The recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, “The Unaddressed Link Between Poverty and Education” laid bare the facts that many of us know all too well, that is, students from disadvantaged households have many more educational challenges that their peers from more socioeconomically affluent households. While economic challenges certainly impact a child’s academic performance, there’s a much more fundamental issue at stake for all our children. Do contemporary classrooms adequately serve the needs of any student or our country’s future?
The classroom issues of children from economically challenged households are well documented: less stimulation as babies and infants, delayed enrollment in early childhood education, less emphasis and support for academic achievement, less access to learning aides such as computers, etc. In traditional classrooms that emphasize standardized testing, compliance and assembly line progression through topics, children from these homes are hopelessly behind before they even start and will struggle to catch-up through most of their school days.
The insidious side of this educational head-in-the-sand posture is not just the federal policies that exacerbate the problem, it’s that these policies are entrenching an education system that works for no one – economically challenged or not. How often do we see discussions about the massive changes in the way we work and yet the methods used to educate our children are hardly different from when we were an agrarian and industrial nation? Would you want to sit in a classroom all day and listen to someone lecture at you on a chalkboard armed only with a pencil and paper? For kids stuck in outmoded environs they spend their days waiting to be released so they can text, surf, and Facebook, at least for those who can afford it. In the information age our education system is not only antiquated, it is downright boring.
If helping children from poor school districts was not enough incentive to improve our education system, perhaps the fact that we are failing all our childrenwill light a fire under someone. In our fast moving, digital, online world the traditional classroom is quickly becoming obsolete and those with parents who have the resources are finding learning opportunities outside of school to effectively teach their children. Within the past week alone, I have had several spontaneous conversations with parents who are aggressively looking for alternatives to traditional public school.
With technological advances, educational alternatives are growing. We have already lost the vast majority of the economic elite to private institutions once the purview of only the very wealthy. If the upper middle class joins the exodus from public education it will not only be devastating for our schools it will devastate our economy and society as well, because without a vast majority of all children getting a quality education we cannot survive as an economically prosperous nation.
Radically reinventing education doesn’t have to cost more money. What we have to do is to better serve the learning styles and lifestyles of children of the 21st century. Ironically, by shifting from autocratic learning to a system based on individual mastery, it will serve all children because no longer will there be some arbitrary lines established simply by age, rather all children will excel and be supported based on their proficiencies.
I have no doubt we have the talent and skill as a nation to achieve these classroom reforms quickly – although I wonder if we have the political will to insist that it happen. Want a prosperous future? Creating a better education system is our only way there.
Kathleen Schafer is founding principal of Leadership Connection and author of Living the Leadership Choice (release December 2011). Connect with Kathleen on Twitter and read her blog at leadershipconnection.net.