Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

We’ve had OBE (Outcome Based Education), NCLB (No Child Left Behind), ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) and a host of other acronyms. Each of these and other educational trends have yielded some positives but have sometimes fallen short of expectations. We can agree that the intentions of each has been noble and should never be abandoned so let’s never lessen our desire to give every child the opportunity to learn and grow as we seek the missing pieces of the puzzle.

I invite all of us to reflect on the best from each trend, discover where we are missing the mark, and work to implement the changes that move us towards our lofty goals of success for most of our students. Notice the word “most” instead of “all” and “every.” We’ve all heard about SMART goals. The “A” stands for “attainable.” Setting our standards high but not out of sight will hone our focus and greatly enhance our sanity. Aim for progress, not perfection.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the “No Child Left Behind” was not in the intent but in the structure. By narrowing the measure of intelligence to academia, we not only left kids behind, we actually cut the programs that would allow them to flourish.

Not every student is going to be enthralled by diagramming sentences and solving quadratic equations, but that doesn’t make them less intelligent or less motivated than those who thrive in a traditional classroom setting. In our attempt to prepare every student for a four year liberal arts degree, we abandoned our woods, metals, robotics, auto mechanics and similar offerings so we could make every child “smart.” We cut music and theatre and the arts and by doing so left many behind. Our intentions were lofty but our methodology may have been counter- productive.

In actuality, the student in the auto mechanics class who can diagnose a problem in an engine with thousands of moving parts and fix it is an absolute genius. The next time you take your car in for a repair, marvel at the knowledge and technical skill of the mechanic. Realize how much the person who wires your home for electricity has to know. You turn a light on with one switch and turn it off with another. That doesn’t just happen. It takes intelligence and creativity to make all of the wonderful things we enjoy become a reality. Innate intelligence lies within every one of your students. As an educator, recognize the intelligence of your students in your auto, woods and metals classes. To keep things in perspective, nothing replaces the need for basic reading, writing and math skills, but perhaps there is more than one way to achieve mastery of those skills without expecting everyone to perform at the doctorate level.

If I were the all benevolent dictator of educational policy in America I would focus on three things. The first is the idea that we have been discussing. With all due respect to academia and a four year degree, we need to include technical training in our definition of education and intelligence. Let’s honor all intelligence and make curriculum changes that reflect that philosophy. The other two involve systemic change and are imperative.

Making pre-school education available and free for every family that wishes it is a must. We can no longer expect schools and our teachers to close the achievement gap until we can close the opportunity gap. To think that pre-schoolers living in poverty have the same chance for achievement as the ones in the affluent suburban schools is absurd. We expect underprivileged kids to pull themselves up by their boot straps. They don’t have boots.

We hear our politicians talk about making pre-school education “affordable” for everyone. That makes for a good sounding political add, but it falls short. The richest nation in the world can make it free for everyone – period, including funding for transportation. We can’t close the achievement gap until we close the opportunity gap.

The third is at least two years of free college. When we offer our under advantaged pre-schoolers educational opportunities, we also have to give them hope. As we tell them to work hard to achieve in high school, they have to know that when the time comes to go to college, that opportunity awaits them. They need to be assured that if they succeed in high school, their opportunity to follow their dreams will be possible economically. They need that promise.

Plan of Action

Educational trends sound good, but without systemic change, not much will happen. Stuff costs money, and closing the opportunity and achievements gaps is no exception to that rule. For those who desire more resources for education, we need to realize that “if nothing changes, nothing changes.” We have to reframe our message so it appeals to those with fiscal concerns. They are not anti-education. — in fact many of them lament the lack of an educated work force.

Our challenge is not to oppose them, but to build bridges and emphasize the economic benefits of investing in education, including Technical College education. To revisit ideas from some of our previous articles, our business leaders tell us that one of their biggest deterrents to economic growth and expansion is the lack of skilled workers. We all know that there are literally thousands of bright and motivated Americans who would thrive, but they lack the resources to pursue their education.

Free college would eliminate that barrier and produce a handsome return on investment. The educated person, instead of working for minimum wage, would be earning $40,000 or more and their higher tax bracket would repay the cost of college in a heartbeat. In addition, they would be buying cars and homes and going on vacation, expanding economic growth exponentially. We need to remind ourselves that customers create jobs. An educated and well paid worker becomes an affluent customer.

By far the greatest benefit would be to break the hellish cycle of poverty. Our hope of doing so exists perhaps not in the current generation, but in educating the next generation. Envision an America that spends less on building prisons and fighting crime and more on building homes and theatres and roads and bridges. Imagine the standard of living and economic freedom America could provide by wise investment in educating our people, especially the very young.

To summarize, there are three things we can do to move towards leaving no child behind. 1.) Let’s honor all intelligence. 2.)Let’s provide free pre-school education for all and 3.) Let’s fund at least two years of college. With commitment and good messaging, they are all doable.

Have a great school year.

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