American Schools Don’t Live Up to Expectations

Critics of the decentralized educational delivery process in the United States have, for the past 50 years, made the case that for too many American children the schools are inadequate to the task.

Despite programs such as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Head Start, Common Core, and others too many children are left behind, don’t get to the top, fall back after even a head start. And today many are now being denied the opportunity to even experience the “common core,” of the education process.

Because this is becoming more obvious, many parents who cannot pay for tutoring, private school, and can’t “home school” their children feel helpless or at least inadequate to “do at least something more than help them with their homework.” And some parents have neither the time nor the ability to even do that.

Is the situation hopeless? Many people believe that we have reached that point. If the schools actually are inadequate, and no one else can help, what can be done? Some said that if we give up hope, we accept failure, and that will be the result if a remedy for school inadequacy can’t be found.

Thinking Otherwise—this BLOG—is an effort to help parents to “do something” to help their children learn. Here is what I suggest, in a brief summary. In subsequent blog posts I will amplify each of the topics in this outline, and add to it. However, I don’t propose abandoning the schools, especially the primary grades. Why not?

The public schools offer, but sometimes don’t fully deliver, essential educational experiences that children must have. Children do need to learn to get along, communicate, play, exercise, and other things like how to handle learning materials and control themselves—social and personal lessons that schools can and do deliver. For the basics, the schools are necessary. We will provide suggestions for supplementing what the schools do, helping you to provide common-sense extra help for your own child.

We should expect and require the schools to perform as well as their resources and personnel are able to. But the experience of the past 50 years has shown us that school improvement is measured overall, that significant individual improvement requires the student to perform better, to be personally motivated, not just “pushed” by teachers and parents.

If you are looking for, as some people do, an effortless and easy way to “pass off” to someone or something else (like a game, “canned brain-improvement lessons” or a magic bullet, diet, or “system”) you will not succeed. Helping your child requires your direct involvement. The process is NOT effortless, but it can be less frustrating than seeing your child fall farther and farther behind because you didn’t make an effort.

Thinking otherwise about school does not mean that parents should try to do better what the school does. Rather, Thinking Otherwise suggests that you help your child to “think in ways that make schoolwork easier, more understandable, less frustrating, and even more interesting. Your challenge is NOT to make the school better, but to help YOUR child learn better.

Doing something, and feeling confident that it will help, goes a long way toward making the effort worthwhile. What you can do is spend a little time each week working directly with your child in a non-threatening way, helping without criticism, and letting your child do things their way insofar as possible.

Your goals

First, what you don’t want to do. This effort to “go around” the schools by doing something important is NOT to test or measure or evaluate. Nothing makes children lose confidence faster than making what they do some kind of test or contest or checking of what they can and can’t do. If you are focused primarily on performance, you will fail your child. Here are the basic goals we will work toward, by helping the student learn to use new skills. They will certainly use them in their schoolwork, but that needs to be separate from what you and the child work on together. You will be helping the student to develop the skill, NOT applying it to specific lessons. You should avoid associating these activities with homework. There will be a temptation to do it, but it will be counterproductive. Students will eventually use these new skills, but YOU should NOT force it. Stick to the exercises suggested, and use the references to find new ones. Make the activities interesting, not frustrating, and suggest out-of-school uses, such as memory and attention skills for games and sports.

It is essential to avoid making this skill development just another task the student has to work at for school. Rather, it should be interesting and insofar as possible, useful for other-than-school things, or fun. The first exercises we suggest are in these areas:

(1) Attention and focus (2) Order and organization (3) Imagery and imagination (4) Mindfulness and creativity

To begin, here is a simple exercise in attention that can help a child understand the importance of concentrating on one thing at a time.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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