It’s hard to impress my 12 year old granddaughter, Alyssa.
We were Easter basket shopping and while we were standing in the checkout line, I was pulling out the cash to pay for our purchase – down to penny.
“Wow, how did you do that?” Alyssa asked, surprised that I could do the math in my head.
I explained I had added the price of the two items she and her sister had picked out and then multiplied the total by 9.25 percent (our sales tax rate) and rounded to the next highest penny.
“In your head?”
“There were no hand held calculators when I went to school.” I replied. “You couldn’t pass 4th grade if you didn’t know your times tables – backwards and forwards”.
It’s Not 1970!
In 1970 a high school diploma implied that the graduate had mastered basic arithmetic, could read and write a coherent paragraph demonstrating comprehension of what they’d read and possessed some knowledge of basic science.
Maybe not enough to be admitted to Harvard or UC Berkeley but certainly enough to begin to build a middle class life – an auto mechanic, building trades apprentice, chef, miner, farmer, police officer, fireman, US military member or factory worker.
Fast forward to 2016 and you’ll find fewer manufacturing jobs available to new high school graduates, but there are still hundreds of careers that can be built on a 1970s high school education including new careers like network administrator or computer programmer — jobs that pay +/- $70K or more a year – after only about a year of technical training.
The problem is that a high school diploma in 2016 does not require the same mastery of basic math, English, science and civics as it did in 1970.
Over the past half century a high school diploma has morphed from a measure of accomplishment to an entitlement earned by not disrupting the classroom.
The ACT College Testing Service statistics on college readiness are staggering. Just 25% of entering freshmen are ready to do college level mathematics and 50 percent are ready to do college level English.
When I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, the very few freshmen who failed their English, math or foreign language placement exams snuck out of the dorms at 7:30 AM to take their “walk of shame” to 8 AM remedial classes! Today there’s no sneaking around – it’s half the entering class!
Internationally American 15 year olds ranked 27th in math and 20th in science in 2012 — 50 points less than their peers in Hong Kong in both these vital areas.
The Best Education is Cumulative
A child who enters kindergarten not speaking English is immediately at risk of not succeeding in school, not graduating from high school and never achieving a middle class standard of living.
In California, for example, 42 percent kindergartners come from homes were no English is spoken. Governor Brown estimates 38 percent of Californians work at low or minimum wage jobs. There’s a relationship!
Raising the minimum wage is not the solution.
We’ve got to fix our K to 12 education system.
True the percentage of high school graduates going directly to college has increased from 50 percent in 1970 to 69 percent in 2014.
But that statistical improvement results from a growing number of students – more boys than girls — dropping out of high school before graduation. Their teachers have taught since kindergarten that high school graduation is nothing more than a ticket to college. Once a student concludes college is out of reach – it is easy to decide to drop out and get a (minimum wage) job now.
A College Degree Isn’t Everything
The education establishment — and the politicians they support with their union dues — must abandon the subtle bigotry that assumes people who don’t have a college degree are “uneducated”.
If these people are “uneducated” – the education establishment should ask themselves — whose fault is it?
In the 21st century, technology will shrink the number of lawyers, for example, the economy needs far more drastically than it will shrink the demand for plumbers and mechanics.
A plumber still needs a good apprenticeship not a college degree.
During the next half century, technology will create tens of thousands of jobs we haven’t thought of yet.
The challenge for educators from the kindergarten classroom to Washington is to graduate every single high school student with a “1970s high school diploma”.
Basic math, English, science and civics skills are analogous to the foundation of a house. Just as different house styles can be built (and later remodeled) on a strong foundation the 21st century worker can train and retrain for several careers over their work life based on a solid high school academic foundation.
Technology can enhance these basic skills but can’t replace learning how to “do the work” to get the answer.
Teachers, themselves, need to embrace the 21st century reality – learning and adapting are the life blood of an economy of opportunity.
Learning needs to last a lifetime but K to 12 is still the indispensible foundation.
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