I said in my last article that we need to fix public education. Nothing earth-shattering about that revelation. What I didn't address is what we want public education to look like once it was fixed. The first place to start is with a goal. What should be the goal of public education? It's not surprising that the answer to this simple question has been hotly contested.
In one camp, we have a large group of educators and politicians who believe schools should prepare students to go to any college. Notice I said "any college." Not just a community college, but a UC or CSU as well. To this end, they have set requirements for all students to take all college preparatory classes. In California, we refer to these as the A to G requirements. Each letter, A to G, refers to 1 of the 7 covered subject areas, and list the requirements in those areas for a student to be accepted in the UC or CSU systems. For example, requirement C covers math, and requires that students complete three years (recommends four years), including basic and advanced algebra and geometry.
Educators who advocate this approach are quick to point out that research shows school test scores rise when students are required to take more stringent courses. I have a few issues with this concept.
First, while school test scores may (or may not) increase overall, the scores for lower-performing students decrease. This is because the policy fails to look at the needs of the individual students.
For whatever reason, students don't always enter high school with grade-level skills; some are many years behind. Some don't even know their multiplication tables, but this policy does not take that into account. Even if a student cannot perform simple multiplication, they are required to take college-prep algebra, where they are destined to fail!
As Vince Lombardi said, "Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." And so it is with our students. Success breeds success; failure breeds failure.
Of course, our students need to be prepared to enter high school at grade level. To do this we must implement aggressive intervention programs at the elementary level, but that's a subject for another article. Suffice it to say that at this point, not all of our students are at grade level when they enter high school.
Another problem is that once the student has failed a required course, they must take it again. By doing this, they are losing the chance to take an elective course. Elective courses are important in the education of our children.
Many of the electives fall into what we call career and technical education, or CTE, classes. These are the shop and drafting classes. They also include computer, culinary and business classes as well. CTE courses allow students to explore new concepts and try things they've never done before. They can inspire, excite and ignite. But by forcing our students to take classes they are not prepared for, we deny the very students who most need these elective classes the opportunity to participate. We also direct funds away from CTE classes to pay for the additional classes needed for college prep requirements.
I am a big fan of CTE classes. Honestly, I believe that I still hold the record for the most woodshop classes taken by a single student at Lodi High. I also took drafting and, of course, auto shop. I was in no way ready for the college prep pathway. But my CTE classes taught me to look at a problem, evaluate possible solutions, and make a plan to complete the task. My basic math, science and English courses prepared me to go back to college later and eventually get my degree. I am very thankful that Lodi Unified, at that time, did not try to fit me into a mold that wasn't for me.
So what should be the goal of public education? I would like to propose the following: The goal for public education is to prepare students for life after high school. It's simple, yet broad enough to encompass the extremely diverse population we serve. It allows for those that have decided to go to a UC, CSU or some other college to pursue that path. It also allows those interested in going to a community college, trade school, or entering the work force, to pursue that course as well.
Additionally, all students, regardless of their path, need to learn the basics to be successful after high school. These include personal finance, basic computer operation, and communication skills. They also need to be able perform basic math, read and understand what they have read, and to be able write in manner that follows basic conventions.
We need students to graduate high school with the tools necessary to not only survive, but to thrive and be prepared for that next step in life. We need graduates that have experienced success and know what it takes to achieve. What we don't need are more high school dropouts that we have taught how to fail.
George Neely is a Lodi Unified School District trustee, and a former teacher and U.S. Army officer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.