The Education Mess

Michelle Rhee, former Washington, DC school superintendent, is on a book tour.  She spoke recently in Philadelphia, a city with an education mess.  Rhee is a persuasive speaker, and her line is “great teachers make the difference”.  Sounds attractive, especially if you think “teachers and their unions are the problem”.  Hmmm.

Philadelphia, like DC, is a city with poverty, failing public schools in the poorest neighborhoods, and some of the best private schools which draw the better students from all over the city.  High school graduation rates are less than 50% and many of those who graduate, are math and english illiterate.  

Adding to the situation is the lack of enough money, we are told, to pay special staff and provide adequate maintenance for older schools.  Mix in that too many children come to school hungary and show little or no interest in learning.  Sadly too many teachers have checked off duty largely because nothing changes despite a seemingly endless carousel of high minded, step change programs proposed each year.  Hmmm.

Nationally, the consequence is that US K-12 education, the world’s most expensive school system (cost per capita), is turning out more and more less competitive students each year.  

Achievement testing versus similar age students in a long list of foreign countries ranks the US 15th or lower (and dropping).  Business leaders complain that there are not enough Americans looking for jobs who possess the skills necessary for high tech employment.  Even in food service and retail industries, too many prospective employees cannot perform basic functions.

Hmmm. It can’t be just a “teacher” or “union” problem.  If it were, some State would have found the answer.

In the business world, there are to varying degrees, successful people.  Success (foreman, supervisor, skilled professional, division head, CEO) in the business world reveals a combination of “book knowledge” (what we learned in schools) and two skill sets called “emotional intelligence” and “executive thinking skills”.  

Hmmm. The overlooked or under appreciated piece of our elementary school mess, in my opinion, has been ignoring the role emotional intelligence and executive thinking skills play.

A recently updated study of kindergarden students is revealing.  Students from very normal backgrounds were offered one oreo cookie right now, or if they agreed to wait, they could have two.  Those who took the oreo now, over time, consistently did poorer in school and achieved less in the work place.  Those who waited, did much better.

Emotional intelligence is about recognizing and learning to control ones emotions as well as how to influence the emotions of others.  Emotional intelligence at an early age paves the way for young children to develop executive thinking skills.  Executive thinking skills, such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, task switching, and initiation and monitoring of actions enable students to learn better and later in life to achieve more.  

Said more simply, if a young student cannot control their emotions how can they learn?  Once out of school, how can they work cooperatively in a work place?

If the past, necessity taught children emotional intelligence.  If you didn’t pay attention, you failed at school and a long life of menial labor lay ahead.  Today life is gentler for some and void of sound parenting for others.  

If schools are to change, it is not just the teachers or the unions who need to change.  (For sure they must change.)  Rather it is the whole concept of teaching in America, a land of plenty.  Far more attention must be spent upon building emotional intelligence coupled with executive thinking skills.  

Michelle Rhee is an important voice but those who only hear about “bad teachers” and “worse unions” have not understood the whole message.

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