More than money, what schools need are motivated students

One of the realities of life is that one size doesn’t fit all. The things of this world are designed to fit most people. The difference between “most” and “all,” even when it is small, can be very important, especially to those who aren’t most people.

Some things, especially ill-fitting clothing, can be dealt with by returning them or, if we’ve simply outgrown them, donating them to a charity that will locate someone who can actually fit into those pants.

A nation’s public education system, though, doesn’t work that way. Very sensibly, our public schools are set up to fit most kids and prepare them for their adult lives. The number of young people for whom the educational system isn’t working, though, has become a problem not just for schools but for our society and our economy.

The reasons behind the growing number of “not-most” kids are well known, and have been studied and reported on at length. Despite our deserved reputation as a “melting pot,” American culture is less homogeneous today than it was when our educational structure was solidified and reached its peak performance.

U.S. families have changed dramatically since then, and parental responsibility has often fallen victim to role model subtractions, self-absorption or other dysfunctional priorities. The result has been that some classroom teachers must prepare to deal with near-feral children and, as a practical matter, schools as institutions have felt obligated to provide parental-like care and services to kids deprived of them.

Superimposed on this were cultural, economic and technological changes that exerted persistent pressure on our attention spans. The symptoms showed up most tellingly in our young people still in the formative years when the learning process is facile and intense – and lifetime habits are most easily acquired.

Our society today shows the effects of these changes. It is no accident, for example, that young adults get most of their news from a television comedy show or, in some cases, from text messages and Twitter.

Today’s public school classrooms bear testimony to these changes, too. The growing deficit in self-discipline and social behavior standards has combined with attention span shrinkage to degrade what engineers call the “signal-to-noise ratio” in classes. It is simply more difficult to get and keep the attention of a class, and teachers becoming more “entertaining” or “relevant” cannot close this gap. This, and related discipline issues, are the reason behind the drive for smaller class sizes in the hope, possibly vain, of making the problem more manageable.

With all these forces acting on it the public school system has been pushed, pulled, stretched, spun and generally hung out to dry. Its declining performance, abetted by expanding obligations and pervasive meddling, provided an all-too-convenient target for our discontent. If we look past the usual suspects, though, and abandon the list of villains — and we all have our favorites — we can just barely make out an observation, a rational conclusion, and some hope for the future.

The observation is this: The social changes that have affected the public schools have resulted in classroom environments beyond the capacity of most teachers to overcome. Simply paying teachers more, sending them to stand-up comedy training camp, or evaluating them more tediously will have no measurable impact on results.

The conclusion broadens the observation: It makes little sense to pour resources into a system whose failings are caused by forces unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Endless, expensive and disruptive curriculum changes have shown little payoff, and the adoption of current communications technology has produced similar results.

Adding resources of this type will not work because they do not alter the fundamental educational equation, voiced with such clarity by the comic strip character, Hobbes: “You get out of it what you put into it.” When kids arrive in school from homes or cultures that place no value on education, they are already missing a vital ingredient — motivation. And when the classrooms themselves undermine the efforts of teachers to fill that motivational gap, the outcome is almost certain.

The hope for the future comes from programs that are not wildly experimental but address the motivational gap directly or indirectly.

One of those programs involves partnerships with outside institutions — hospitals, for example, or private industry firms — to combine regular high school studies with internships that provide real world experience in a field that might lead to a lifetime career. Others are providing four or five year high school programs that allow completion of an associate’s degree at essentially zero student cost, putting further degree programs more within reach.

These programs, which change the fundamental structure and fit of our educational system, are only the beginning, but that’s what hope is all about.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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