Getting on the same page for education

Published 7:58 pm Thursday, January 19, 2017

By Craig Ford
Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.
When it comes to education policy, I don’t often agree with my colleague, Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur). But this year she plans to bring legislation that would set education goals for our state, and I like this idea.

I like this idea because it finally forces us to address the most important and fundamental question concerning education: What is the goal?

It’s a question that I’m afraid too often gets lost in the debate over education policy and reform. It certainly gets lost in our obsession with standardized test scores.

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Without a doubt, education is at the heart of the American dream. From the time we are small children we are told that if we work hard and get a good education, we can make our dreams come true. Public education is supposed to be the ultimate source of opportunity: Every child — no matter where they come from or how rich or poor they may be — has the chance to get an education that leads to a good job so they can provide for themselves and their families.

But in our zeal for reaching higher and higher standards, we have forgotten that fundamental purpose of education.

These days, it seems the purpose of our K-12 schools isn’t to prepare kids for life in the workforce so much as it is to prepare them to get more school after they graduate.

Now, I’m all for preparing our kids for college and setting high standards to help them achieve that goal. But 75 percent of our kids will never graduate with a four-year degree. Fifty percent of our kids will never attend college at all!

So why are we so focused on preparing kids to earn a degree that 75 percent of them will never obtain?

For example, I’m all for teaching calculus and geometry. But most kids will never use that kind of math on a daily basis in their jobs. They will, however, need to know how to set a personal budget for their family and understand how a mortgage works. So in addition to these high-level math classes, we need to be teaching things like personal finance and soft skills, such as how to interview for a job.

Standardized tests can be a good indicator of the overall performance of a school. But I’ve never heard of anyone being asked during a job interview what their scores were on the ACT Aspire test.

That’s because most employers are far more concerned with your work experience and whether you have the skills they need than they are with what your high school test scores.

The reason we have an unemployment problem in this state and throughout the country isn’t because we don’t have jobs available for people to work; it’s because people often don’t have the skills and experience that employers are wanting

So while we are teaching high level math and science classes, we should also be incorporating internships and apprenticeships, and introductory vocational classes into our high school curriculum.

Lastly, we need to re-evaluate the emphasis we put on these standardized tests. The purpose of these tests should be to measure whether or not a school is improving, not expecting every school to turn out a majority of students ready to start college.

We have to face the fact that not every student needs or even wants to go to college — and there’s nothing wrong with that! We need people to work in trades, and many skilled workers make more money than a lot of college graduates make.

But expecting every child to meet the same exceptionally high standards is unrealistic and counterproductive.

Expecting every child to meet the same academic standards is like expecting every child to grow up to be a professional football player. We can’t all run a 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds like pro-football players can, so why would we expect every child to score in college-level percentiles on standardized tests?

I’m certainly not arguing against having high standards or trying to help every child who wants to go to college be academically prepared for higher education.

But maybe it’s not our schools that our failing but our academic policies because we have well-intentioned but misguided goals?

I’m excited to have an honest conversation about the goals of our public schools. I hope my colleagues in the legislature will take this task up seriously and honestly ask ourselves: What is the goal of education?