Paving the Way to a Better Educated America

I’m beginning to think that our country is like a complex highway system that is riddled with potholes.

Very intelligent people designed the system. It has served a great purpose, and a lot of people  are better off because of it.

Unfortunately, the potholes are getting bigger, and the damage they’re causing is far reaching.

To address the pothole problems, Americans keep patching them one at a time. It’s not effective and is generally a temporary solution.  The potholes might disappear for a while, but the patches usually break up and the potholes get even bigger.

To really address the pothole problem, whole sections of the highway need an overhaul.

But overhauls require significant changes and shifts in how we think.  That’s something a lot of people, particularly those who have easy access to planes and who don’t even experience potholes, do their best to avoid.

I’m not one of those people, and I’m tired of dealing with the potholes in politics, social services and education. Especially education.

All you have to do is look at America’s dismal statistics to realize that our education system is not helping those children who need it the most.

Nearly 1 million kids who start high school every year in the United States don’t make it to graduation.  The dropout rate of students living in low-income families is about four and one-half times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/dropout08/findings1.asp). The problem is cyclical: parents with limited education often had poor experiences in school and are less likely to emphasize its importance.

For years, community activists, business leaders and education experts have been discussing the problem and trying to develop solutions.  millions of dollars have gone into innovative programs.  Some communities have decided charter schools are the answer. Others have provided alternative opportunities for youth who don’t do well in the typical public school. And others have simply been too busy pointing fingers.

Even when rates improve, the problem is still extensive.

That’s because most of the solutions center around patching potholes:  pouring resources into programs for children who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to learning.

Extensive research on brain development indicates that what happens between the ages of zero and three affects our ability to learn:  (http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs609w.htm)

Forget about being ready to learn in kindergarten.  Children from an environment with little stimulation or interaction are behind before they even enter a Pre-K classroom.

But, as a nation, we are doing very little to address true early education (birth to three.)  Right now, we are simply trying to help many kids whose brains were never wired to learn because of what happened during their first three years. If our education system shifted its resources and focus to the very young, children might actually be better prepared for academic learning.

And yes, the cost would be high. But people always think the cost of preventive programs is high until they look at the cost when there is no prevention.

According to a recent series on NPR (http://www.npr.org/2011/07/24/138653393/school-dropout-rates-adds-to-fiscal-burden) a high school drop out will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate over his or her lifetime, and almost a million dollars less than a college graduate.  And the cost to taxpayers? The estimate is  anywhere from 320 to 350 billion dollars as a result of  lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare and incarceration costs.

Can you imagine the difference if our education system actually began to address the critical link between early childhood brain development and academic success? Not only would we begin cutting the costs attributed to the high school drop out rate, but we’d have a whole generation that would be better prepared to contribute to society.

Making that change would require a significant paradigm shift in how Americans think about public education and who we think should receive it. And it would mean education systems would have to partner with other sectors to work with families, since that’s where much early education is or is not occurring.

This overhaul wouldn’t solve all of our country’s education issues. Like anything else, there’s not one magic bullet.

But it’s certainly a start to paving the way for future generations.

About Trina Bartlett

I live in the Eastern Panhandle of WV, with one dog, two cats, a theater kid in high school, a band kid at West Virginia University and a husband who works strange hours. When I'm not working as a director at a nonprofit social service organization or being a mom, I can generally be found riding my bike, walking my dog and stirring things up.

Posted on January 28, 2012, in education, perspective, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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