Teehan: America must fix K-12 education
American universities are the finest in the world, but our K-12 education is among the least effective worldwide. Academic mediocrity is not American and it’s not sustainable. It threatens the democratic fabric of our society, widening the already polarizing gap between rich and poor and producing citizens who are unprepared to lead our communities, country and economy. If we don’t fix K-12 education, we will lose our global preeminence. As nondemocratic countries (and education powerhouses) such as China take over, ideals of democracy will be undermined and attacked.
I attribute many opportunities and happiness I have had to my education. I’ve been reading about what makes pre-university education effective. Here are my takeaways:
Rigor matters in school, and we need a lot more of it. School in America is too easy. In countries where school is truly challenging, children perform at the highest levels of intellectual competency. If we are to remain globally competitive, we must make school more demanding.
The modern trend to make learning “natural,” effortless or overly comfortable for each child is misguided. Becoming educated is serious, hard work. Children are far more capable of challenging work than we give them credit for. They are wired to learn — it’s a survival mechanism. Rigor does not make children miserable or feel dejected. Children who are raised with high expectations learn more, enjoy learning more and try harder in school. Rigor in the classroom teaches children lifelong skills of motivation, hard work and persistence. They don’t learn these skills through artificial praise; they learn them when they are challenged in a supportive learning environment where every child is considered capable and worthy of a rigorous classroom experience.
This is true for all students. An overemphasis on poverty has led to less rigor and lower expectations from poorer and English-language-learning children. All children have tremendous capacity to learn. We must use this as a starting point instead of scripting on certain children the limitations of their abilities. More than other children, underprivileged children need rigor. Rigor builds tendencies to be responsible, hardworking and determined. This matters for all children, but even more for children from unstable homes because they often lack support systems to help them with adversity.
We need less artificial inflation of children’s self-esteem. We should build confidence in children by praising them when they accomplish something meaningful. We also owe it to them to be honest when they underperform. Ultimately, children who are unprepared for the workforce or college learn the hard truth that the skills they have are inadequate, resulting in delayed and more serious feelings and experiences of personal failing. Instead of worrying about their self-esteem, we should overestimate what kids can do.
Child poverty has extreme effects on educational outcomes. We cannot allow poverty, however, to be the excuse for why we can’t deliver top education to all children. One way to surmount poverty’s grasp is investment in early-childhood education. The importance of preparing our youngest citizens for school cannot be overstated. Study after study, on both sides, shows that quality, early-childhood education is imperative and effective. During the pre-Kindergarten years, the brain undergoes rapid development. The foundations for language, cognitive and character skills develop in these early years.
Early education is especially important for poor children. Children who arrive in school unprepared to learn fall further and further behind. If children don’t have the initial building blocks they don’t have the tools to move through the education system. They become increasingly bored, and feelings of shame deplete their drive to learn. Steadily increasing differentials in intellectual capital in those early years result in permanent gaps in these children’s abilities. A systematic failure to teach all children the knowledge they need to tackle material in the next grade is a major educational and democratic failing. We can remedy this through early education.
Beyond a certain baseline, money does not translate into quality in education anywhere in the world. The smartest countries spend less per child than the U.S. Within the U.S., high-performing states often spend less than low-performing states. We need to stop wasting money on things that don’t matter and start investing where it does, like in high-quality teachers.
The right investments in K-12 education result in universal wins. When school outcomes improve, taxpayers spend less on grade repetition and special education. The tax base grows as successful students earn more money and stay out of the criminal-justice system. Investment in education is the surest way to promote and protect our democratic way of life and ensure prosperous, happy citizens.
We all want good education for our children, and we all want our children to be happy. Committing to improvements in education that really work is the greatest gift we can give our children and our country. Now, let’s get to (rigorous) work.
Jill Teehan Edinger is an attorney in Aspen. She is a graduate of Brown University. She has a master’s degree in science from the London School of Economics and a Juris Doctor from Georgetown University Law School.