in computer sciences and 1.4 percent in physical science. Vocational programs cannot recruit enough students to learn plumbing and machine shop.
We have responded to failure by turning schools into test prep machines. In at least one of our elementary schools, second graders were routinely denied recess to prepare for tests. Children were so bored with computer drills that they just clicked any key to move on. Teachers spend their time attending to equipment rather than children. Not surprisingly, these teachers are leaving the profession in droves.
There is a place with a very different model. In one small country, education school is more competitive than medical school because working conditions and esteem are high. Science teachers make as much as scientists. Public school teachers and administrators control what happens in their schools. Grades 1-7 are combined into a single unified program that guarantees students grasp the basics. Most students start at age 7, have individualized education programs (IEPs) and rarely have homework. These students earn very high scores on international tests. Many graduates have gone into technical jobs, for Nokia. Indeed, the country is Finland, population 5.4 million.
There are three key aspects of the Finnish model: schools run by empowered, highly motivated teachers, unified seven-year basic schools and a supportive community. In Finland, every child (and parent) has the option of high-quality daycare. After school, most children attend clubs or athletic activities rather than going home to play computer games. Safety nets assure that children have adequate food and health care.
In the U.S., more students are steering toward education since it is one of the better paying options for liberal arts students. Still, bureaucracy and test-driven curricula restrict teachers’ discretion compared with Finland. We continue to pull older children into middle school while research shows that placing them in nurturing roles with younger children encourages better behavior. Finally, while the poorest children qualify for HeadStart, the safety net for infants and young children has enormous holes.
There is other good news, though. In the Monadnock region, we have begun to help older kids. The Quest programs being run by Rotarians in cooperation with school districts and Sargent Camp, as well as Franklin Pierce University, exemplify the power of community support. Likewise, the saintly people who run after-school programs, such as Place to Go and SKIP, deserve not just kudos but more imitation.
But these measures will not abate fear of technical careers. With severe shortages of engineers, programmers and scientists, few technical people ever become teachers. Is it any wonder that children are afraid of these professions so unfamiliar to their role models? We need technical people in the schools showing our kids how fun science, math and programming can be. There is great opportunity here, for retirees to play a key role. A single experience has turned kids around. Show them a pair of fashionable shoes fabricated with a 3D printer. Display a crib mobile of cotton clouds that sparkle with LED’s when a baby cries. Suddenly, engineering is play. Science helps. Learning beckons.
What do you think can best help our kids prepare for a metamorphosing world? Is it inside schools? Out in our community? Or in the way the two interact? Attend the Community Conversations forum on June 10 at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture and/or write your thoughts for publication. The Ledger-Transcript will be running a special viewpoints section on the topic of education, following Tuesday’s forum. Send 400 to 600 words, with “education” in the subject line, to firstname.lastname@example.org by June 12 at noon.
Jeanne Dietsch of Peterborough, former Conval Board member studied international education policy at Harvard Graduate School of Education