High School Reform

This piece provides a view of the areas of the American high school system that need to be reformed in order to achieve improvement.

It seems as though any time the topic of improving the American education system arises, so too do the tempers of many people lacking a proper perspective on the issue. It should be abundantly clear at this stage in the game that by not working together teachers and communities are failing to provide our nation's children with the highest quality education. Simply stated, until parents/guardians, politicians, community members and educators grasp a true understanding of the needs of today's student, the education system is doomed to plod along in the sub-par fashion we've witnessed over the past decade and a half.

As an educator it is frustrating to listen to the endless critiquing and criticizing of the work done by myself and my colleagues each and everyday, when those casting the aspersions have not spent much or any time truly observing what it is a teacher does in and out of the classroom. Many people today base their impressions of the education system on experiences they had years ago when they sat, as a student, in the classroom. It is this mindset that leads to large misunderstandings about the role of the teacher in today's classroom. Many people see the 182-day school calendar and lose sight of the work being done behind the scenes, after hours and off the clock by most of our nations teachers. That stated, even the most ardent critic of today's education system would have to admit that today's students face far different challenges than students of the past. Clearly, issues such as the tragedy at Columbine High School, dealing with parents divorcing, alcohol and drug use amongst teens, greater instances of bullying from peers, and new standards for graduation, leave today's student with challenges beyond just studying for a quiz the next day. Yes, every generation of students have faced challenges outside of the classroom, however it is not fair to expect today's students to succeed without developing an education philosophy that addresses the aforementioned issues with which these students must deal. Expecting a student in today's school system to reach their maximum potential without recognizing the multitude of issues they may be coping with, is just setting that student up to fail. More so than at any other time in the history of our education system students are carrying emotional baggage onto the school bus with them each day, and focusing on academic pursuits has become secondary for far too many kids.

So, how do we fix a problem that has been virtually ignored and led to emotionally unstable and academically unprepared students? The solution starts at home. Nothing can truly change until the full, consistent commitment to success, both emotionally and academically, begins at home. Unlike to business world where a product is designed, built and sold, education relies on variables (ie. parents and students) that may not cooperate with the goal we've set forth to achieve. Parents and/or guardians need to take a more active role in their child's education, each and everyday of each and every year, until a degree has been conferred upon that child. As an educator I have worked with many parents/guardians who take this responsibility as seriously as anything else in their lives. Sadly though, they appear to be the minority. If a parent goes an entire school year and the only contact they have with their child's teacher(s) is at open house, or when progress reports are mailed home, they are not doing their job. Moreover, claiming that communication concerning a student is the sole responsibility of the teacher is absolutely ludicrous. At the very least most teachers send home four report cards each school year. Furthermore, most school districts require teachers to send home five-week reports to struggling students, which brings the number of teacher contacts up to eight for a child in academic danger. Still, one would be surprised how many parents receive these communications and wait until June to call about their child. The parent who does not initiate contact with a teacher when a question about their child's academic performance arises is nothing short of remiss.

One of the most vital components in creating a successful education system, for this day and age, is the active participation of parents and/or guardians. Communicate with your students about his/her classes, friends, teachers, and extra-curricular activities. Observe whether or not your child is making the progress, emotionally and academically, that you feel he/she should. Countless studies have shown, contrary to what kids may say, children want to have an adult take a vested interest in his/her life. A finding such as this seems so elementary, but one would be amazed at the number of students a teacher encounters each school year who are crying out for the attention he/she is not getting elsewhere. Opening a more frequent and dedicated line of communication between child, parent/guardian and teacher can only lead to student achievement.

One piece of the education puzzle that rarely comes under fire is the student him/herself. It is unfair to the dedicated parents and teachers out there to lay blame at their feet every time a student fails. Culpability is a foreign concept for today's student. One must remember this generation has grown up watching the masters of deflecting blame. Be it Johnny Cochran and his famous, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" defense, or President Clinton and his adamant claim of, "I did not have sexual relations with that girl"; today's student has been given a crash course in becoming the victim and deflecting all responsibility when they've done something wrong. For whatever reasons the past decade has seen alarming rise the number of parents who instantly point the finger anywhere but at that their child when a child fails, and the vicious cycle of not taking accountability for one's actions continues. Until we find a way to effectively handle students who fail because they chose not to do the work and then place the blame on others, we will continue to make little if any strides in improving the education system. Parents need to realize that research shows that children need appropriate discipline. Are there times when a student may not receive a fair shake from a teacher? Absolutely. Parents must use those instances to educate their child about the effective manner in which to handle problems. On the contrary, calling every administrator in the school district because Mrs. Jones won't give little Bobby extra credit to raise his average at the last minute is horribly damaging to the child and the education system.

A more active commitment from parents/guardians and forcing a student to recognize his/her culpability will not alone solve the problems facing American schools. Greater preparation of our teachers is needed. Most teachers are more than adequately qualified to teach. Still, training to handle the abovementioned issues that aren't in the students' textbooks is needed. When studies show that a vast majority of students fear going to school because of the teasing, intolerance or bullying they are forced to face, something must be done. When students and/or parents/guardians choose blaming rather than claiming when it comes to educational failures, something must be done. In short, our teachers need more training in effective ways of dealing with these areas. Education cannot work unless all involved are held accountable for their role in the process and outcome.



More emphasis on teaching the whole child is needed. Too often critics of the education system point to the test scores American students attain compared to those of their counterparts from across the globe. Without going into the questionable statistical validity of these findings, it is important to keep in mind that no research has ever been produced that indicates that a student's success on one test directly correlates to his/her future academic success or failure.

So, instead of spending so much time scratching our collective heads about why a student from a substantially under-funded, inner-city school performed lower than a Chinese student sent to specialized school for academically gifted students on a one-time test; why don't we instead try to identify the reasons why some students feel so desperate and angry that they choose extreme violence as a means of expressing his/her pain. Why don't we earmark some of the federal budget surplus to developing programs that increase students' self-esteem and self-efficacy, which ample research shows leads to achievement in and out of the classroom? Why don't we provide a student with more opportunities to experience his/her self-worth, and then assess how well he/she does on a meaningless standardized test? Why don't we seek out community members to serve as mentors and role models for students who may not have that type of person waiting at home?

It is time for people to come to terms with the fact that kids cannot learn effectively when trying to handle issues that are emotionally overwhelming. To understand this better, ask yourself how effective you'd be at work the day after finding out your marriage was coming to an end. In an addition, what may sometime seem like a trivial matter to an adult can be a like changing trauma to a child. Change needs to occur in order for the American school system to reflect the needs of the 21st century student.

As we approach the beginning of another school year, and another election season, I implore any and all concerned citizens to make a genuine effort to actually comprehend all that goes into teaching today's students. Spend time in a school, not just a few hours, but some real time. Talk to a teacher to gain a full understanding of the time and effort that goes into teaching, both in and out of the school building, which many people fail to comprehend. Open the lines of communications, so that we can all create an education system that benefits our country, and more importantly are children. If we do not do these things we're destined to short change a generation of students brimming with potential.

The writer is a New York State certified English teacher from Bethlehem Central High School in Delmar, New York.

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