School Reform

Why don’t we get it?

Our students don’t believe what they’re doing is relevant to them or to their future lives. We need to prepare the child, based on that child’s strengths, weaknesses, and special attributes, to find employment, live the good life, support our country, and become a role model for other students.

For most students that future won’t include a classic, liberal arts college experience. Are we being soft if we design life preparation to fit the strengths and weaknesses of each youngster? Are we giving up on our kids? No, we will be advancing our kids in the best way possible.

elephant 003Our present system is not causing problems at just the high school level; it is creating problems at the university level as well. But with the Elephant-in-the-Classroom approach advocated here, universities will have fewer students overall, and expensive remedial courses necessary to salvage kids who don’t belong there will cease to exist. At the present time, there are too many students in college who are not benefiting from the coursework offered, or the coursework has been watered down to enable them to graduate –– somehow (and eventually).

 And since there is a surplus of graduates available, they are now taking some of the jobs that should be taken by young folks who have the correct career background for those positions.  Many entry-level jobs that high school graduates could easily learn are only open to college graduates, even though nothing they studied in college has any relevance to the work they are doing.

How did we ever arrive at the point where we are pressuring all students to take courses that emphasize abstract liberal arts and ignore practical boots on the ground learning?


Ability needed for college

Intellectual ability of the academic IQ type is only necessary; not sufficient, to enable one to attend a legitimate college or university. In other words, it takes more than intelligence to belong in college. 

Necessary but not enough.

Necessary, because the university should tap the top 25% and that means students falling at an IQ of 110 or above.  Someone with a lower ability level might struggle through a less competitive college in five or six years but this would mean giving up sports, socialization, and family time. It could add significant stress and lead to depression as well as increased financial debt. These things have to be talked about, and we need to be more aware of the abilities necessary for college.

Having an ability level in the top 25% doesn’t guarantee college placement or success in college. The student may not work up to that ability level because of other difficulties, such as poor self-control, an inability to focus, or lack of motivation.

Highly competitive universities take the top 5% of graduates. This is based on scholastic aptitude tests and grade-point average. Less competitive universities take the top 15%. Other noncompetitive schools take the top 50%, or most students who apply, but should taxpayers support these institutions? Retaining the title “college,” while lowering the academic standards to a high school level, is not the answer –– but that’s what we do.

How about changing the name of the local police department to the Pentagon or changing the name of the local kite club to NASA. In Florida, community colleges are now called state colleges, and offer four-year degrees, but they have a strong focus on practical, two-year degrees, and career studies –– thank goodness..


Who robbed your right brain? Santa?

I have referred to Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary in previous writings.  McGilchrist worries about the increasing control of the left hemisphere in our lives and what that means for our future culture. I agree. I have written about some of the negative effects of technology as related to the left and right sides of the brain in my book, The Digital Pandemic.

 For you souls out there who aren’t up on left-brain and right-brain strategies, the left brain’s focus is on detail and control. It tends to atomize our world and our culture. The right brain is open to new experiences and brings us the richness of imagination and creativity. Both sides of our brain are involved in our thoughts and behaviors, I hasten to say, but some of us rely on characteristics of one side of the brain more than the other. This difference gives us a wholly distinct take on the world.

McGilchrist fears that left-hemisphere thinking is becoming dominant and we are tending more and more to see the world as a heap of intrinsically meaningless fragments. “The left hemisphere, ever optimistic, is like a sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as it ambles towards the abyss.”

I have had concern about these meaningless fragments, these “sticks and stones,” but I never thought the right hemisphere would be whisked away by a jolly old man in a red suit –– Santa Claus. Yes, Santa Claus! I reached this conclusion after thinking about gifts he would leave the children on Christmas day. Right-brain, creative, imaginative gifts or left-brain precision technology?

Forgetting gifts for a moment, it’s easy to see how the whole concept of Christmas has moved from a spiritual –– and some would say fantasy –– holiday, to that of a colorless celebration with little emotion, except perhaps for the very young. For centuries, Christmas has been a religious celebration invoking the name of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop. Manger scenes filled our parks, and the Christmas story was sung and told in public school auditoriums across the land.

It then shifted to a happy little guy named Santa who could touch his nose and take off like a rocket! How sad that Santa is now a marketer’s ploy to promote the sale of goods, even on Thanksgiving Day!

The next step in the transition from spiritual to secular eliminated color, because the left hemisphere is not crazy about creativity or colorful things. They get in the way of an objective, scientific approach. They muddy the waters and confuse one’s thinking. Rationality is king, and colors and lights are distracting. They’re not welcome in the palace of objectivity. That’s why the most stylish decorations today are not colorful. Silver, grey and white are used to give the impression of cold weather and snow, and that’s as it should be, according to some, because after all, Christmas is merely a celebration of the winter solstice. And be careful. Don’t dare say “Merry Christmas.” The politically correct handle in stores everywhere is “Happy Holidays.”

So what about the gifts? I researched newspaper ads and what did my eyes behold? No Donner and Vixen, but plenty of Samsung and Kindle. A Kindle Fire was on sale for only $379.99. It featured “an astonishing light in its quad-core 2.2 GHZ processor.” Oh man, that warms my heart. Also, the Samsung Android Galaxy Tab 3 Tablet for only $359.99! Or how about a Polaroid 7-Inch Kids Tablet with over 70 apps and games?

I continued scouring the ads, about to give up, when I touched my nose and found a Toys “R” Us catalog. Guess what? I found a Flutterby Flying Fairy Doll for only $29.99. Did I say fairy? My, that does warm my heart. So does the Cra-Z-Loom Shimmer and Sparkle Bracelet Maker for only $12.99.  And a couple of boys are shown riding an All-Y-Volution Carver Scooter for only 100 bucks. I even saw a Batman costume and a Lone Ranger doll. Wow!

So the right brain may be in retreat, but it has yet to fall over the abyss –– at least for younger children with less disposable income. Yes, there might be some advantages to being quite young and un-rich. Little ones can still enjoy the spirit of Christmas through the right sides of their brains because our schools and society haven’t yet sat on their imaginations. I visited a park near my home on Christmas Eve and envied the little children talking to Santa Claus. I knew, at 6’4″ tall, that Santa wouldn’t want me on his knee while I recited my list of requests. But I enjoyed looking at the faces of the little ones. That was gift enough.

Thanks, kids. And Merry Christmas!







Could career studies kids lose out?

Is it possible that a child might not have sufficient achievement scores and/or might not be motivated for college while only a middle-school or high school student but demonstrate brain maturation later on and ultimately attend college? This could happen, but this is not typical.

It’s important to deal with probability and not possibility when thinking about school policies. If a youngster with delayed brain-maturation completed advanced career studies, she would finish school with excellent job skills. When her academic interest and ability improved, she would have no difficulty taking community college courses and moving on to a university or taking distance learning courses.

Would she have lost valuable time? Not really. I believe her choice would have resulted in the same type of student that attended college after World War II on the G.I. Bill. Those veterans were described as the finest students to ever enroll in America’s universities. She would probably make it through college in 3½ years rather than five or six years and would have had excellent career experiences not found in most colleges. For more, read The Elephant in the Classroom.elephant 003

Who makes more, college or career?

What will pull parents and students to advanced career studies? There should be no student or parent fees for public school career training, and students may be able to put money in their pockets at age 16 or 17 rather than at age 22 or 23, which is often the case with students today who struggle through college.

It cost about $120,000 (loans, tuition, plus the cost for leaving the workforce for 4-5 years) to pursue a college education. Mark Peters and Douglas Belkin, “Bachelor’s Degree Payoff Can Seem Elusive,” The Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2014.  And that six-year difference between age 24 and age 17 represents 29% of the 24-year-old student’s life at that time!

Let’s remember that undergraduate loans alone are in the neighborhood of $30,000 and yet the February – March 2014 Gallup Poll of 30,000 college graduates showed that only 4% of those with an undergraduate debt of $30,000 were thriving in their work environment.

For more, stay tuned or purchase The Elephant in the Classroom. E-book is $1.99

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How to sell career education

Selling career education.

We’ll need a full scale marketing blitz to increase the acceptability of career education and to counter the myth that college is always the superior outcome. This marketing could feature successful role models, including celebrities from business, the arts, and occupations such as race car drivers, and baseball and soccer All-Stars.

One such role model, at least for parents and grandparents, is John Ratzenberger, who played the part of Cliff Clavin on the 1980’s sitcom “Cheers.”  He’s promoting the restoration of shop classes in U.S. high schools. Another entrepreneur, Jack Buscher, has funded a skilled “trade ambassador” to walk the halls of local high schools to recruit teenagers into career fields. Josh Mandel, “Welders Make $150,000? Bring Back Shop Class,” The Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2014.

How about acknowledging non-college people who have developed successful local businesses and who are making an excellent income? Marketers and advertisers in the business world could assist in developing a plan. How about Selena Gomez, and Harry Styles of One Direction, writing a song or giving ACS a plug at their concerts?

ACS students could create videos and presentations for younger students and their parents who are considering ACS. How about some friendly competition with AAS via T-shirts labeled “We Work For A Living,” “ACS Students Have More Fun!” and “We’ll Fly It, We’ll Drive It, And We’ll Own It.”


Is College the Promised Land?

The Elephant in the Classroom doesn’t believe that college is always the path to the good life.

Careers not requiring a bachelor’s degree? There is still the clear implication that with a bachelor’s degree one can do it all, but some jobs just don’t require all that “marvelous” learning. Take it from me, a bachelor’s degree does not teach you a lot of things. I have a Ph.D. and can’t make a hammer!

There are even rumblings in Massachusetts, a state that has led the nation in academic achievement. A business group has called for new opportunities to innovate through educational career offerings such as interactive social media lessons, adaptive learning and assessment platforms, digital gaming, and accelerated learning challenge grants. “Despite Lofty Goals, Massachusetts Advised to Set New Educational Goals,” Sean Cavanaugh, Education Week, April 1, 2014.

elephant 003A lengthy editorial in The New York Times endorsed more flexible curricula for American students “with greater choice between applied skills and the more typical abstract courses!(Author emphasis).  According to the Times, very few high schools offer career or technical education and any deviation from the classical education is viewed with suspicion. “Research has shown that the right mix of career and technical education can reduce dropout rates, and the courses offered don’t have to be from the old industrial arts ghettos.” Editorial, The New York Times, December 8, 2013.


Who’s defending our teachers?

I would like to take this opportunity to say something in defense of our teachers and our public school system today. Comparing our kids with kids in Norway, China, or other foreign countries is ludicrous, in my humble opinion. This is truly comparing apples and oranges. America is an immigrant society that accepts and works with people from all socio-economic levels. Students in our top 30% to 35% of academic ability and interest do as well as similar children in other countries. This isn’t about a race to the moon. This is about giving all American children an opportunity to be successful, contributing citizens.

Wei Luo is CEO of the Cal Sunshine Education Center in Claremont, California. He reports that the higher students score on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), the lower those students score on self-confidence and entrepreneurship. So the fact that U.S. scores lag in global tests may not be such a bad thing.

Matthew Muller said visiting Chinese students reported that they had 12-hour school days at a Beijing high school, followed by homework. This obviously left them with less time for athletics and social interaction, compared to US students.

Wendy Kopp visited rural schools in China, and noted that fewer than 30% of rural Chinese students make it to high school, where they would participate in the PISA exam. So much for comparing apples and oranges! Wendy Kopp, (op-ed) “Let’s call off the Education Arms Race,” The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2013.

Is early education the answer?

Preschool programs may help some students, although there are no solid data to support this. To be effective, these programs must include nutrition, healthcare, and family counseling in addition to academics. Intensive programs can produce some positive results in poor children, perhaps in the 10% range, but with no lasting effect on increased IQ scores.

In 2013, the Federal Department of Health and Human Services issued a comprehensive 346 page final report of its third grade follow-up to an ongoing Head Start impact study and found that while there were initial positive results, by the end of third grade there were very few impacts found in any of the four domains of health, cognitive, social-emotional, or parenting practices. OPRE report, October, 2012.

Ouch! But we need to keep trying to deveop programs that work.

School Reform, a Waste of Time?

Parent support.

Many teachers today will tell you that all these reforms are a waste of time because it’s really the parents who are responsible for their students’ poor efforts. They will give you a litany of negative experiences involving angry, recalcitrant, and aggressive parents, many of whom seem to have little interest in their children, and who don’t follow school guidelines or read to their kids.

“I’m a teacher with 30 years of classroom experience at the seventh grade level,” says Coleman Pont, “without the culture encompassing parental support, even the best teacher can fail. Principals tend to back parents when confronted with the fear of a parent going over their head to an even more scared administrator at the district office who is fearful of losing his job,” Pont says. Letters to the Editor, The Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2010.

I agree with teachers such as Ponte. It’s almost impossible to teach children when their parents are uncooperative and aggressive. But the teachers with negative views about parents usually work at schools where some of the best students –– and their parents –– have gone elsewhere –– creamed off to a “better world.”  Once again, we are confronted with the elephant in the room, and some teachers are dealing with the academic coffee grounds after the cream has been siphoned off through the selective process.

But when you speak to teachers in one of the “Lake Woebegone Schools,” where everyone is above average, whether it is a charter school, a magnet school, or a fundamental school, they will tell you how great and supportive parents are.

In one killing field school only 3% of surveyed staff agreed that “parent support for this school is strong.” Meanwhile, over at a selective (Fundamental) school, 100% of respondents said parents supported the school. Lisa Gartner, “Survey Shows School Woes,” Tampa Bay Times, March 17, 2014. We find many cooperative parents in all schools. But the preponderance of limited parental cooperation is found in the non-selective schools.

We need to keep rying to educate uncooperative parents, and some good has come from this, but trying to change the ingrained personalities and lifestyles of adults is not easy, even when they seek help. How do I know? I know because children, families, and adults came to my private practice for psychotherapy and were willing to shell out big bucks to change their personalities.

But even in intensive one-on-one counseling, with a well-trained professional, they almost always resisted change and wanted to cling to old, safe, but ineffective patterns of behavior. It’s normal to want to maintain safe and comfortable personality patterns. Change is scary, especially when someone wants to tinker with who we are –– or who we think we are.

Unfortunately, programs designed to help parents with their parenting skills seem to draw those who are already motivated, not the parents who are least cooperative. As a result, these programs end up “teaching to the choir.”

Yes, disgruntled parents in a killing field’s environment can be a huge problem, but a head-on assault to alter suspicious and negative attitudes just isn’t feasible. The answer is to provide advanced academic studies and especially advanced career programs that will engage and inspire students. When that happens, the cooperative parents will remain with their neighborhood schools. When they do, they will have a more positive effect on the negative parents than any seminars or courses provided by the school system.

This is excerpted from The Elephant in the Classroom, (How our fear of the truth hurts kids and how every student can succeed.)

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