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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.

Tattered Flags

Like many Americans, I’ve been reflecting about the events that shook our nation ten years ago today.

And, even though my memories of the following days  aren’t nearly as vivid, I remember one thing very clearly.

There were American flags everywhere.

They were flying on private homes.  They adorned t-shirts and other articles of clothing.  And they were fluttering on moving vehicles.

I found this fascinating.  Not just because I’d never before seen American  flags flying on automobiles as though they were paraphernalia for a sports team, but because the flags were so easily damaged, which seemed to defeat the purpose of flying them.

As a child in Girl Scouts, I remember being taught all the rules about how to handle and treat a flag. As a young adult, I remembered the national debate over the issue of defacing and even burning flags as a sign of protest.

And yet, in the days after 911,  people were damaging their flags in the name of patriotism.

At the time, I wasn’t particularly upset by this phenomena; I simply found it  interesting. But now, ten years later, the tattered flags represent something much greater to me:  while America initially came together after 9 11, we’ve since been tearing  apart – kind of like those flags waving on the cars.

I think that’s because some people equate patriotism with pride, pride with winning and winning with defeating an enemy.

There have been and always will be plenty of enemies to our country, we don’t need to be creating them.

But some people seem intent on doing so by pointing fingers at immigrants,  people with different religious beliefs, people with different political ideas, people who are poor, etc.  The list goes on and on.

Each time fingers point, I hear the American flag rip a bit more. That’s because our flag represents a country that was founded by immigrants.  A country that welcomed  people who didn’t have the same religious beliefs as the establishment. A country that encouraged diverse ways of thinking. A country that has a rich tradition of helping those who are down on their luck.

Rip.

Rip.

Rip.

Rip.

As the tenth anniversary of September 11 draws to a close, I hope that people  focus not only on all the lives that were lost on that horrible day but also  on the possibilities that we initially found that day.

The possibility that we could come together as a country to help each other.

The possibility that we were better united than we are divided.

The possibility that we use our diverse strengths to support each other rather than to tear each other down.

The possibility that we live can live up to ideals represented by our flag: a flag that may be a bit  torn and ripped but still stands for a compassionate, caring and idealistic country.

A flag we can all fly with pride.