Saturday, March 6, 2010

Education Uproar

I know, it's been awhile since I've written. Things somewhat exploded for me recently (read that the past 10 months or so) and I am slowly getting them back under control. One thing that has struck me recently, enough to write an opinion piece about, is the state of education in the US including the mis/partial information out there on all sides. Below is the piece I wrote this morning regarding education in the US from my point of view. You can also find it on iReport in two parts (thus this post).

Wow. It is amazing to see the differences in opinion across the board. The thing is - no one has a full story, just from their own point of view. This includes me. As I wade into this fray, let me start with my background.

I come from a highly educated family. Most of my family members including grandparents, parents, husband, in-laws, sibling, cousins, aunts and uncles have graduate level degrees. I do not - I stopped at my BA by my choice. I could not think of anything I wanted to study enough to go into debt. Nothing I wanted to do at the time required that level of education. While my parents paid for my tuition, room, board and books for my 4 year education out of their current income - not savings - anything else I wanted to do was on me, including classes with extra fees outside of a lab fee. As Owl62 contends - I worked sometimes 2 jobs at a time - to make money enough to pay for my "extras" during school and then increasingly harder after school to become somewhat successful in the varied positions I have pursued since then.

Politically, I am a Democrat. I believe that education is the key to our survival as a nation and have believed that for as long as I can remember. Most of the degrees in my family have fueled teachers and I have also taught in the public school system - something I would have to have a Masters degree to do now.

Here are some of the other things I would have to have a Masters degree for today that did not require them when I held those positions:

  • Internet Producer (no longer this title, but I know the similar position requires either an MBA or a computer engineering degree depending on which direction of internet development you go into.)

  • Store manager (not always required, but at least a college degree is preferred in the area where I live.)

  • Administrative Assistant - believe it or not, I have seen ads in my local area requiring Admin Assistants to have MBAs.

  • Supply Chain Management for the US Postal Service - educational requirement of at least 21 hours of business courses, none of which I took for my BA.

Granted, I live in a large metropolitan area - Washington, DC - and educational expectations can be raised because there is such a large candidate pool. However, this is a trend that can be seen in every level of the job market. Even the "ditch diggers" of our society need a higher than grade 12 education now because the ditches they are digging involve complex engineering problems such as "How do I not kill the infrastructure that is already in place by digging a new ditch?" For that you rely upon the civil engineers of the world and their educated work force. In this case, I am talking about workers who have gone through apprenticeship programs - also known as job training.

Do I think that a college education is for everyone? Not necessarily. Do I think that a higher education - as in higher than grade 12 - is for everyone? Probably. Now, before everyone jumps up and down, please let me explain what I mean. I mean that everyone needs education for the job they do. Even the person handing you the french fries at a fast food chain needs to be trained/educated on the machine they are handling.

Do I think that someone with a mind bent more towards medicine or geology or business should be handing someone french fries because they can't afford the education they should have to become a contributing member of society? Not unless they want to.

Now, let's talk about the erroneous concept of a PUBLIC 4 year higher education. I emphasize public because from what I have seen in my state of Virginia, most students do not finish their degrees within the standard 4 years these days. Either they are working one to two jobs so their schedules conflict with the schedule set by the departments they are attempting to get their degrees in. Private schools, however, tend to get their students through their systems in 4 years or less. In fact, when I attended college in the late 1980s you had to graduate in no more than 5 years. I did attend a private school because most public schools in my state would not accept me - a student with a 3.25 average, AP test scores of over 3 and over 1100 on my SATs - merely because I was from Northern VA and there was (and still is) an unacknowledged quota on the area. Today, I have heard of student in public schools having to take 6 or 7 years to finish the basic courses required for their majors. I have even heard of one school which requires not one, but two full time internships for an Events Management major while offering but not requiring any for Civil Engineering. Please tell me where that is sane. (Yes, George Mason - I am talking about you!)

a 4 year education for a Bachelor's is no longer feasible at many public universities. When schools don't have infrastructure - buildings, rooms, professors - they have to postpone classes or hold them once every few semesters in order to make the logistics work. One thing that could potentially help in this area would be to look at the classes and create a many to one ratio - many courses to fulfill the required knowledge - and offer at least one a semester. They can also ensure that they do not accept major applicants into a program unless that program can provide the coursework required to move the students through in a timely manner. (Accepting of course that the students pass the class in one go - in other words, get rid of washout courses.)

Now, let's discuss for a moment the costs of going to school. It's not just tuition. It's also student fees, books, room, board, phone, internet, computers - which are required now if you want to sign up for classes, take a test, turn in a paper or even have a conversation with a professor. In some cases classes are only offered online - a great innovation by anyone's standards unless you are the student who can't afford a computer because you have to buy food but you need the college education because you can't get a job in your state without it. Sometimes, the courses offered online only are actually required courses. Again - great innovation but how does someone take that class when they can't afford a computer or Internet access? Answer- the school in question may have to provide that access. Now, how can the school do that without a budget for it?

All of these questions also only touch upon a college education. How about a technical school education? Or a community college education? Or even the partial engineering degree HVAC technicians need to receive in order to be able to fix the high tech systems that exist these days? I don't know of many kids right out of high school working as HVAC technicians without having gone to technical college.

Now, let's talk about our public school system. I live in Fairfax County - one of the more educated counties in the US. Everywhere you turn around you find people with at minimum a Bachelor's and at most several higher degrees. Teachers in this area are faced with the impossible tasks of educating incredibly bright minds and dealing with their incredibly bright parents to educating individuals who don't speak English when they start at the schools and working with their parents who may never speak English. I know that the same issue of language barriers exists across the country and has for generations. My 3 year old son also receives services for special education provided for by the county because while he is a smart cookie (and not just by his parents' estimation) he has Dyspraxia of Speech - a developmental disability that limits speech but can be overcome through intensive speech therapy and special education tools. However, these services as well as other educational programs such as music, art, PE, foreign language and all day kindergarten are on the chopping block because for the first time since I can remember Fairfax County cannot afford its world class educational system.

As for extra curricular activities, we always have had to pay to play in the form of uniform fees, travel expenses, etc. The difference is that the extra curriculars were not required activities for graduation/getting into college/getting a job and today they pretty much are. Add on top of that a required community service component and more homework than I ever experienced in an extremely academic high school it isn't always possible to juggle everything and a part time job to boot just to afford something that has become more of a necessity than a nicety.

In short, we've had a technical revolution and now need an educational one to keep up. Cutting funds everywhere and making being an educator less attractive and more of a factory atmosphere than an intellectual one are not the ways to improve education. Not giving students a way and the means to explore the world around them creatively (and by this I do not mean the just the arts but also and especially the sciences) we will limit our ability to be innovative and thereby limit our global potential.

Will it be hard work? Yes - but the best and most worthwhile things always are.


biguglymandoll said...

So, you've hit the highlights and I think you're right on all points. Now.....

What do we do about it? Does it help for Obama to try to address these issues at the national level? The Department of Education is a long shallow wasteland of people who couldn't handle the classroom and don't know what their mission is within the goverment - and no one can tell them, because other than the Federal Studant Aid folks, there isn't one. Fairfax County alone doesn't have as much say about its budget as I used to think it did, and these programs burn through money like an H2 Hummer with the accelerator to the floor.

So the three questions are:
WHAT can we do?
What can WE do?
What can we DO?

I think the first step is answering those. ;-)

Lisa Moore said...

Absolutely right, Doug. So - in my next blog I will talk about what I think we can do in several parts seeing as there are several problems.

Anonymous said...

Getting a job in Events Management probably depends on having a track record. Getting the experience through 2 internships is probably the only way to break into the market right now. Civil Engineering certification has been crystallized in stone for generations. It started in the Army, Army Corps of Engineers.. explains a lot. Civil Engineers have to take a 4-year curriculum, already nationally dictated. Then they have to pass a standard test when they graduate, and get to serve under a certified engineer as an "Engineer in Training". After a set number of years they can take another test and become certified. When they become certified they assume legal responsibility for their work. I have some bones to pick with the unintended consequences, but it does make sense.

I think we need to watch out for over-educating people that don't want it, but provide good vocational training, and don't call vocational training education, because they are two separate things.

My daughter's school is doing a much better job than I saw Fairfax county doing at catering to various ranges of student needs. We have some incredibly high achieving children and some who are actually homeless or with other home situations that make school achievement not the first thing on their minds. I have been very impressed with the job they are doing and the growth I am seeing in all the kids. -L