On November 20, 2015 national experts on education engaged with local educators, administrators and Hilton Head Institute members to discuss American education. Keynote speaker, Dr. Jim Wagner, President, Emory University, Atlanta, framed the overarching question: “Why do we educate our children?”
Several speakers paraphrased Jefferson’s belief that education and an informed citizenry are vital to the success of democracy. Historically, the US education system was designed to meet the needs of an industrial society and fill a knowledge gap. That model is now inadequate. There needs to be a new national dialogue to reimagine the role of education—at all levels.
Dr. Wagner said if we are merely educating our children for personal financial gain and upward mobility then the purpose has become too small. If a bachelor’s degree is seen as the ticket to individual success, statistics indicate it’s not meeting the needs of today’s youth. 50% of students with a BA are unemployed or underemployed, with an average student loan debt of $23,000.
Two-thirds of students who arrive at college are unprepared to successfully manage their course work. There is an 80% dropout rate for remedial students. The National Center for Education Statistics now uses six years to determine their statistics for students completing a 4-year bachelor’s degree: 58% at public institutions; 65% at private, non-profit schools and 32% at private, for-profit schools. These numbers are correspondingly less for less competitive colleges (those accepting more than 25% of applicants.)
With 50% of our college-educated adults unemployed or underemployed, how do we educate our children for the future? According to Tony Wagner, Expert in Residence, Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, we need to educate our children for a future in which creative problem-solving, curiosity, imagination and collaboration are the skills that will be required. The capacity for innovation will be the key.
Mr. Wagner said there is currently a fundamental contradiction in our culture of learning. Too often, the education system promotes infantilism, passivity, compliance and risk-aversion—all of which work against building the intrinsic motivation students need to remain engaged. According to a recent Gallup Poll, student engagement drops from 80% in 5th grade to less than 40% in high school. Nationally, 6-7,000 students drop out of school everyday.
In school settings where students are encouraged to ask questions, work together on projects and allowed to “fail early and fail often” while creatively working to solve problems, there are drastic improvements in student engagement and student achievement. There are success models out there. They just need to be identified and replicated.
A panel of six recent high school graduates had this advice for parents:
- Get involved in your child’s school and classroom—know the faculty and staff—but don’t be “helicoptery.”
- Realize the success YOU want isn’t necessarily right for your child. Allow them to explore their own mind and spirit. Your child is separate from you.
- Teach your child how to make decisions. If you make all the decisions for them they can’t learn. Teach them about responsibility. Expect more. We all respond to what’s expected of us, even if we mope about it.
- Let us ask questions even if you don’t have the answers. Explore the answers with us.
- Stop looking at education as a competition your child has to win. Consider what will create a successful life over the long term for your child.
- Let them thrive independently and do it by letting them make mistakes. Helicoptering is for you, not your child.
How do we inspire people to want to learn? Kevin Chavous, Founding Member, American Federation for Children and former DC City Council Member is passionate that America needs a “learning revolution.” He wants to inspire people to want to learn and calls on popular culture to drive a change that makes “learning cool.” He envisions a new nationalism centered on learning that is positive, inspirational and engages the hearts, minds and souls of all Americans. He wants to de-politicize education and have only one yardstick—will this help a child or group of children learn?
How can communities increase access to resources and high-impact experiences for low-income and under-resourced children? Tammy Pawloski, Director, Center of Excellence to Prepare Teachers of Children of Poverty, Francis Marion University presented statistics and pictures that delivered a hard-hitting punch of reality. Dr. Pawloski graphically showed structural brain differences between children of privilege and children with severely limited resources. By age three, there was a 30 million-word gap between children who were read to and had access to books and those who were not. The dropout rate for low-income students is five times greater than their high-income counterparts. Communities can provide books, educational toys, reading programs, mentoring and summer camp experiences to low-income families.
For tomorrow’s future, Casey Gerald, recent MBA graduate, Harvard University said, “Purpose is the new bottom line.” Rather than going to Wall Street, Casey decided to take his business skills to Main Street and use them to help solve real problems across America. He is now the CEO of MBAs Across America which recruits MBA students from America’s top business schools to help small businesses and entrepreneurs across the country who are “re-imagining capitalism” and taking risks to build a better future for America.
In conclusion, all the speakers and panelists acknowledged that American education is at a crossroads. “Courageous conversation” is required in both public and private forums—and public and private educational institutions—throughout the United States. America has a massively diverse education system that is reeling to find direction in a world that is changing at a dizzying rate. If the United States intends to maintain its world leadership position we must be proactive in creating an educational system that promotes innovation and creativity. Perhaps the most mind-blowing statement of the summit was this: For every American child 3-years old or younger, any job he or she will have in the future does not exist today.