Improving our U.S. Education System and How You Can Help Teachers and Schools
It’s that time of year again. Fall beckons cooler weather and thoughts of back-to-school.
Conjuring images in my mind of sweaty-handed excitement over class schedules and assigned teachers, the distinct scent of a fresh box of crayons in art class or newly mown grass underfoot on the field during recess, the crackle sound of old book spines in the library, the silent celebration after lighting the Bunsen burner perfectly with one match on the first try.
But, as an adult, this time of year can also be a sad and frustrating reminder of how behind the United States is compared to the standards and quality of education in other nations.
Every three years, 15-year-old students from 70 different countries are evaluated on a global scale and ranked based on their aptitude in math, science, and reading. This study is known as the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA. According the the latest performance review from 2015, PISA found that the United States ranked 31st overall, 39th in mathematics, 25th in science, and 24th in reading. Note: The latest numbers from the 2018 study have not yet been released; these scores will be available on December 3rd, 2019.
What is the significance of PISA and what do these scores mean for our country?
The PISA study is different than other education performance tests in that it is international and it doesn’t measure how well students can regurgitate memorized facts, but rather it evaluates students in critical thinking, having them apply their knowledge to real-life problems.
The math, science, and reading abilities assessed by PISA directly correlate to a healthy and growing economy and higher paying jobs in high-demand industries. The better PISA scores a nation has the greater the education and economic success of the country.
Not only this, but PISA gives us a better understanding of the common standards and practices in successful countries and helps gather international benchmarks to give school systems all over the globe the knowledge, tools, and guidance they need to improve.
PISA also proves that turnaround rates are faster and more drastic than one might assume. Statistically, countries that have implemented successful strategies have seen enormous strides and growth in less than a decade.
We are definitely behind other countries, but we can fix the compounding issues that have contributed to the decline of our school system. We can create fast, positive, and lasting change by addressing challenges head on, from government level policy to improvements in our everyday classrooms.
Here are some meaningful steps we can take that, I think, will make an impact on our education system:
Advocate for Washington to invest more of our federal tax dollars in education. Re-vamp state funding formulas. Address disparity issues that stem from state spending inequalities and local property tax funding in school districts. Establish greater budget transparency on all levels.
School funding is a complex, arduous, and often unfair process.
Let’s start with funding from the top.
The President and members of Congress control our federal budget and therefore the federal funding for education.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, our Department of Education was given 68.2 billion of the $1.3 trillion discretionary budget in 2018 to help students in need from kindergarten through post-secondary school. This aid is given through Title Grants, Pell Grants, special education funding, federal student aid, and other necessary areas of investment. Note: This is a $9.2 billion dollar decrease in education funding from the year before.
With the total federal budget for last year set at $4.1 trillion, you may be thinking the amount we spent on education seems rather small…and you would be correct. The United States spent roughly 1.66% of our federal budget last year on education.
This statistic is quite shocking when we compare it to other areas of spending. For example, we spend almost half of our discretionary budget, $623 billion to be exact, on defense and military budget. This is nearly 26% more than we spend on education. That amount has only continued to grow over the years and next year’s proposed budget will bring more cuts to education and send our defense budget to new heights with the proposal of $750 billion in spending, making our military budget higher than it was during all of World War II and coming close to our record-high set during the Iraq War. Note: This defense budget does not include money to aid and care for our already existing and severely neglected veterans.
Is this really the message we want to send to the world and future generations? That we care more about funding and reaping war than we do investing in our children?
And these federal dollars only cover about 10% of education costs nationwide.
A portion of education funding comes from our state governments.
State governments fund a little less than 50% of costs, mostly through collected income and sales tax.
State funding for schools is controlled largely by the state education departments and state funding formulas. The formulas take information and data, including district sizes and locations, revenues coming in for those areas, and specific student demands, and attempt to fill in the gaps, targeting areas of need and funneling state dollars to the necessary areas. Here are a few examples of common funding models that have been adopted by different states.
- Flat Grant: In this approach, every district is provided with the same amount of money per pupil.
- Foundation Grant: Through this method of school funding, states decide on a minimum amount of money that should be spent on each student. Then, the local district is assessed as a whole and the state determines how much of that amount they have the ability to pay. After this, the state makes up the difference to meet the per student requirement.
- Guaranteed Tax Base or Power Equalization: This approach to state spending ensures the state commits to giving each district a minimum amount of funding per the percentage of property tax. This is granted regardless of how much district tax revenue is actually raised.
- Centralized School Finance: With this formula, a state assigns a standard property tax rate for all districts. The state then promises approximately the same amount of funding per student across all districts.
School funding is not a one size fits all problem and in many states their are glaring wealth disparities between richer and poorer areas under these and other funding formulas. Because of outdated models and equity problems many schools who truly need help are often left hurting and inadequately equipped.
The biggest outlay of funding for our schools, over 50%, actually comes from local funding. The overarching state departments of education create our individual school districts, which are run by school board members elected by ballot and/or appointed. They are responsible for providing the largest contribution to school districts through the collection of home and business property taxes within their school districts.
This level of funding faces its own problems too, as the amount of funding that schools receive directly correlates with the affluence and property wealth of the neighborhood. Therefore, local funding can be yet another area where disparity and economic inequality issues arise between districts.
Other factors to take into consideration include local fundraising, state-run lotteries, local ballot levies, charter schools, magnet schools, special program development, and more.
And all of this is just a basic overview. Every district is unique, which makes the funding process messy and unfair, burdened with complex variables.
But, if we push for greater federal tax investment in education, re-vamp state funding formulas, address disparity issues among districts through adequacy studies and fair redistribution, give more decision-making power to the local schools concerning spending habits, and demand greater budget transparency at all levels, our schools will have the resources they need to provide our nation’s children with a better education.
Vote. Ensure the right people hold positions of power, from the President of the United States down to the local school board. Elect people with teaching experience.
In the end, all the funding, fundraising, and volunteering in the world can’t fix a broken system if the wrong people are in charge. It takes manpower to re-vamp our funding formulas and get money to those who need it most.
And it’s not just about how much money is granted to each school district. To support funding properly, we must spend our money wisely and craft impactful guidelines and criteria that positively shape our everyday classrooms.
If we want the system to improve as a whole, we have to make aggressive changes from the top down. And the only ones with the ability to institute these changes? Our elected and appointed officials.
The President. Members of Congress. The Department of Education. State and local government officials. State Boards of Education. Local school boards.
At the end of the day, these decision-makers are the ones who directly affect funding, nominations and appointments for positions of influence in education, and the development of education standards and policies. They are the ones who shape the vision and future for our schools.
So, how do we ensure education is a top priority for our country?
And not just in the Presidential and Congressional elections, but each and every election. Don’t forget the power your local and state elections can have, especially when school board members are on the ballot.
Do your research. Look beyond their campaign promises. Look up their legislation voting records and policy proposals. Look up articles written about them. Weigh the pros and cons and choose wisely. Note: For candidate research, check out FactCheck.org for the broader elections and Ballotpedia for local elections. Both are highly reputable and reliable resources.
Vote for candidates whose campaigns boast positive and meaningful education policies as one of their main campaign promises. Work for their campaigns and encourage others to support them.
And above all this, research the background and experience of political candidates seeking leadership roles in government within the education sector.
I am a firm believer that the people in our government who are in charge of education should have prior hands-on experience in the classroom as a teacher.
How can you know the needs of our children and our schools if you haven’t lived in that world and witnessed it firsthand?
For example, our current U.S. Secretary of Education has absolutely no experience with public schools. She is an exceedingly privileged billionaire with a background in politics and business. Instead of using her power and money for good and implementing a clear and positive vision for the future of education, she embodies pay-for-play politics, seeking to put education profiteers, loan sharks, and for-profit colleges over the needs and prosperity of educators and students. Note: She has also publicly stated outrageous, ignorant, and heinous belief statements, as well as endangered our student populace through the rollback of protections and guidelines concerning victims of sexual assault, victims of civil rights violations, victims of LGBTQIA+ discrimination, and more.
How did someone with no day-to-day classroom teaching experience, no administrative leadership experience in education, and no education policy experience become our nation’s Secretary of Education?
She was appointed by the president and her nomination approved by the Senate.
Each and every position on the ballot matters. They act as a domino affect rippling and touching all others.
Even if you think you’re just one person, exercise your right. Campaign for the candidates you believe in. Help others exercise their right and make wise decisions.
Vote. Vote. Vote.
Lessen the amount of administrative positions in school districts. Reduce pay for these positions to funnel more money to our teachers and children.
With our funding system broken and in need of mending, it is essential that every single dollar is spent efficiently to make a difference in the lives of our nation’s children. And one of the biggest drains on our funding? Administrative bloat.
School districts across the country have an unnecessary amount of high-level administrator positions. Not only this, but the salaries offered to these administrators is excessive, with pay scales dipping well into the six figures.
For example, here is just a small sample of some of the highest superintendent salaries in the state of Illinois this past school year.
To compare: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for teachers in 2018 was approximately $57,160.
Why are administrators being paid anywhere from two to six times the average salary of our teachers?
Illinois recently recognized this issue within their system and decided to take action. This state has made strides to address the problem by successfully passing HB 3053, or the “Classrooms First Act.” This act creates a School District Efficiency Commission designed to evaluate each school district in the state and determine how to consolidate and reduce administrative positions. This will ensure kids and teachers get the financial help they need and it is a great model for what should be done in other states.
While it is important that we have administrative leaders who help oversee operations, lobby for our schools, and maintain finances, it is inefficient to have so many similar high-level administrative positions and it is unfair to grant them such high wages when our schools are struggling.
Raise teacher salaries. Hire more teachers to reduce class sizes. Minimize the bureaucracy and paperwork. Respect teachers and follow their lead when it comes to curriculum and lesson planning.
I have so many friends who have chosen teaching as their career path. If you ask any of them why they decided to be a teacher, I promise you they won’t say it was for the money. It was for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children and the chance to mold young minds.
Teachers are often expected to be teachers, psychiatrists, nurses, sociologists, psychologists, and surrogate moms or dads. It takes such intelligence, patience, and gumption to be a teacher, requiring long hours of often thankless work. They pour their blood, sweat, and tears into everything they do.
And yet, according the the National Education Association, the average starting teacher salary in recent years has fallen drastically to $39,249 and, as stated earlier, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median annual income of all teachers for the 2018–2019 school year around $57,160.
This doesn’t even take into account the amount of money teachers spend on their students during the school year. They witness firsthand the effects of funding and budget cuts in the classroom and they care so much about the well-being of their students that they are willing to reach into their own pockets to make up the difference. Note: Teachers are only allowed to claim $250 of that money on their taxes through the Educator Expense Tax Deduction.
We must redistribute funds and give more to our teachers. They receive such inadequate compensation for all the hard work they do and good they put into the world.
Not only this, but teachers are spread far too thin.
Classrooms this past school year saw an average student to teacher ratio of 16 to 1 with many outlier states boasting anywhere from 20–23 students per teacher. The student to teacher ratio has continued to increase in the last decade.
When our classrooms are overcrowded, teachers can’t possibly give every student they teach the proper amount of individual attention they need to succeed.
Studies have shown that smaller class sizes increase retention and graduation rates, decrease juvenile criminal behaviors, improve job market success for students in the future, and lessen the gap in education quality between high-income and low-income students.
In smaller classrooms, teachers can tailor their lesson plans to the individual needs of the class and focus their attention on struggling students. This is especially important in classes that teach more complex subjects, such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry.
As if teachers don’t have enough on their plate, they also have to deal with an inordinate amount of paperwork and bureaucracy. Teachers want to better the lives of children and make a brighter tomorrow, but between unreasonable guidelines, superfluous standardized testing, and other requirements they are being pulled in too many directions and are faced with too much scrutiny from above. The task can often prove too great, especially when teachers are trying to make meaningful learning experiences for their kids.
For example, NPR Weekend Edition interviewed a Denver teacher, Rick Young, who quit after 25 years of teaching because his job wasn’t about teaching the students anymore, but rather keeping up with paperwork and bureaucratic demands.
His story is not unique, but rather like so many others.
Countless teachers have quit the profession, despite the fact that it was all they ever dreamed of doing, because the strain of paperwork, the disrespect and micromanaging from above, and the methodical and overcomplicated lesson planning detracted from their ability to create impactful curriculum and actually teach their students.
And this disrespect doesn’t just come from above. It comes from the parents, as well. Parents who often complain about their child’s work, parents who blindly side with their children, parents who question teaching methods and lesson planning.
I’m not saying there aren’t bad teachers in our country. If they are failing at their job or they were not well-educated and properly trained, they must be held accountable. But, rather, I’m talking about the overwhelming number of good teachers who work hard to give kids a good education only to be criticized by others for their approach.
These teachers have their Master’s or Doctorate in teaching. They constantly attend seminars and programs to grow and learn. They’re the ones who keep up with classroom studies and research, using that science to shape and improve the landscape for kids. They’re the ones who interact with your child every day. They’re the ones who are best suited to foster and provoke understanding in your child.
I firmly believe that if you’re not the child’s teacher and you don’t have any teaching degrees, you should probably be quiet and take several seats.
We must make sure our children meet academic standards and achieve developmental milestones. And the best way to do that is for administrative bodies, education leaders, and parents to follow the lead of our teachers and let them take the reins when crafting lesson plans.
Teachers have one of the hardest jobs out there and they know best how to get through to kids. We must listen to them and respect them.
By paying our teachers more and reducing class sizes, unnecessary demands, and excessive paperwork, we can create a domino effect. If we compensate and treat our teachers better, they can then focus on educating kids. Well-educated children lead to high graduation rates, better job markets and economies, and higher intelligence for innovation and problem-solving in our world.
Not only this, but valuing teachers for their work will encourage them to stay in schools and peak the curiosity of interested college students, thereby creating more teachers and reducing the shortage that has caused higher student-to-teacher ratios. This means less overcrowding and more individual student attention. Meaning more well-educated children. Meaning…You get the picture. It’s all cyclical.
Stop over testing students and pouring millions into standardized testing. Stop the busy work and studying associated with standardized testing. Stop judging the merit of teachers based on the scores their students receive.
In 2002, the federal government passed the No Child Left Behind Act which invested millions of government and school dollars in standardized testing. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, at the peak of testing frenzy in the 2014–2015 school year, the average student was taking approximately 112 required standardized tests from kindergarten to high school graduation. That’s an average of eight tests per year.
In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed as the predecessor to the NCLB Act. This shifted more standardized testing responsibility and accountability to states, but still requires children from third grade to eighth grade to participate in standardized tests every year.
There has been a reduction in tests and testing data has waned in importance, but they are still the main method of evaluating student progress in almost all districts.
Yes, it’s imperative we check the progress of our nation’s children. We must make sure education standards and curriculum are effective. These benchmarks help to shape policies and practices for the future and improve education for all.
But are standardized tests really the way? The data suggests not.
Students and teachers have been burdened by excessive assessments over the past decade and the results have been unsuccessful. Test performance has plummeted over the years, many districts have found kids are less and less prepared for college-level studies and adult job markets. Not only this, but the information received from these tests hasn’t generated positive effects on education policies and standards.
These assessments show how well students can memorize and regurgitate facts through multiple choice questions and don’t promote critical thinking. And the open-ended writing questions on exams are often inaccurately graded by untrained professionals.
Standardized tests cannot measure a person’s true worth or ability and they are not an accurate judge of intelligence. They kill innovation and creative thinking and they ignore many important qualities every person needs in life, such as character, problem-solving abilities, persistence, communication and organization skills, empathy, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, honesty, and integrity.
Not only this, but evidence has shown that standardized tests have a history of racial discrimination and cause at-risk and low-income students to slip through the cracks.
Testing also narrows the scope of curriculum. It encourages “teaching for the test” and creates a stressful learning environment for kids, as well as teachers.
Students, who are overworked with test prep throughout the year, are often made to feel like failures when they underperform and are sometimes held back a grade. Teachers are under even more pressure and scrutiny to prepare students for these assessments. Many feel they cannot stand against standardized testing because student scores are used to evaluate teachers. The students fail and the teachers lose their jobs.
If the tests are ineffective and unequal, then why have standardized tests monopolized the time and efforts of students and teachers for so many years?
In my opinion, it’s because education companies have spent many years making a business from standardized testing.
Companies like McGraw-Hill, Harcourt, Riverside, and Pearson have provided education materials, software, and services to schools. Textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, practice tests, and even the actual test content and grading.
They convince parents and government officials that these tests will lend insights to standards and guidelines that will positively impact the education system. But, the results obviously show otherwise. Meanwhile, these companies rake in millions.
We need to stop unnecessary, redundant, and ineffective testing and all the work and pressure associated with it.
For example, one teacher, featured in the Washington Post, stopped all classwork and homework related to testing for his students and instead focused on getting involved in their lives, forming engaging relationships with them, providing meaningful learning experiences instead of teaching for the test, and keeping open lines of communication. The results were game-changing for student grades and, ironically, his students, who didn’t do any studying for the test, achieved higher scores than prior students and other fellow classmates in their grade.
We need to create better ways to accurately evaluate all aspects of children’s development and intelligence. Many districts have pulled away from testing and have created new methods. These approaches include project-based assessments for specific subjects with written and oral components, such as history research papers and science experiments. So far these new evaluations have been effective and could prove to be good models for improvement across the nation.
Invest funding dollars in kids, especially those from struggling families, to help give them the supplies they need.
When children have the supplies needed to engage in their lessons, it makes a world of difference in their lives.
Textbooks. Backpacks. Rulers. Calculators. All necessary for learning.
Even items as simple as pen and paper have been known to be integral to memory retention when note-taking.
And yet, as essential as these materials are, many parents and schools haven’t been able to keep up with student needs and many kids go without.
Local communities that host school supply drives do a good job of filling in the gaps. But, it’s not enough, especially in the digital age where kids are expected to have software programs, internet access, and computers to complete assignments, interact with other students and teachers, create multimedia projects, and more.
If we address funding and administrative bloat, as well as elect proper leaders in education, then we can open up more funds and better allocate money to provide for schools in this area.
Provide kids with a healthy breakfast and lunch through funding redistribution.
School meals and proper nutrition, key tenets of brain development and academic success in children, should also be taken into consideration when redistributing funding.
A good meal and a full belly equals a nourished body and an alert mind. Without proper sustenance, you can almost guarantee sleepy minds and poor performance.
No child should wonder where their next meal is coming from and I, personally, would sleep a lot better at night knowing my tax dollars were helping feed children to help them grow and learn, rather than going into the pocket of another overpaid superintendent to fund their summer lake house.
And when I say “feed children,” I mean make sure they have healthy foods.
No, ketchup and pizza sauce are not proper daily vegetable servings. Kids need fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains.
Through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed under the Let’s Move! campaign and signed into law in 2010, stricter nutritional requirements were instituted in schools to make sure students have only low fat and fat-free milk options, proper portion sizes, foods rich in nutrients, and reduced amounts of sodium, saturated, and trans fats.
Unfortunately, after having made good strides providing schools with better resources, feeding children healthier food, and giving free/reduced price meals to 21.5 million kids in need each year, policies from the act were rolled back in 2018 and enforcement of the act has weakened under our current administration.
We need to get back to supporting and re-instituting proper nutritional standards. We need to spark initiative and promote health education to all in order to prevent obesity, which is the second-leading cause of death in the United States.
Stop eliminating physical education and recess.
Nutritious foods and proper health education aren’t the only ways to aid brain health in kids and stop child obesity, we also have to make sure to keep their bodies active through exercise.
Many schools have been cutting P.E. and recess in order to lend more time to standardized test preparation, which, as we discussed earlier, is excessive, unequal, and ineffective.
We need to make sure physical education classes are impactful, not only on student health and weight, but also on student attendance, as there have been many problems in recent years with kids skipping gym due to lack of engagement.
See that each school employs at least one full-time nurse.
Sickness and improper health management, are also why kids have poor attendance and miss important school lessons. Schools haven’t been able to provide a solution for this problem, as they currently face a nursing shortage.
Why? Because budget cuts have forced schools to get rid of nurses. Only three out of five schools employ a full-time nurse and, according to the National Association of School Nurses, only 40% of schools budget for part-time nurses.
We must urge the government create a federal law mandating nurses on school staffs and provide funding for this venture. Reach out to your state Congress members today and request they support the Nurse Act to provide grants to schools who are in need, helping them hire nurses under Title 1.
Ensure children have enough sleep in the right hours of the day by altering work and adjusting start times based on sleep statistics and factual data.
Other changes that I think would help the health and wellbeing of children include adjusting school times to coincide with each age group’s sleep requirements and reducing unnecessary work for students. This would increase the amount of sleep they need everyday.
Sleep is essential for learning and development. Without sleep, your parietal lobe has slower thought processes and difficulty problem-solving, your frontal lobe dulls your focus and lessens your creativity in speech and imagination, your neocortex slows new connections and finds learning new tasks difficult, and your prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe can cause blurred vision and slurred speech.
For example, according to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers operate better and are less tired if they get between 8–10 hours and if they stay awake later in the evenings and sleep later in the mornings. In a study by Oxford University, neuroscientists found that the ideal school start time for teens is 10am, as teen brains are not fully awake and engaged until 9am — 10am.
Adjusting school times would help match sleep and wake hours to biological rhythms. Ensuring lessons plans have less busywork, especially that which stems from standardized test preparation, would relieve kids of more burdens and allow them to go to bed earlier instead of staying up late to complete homework.
Make sure funding goes towards engaging after-school programs and learning centers.
Over a decades worth of data shows that after-school programs and learning centers boost academic performance and attendance, improve social/emotional/physical health, enhance study skills, prevent behavioral issues, and decrease disciplinary incidents.
Unfortunately, the proposed national budget for 2020 includes education cuts that will eliminate the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, which funds after-school and summer learning programs, especially in low-income districts. This will negatively impact millions of kids.
Reach out to policymakers and Congressional representatives and let them know you oppose the budget and support funding for these programs.
Provide alternatives to detention.
Another way we can improve the welfare of children is to create alternatives to detention.
Kids who get detention are always labelled as bad kids, but they’re not.
Kids who get in trouble are usually just acting out because they don’t get enough attention at home, their home life is rough and challenging, they’re bullied at school, or they’re upset with themselves for being behind and not understanding their schoolwork.
We shouldn’t punish bad behavior; we should question it.
People always want to treat kids and teens like toddlers, but they are so much smarter than you realize. If you sit them down and talk to them like an adult, they might surprise you.
Discuss what went wrong and search for the source of the problem together.
Find the best and most productive solution. Don’t just sit them in a room to stew and stare at the walls.
If they are upset about their academic performance, help them get into a tutoring program after school. If they are being bullied, find the culprit and schedule a meet-up to talk it out or organize anti-bullying seminars and sessions for the whole school. If they are frustrated because of a poor home life, sign them up for sports to help them channel that negative energy into something positive or reach out to their family with resources to help.
One detention alternative example that I really love is an ingenious program created by Robert W. Coleman Elementary in Baltimore MD. Instead of sending kids to detention, they are sent to the Mindful Moment Room to practice mindfulness through meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga. The results have been astonishing. Kids are calmer and have learned tools to deal with their stress and anger. Since implemented, there have been zero suspensions and test scores have improved.
See that each school employs at least one full-time mental health professional. Help students combat stress by providing tutoring services, academic advisors, and program opportunities that integrate real-world career learning experiences into their education.
Kids have a lot of reasons to be stressed and anxious these days.
Many of their families face socio-economic problems with parents having to work multiple jobs to keep them afloat. This leaves kids fending for themselves, which means poor nutrition and sleep, no homework help, less classroom preparedness, and a lack of attention that can lead to behavioral issues and trouble at school.
Bullies use social media and the internet as a weapon for emotional abuse and a battleground for popularity.
The number of mass shootings in our country has grown exponentially, especially in schools and at school events, with shooting figures for 2019 outpacing the number of days in the year so far. School shootings have become so commonplace that it is now customary back-to-school prep in many districts for students to participate in active shooter drills and learn how to treat bullet wounds.
Not only this, but students carry the everyday burdens of their schoolwork and the stress that comes with getting into a good college and picking a major that will make them happy and successful in the outside world. Since I was in college, we have been facing worries of another recession and dealing with an economy that demands more and more from graduates while most industries continue to pay less and less, slash benefits, and cut positions. Reports say the job market has improved recently, but when you look past the numbers at the quality of jobs and the hiring process you will find that employment is unevolved and stagnant.
These stressful demands breed competition. Kids participate in extra-curricular activities and charity work, not because it makes them happy and gives them an opportunity to give back, but because it helps pad their college resume. They spend hours taking prep courses and re-taking SATs just to get a perfect score on the test, a test that has racist origins and gives an unfair advantage to high-income students who can afford to be “taught for the test” through courses and workbooks. They fight for the top grades and the top honors, at the cost of their sanity and true learning retention and development.
For example, Mason High School in Cincinnati, Ohio has been known for its excellent reputation and its ability to get kids into Ivy League colleges. But, recently they actually had to get rid of their valedictorian and salutatorian recognition. Why? Because in the last decade there has been at least one suicide every year at the school due to the pressure students were placing on themselves and each other to compete. The school hopes that, by eliminating these top honors and giving kids the tools to deal with their work and anxiety, they can help the mental health and wellness of their students.
In the same vein as our school nurse discussions earlier, I think there should be a federal law mandating that all schools hire a proper mental health professional, as well as government grants and funding set aside to help pay for these positions. These experts can help talk with kids and give them a healthy outlet and a listening ear for their problems.
Using funding to provide free tutoring services and resources to students would also alleviate stress on mental health from academic pressure, especially for underperforming kids from low-income families who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
Not only this, but I think that schools should provide assigned academic advisors to children, as well as real-world career learning experiences.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to ease concerns in an uncertain world is to be well-researched and armed with intelligence. By providing advisors as a resource, students have an adult to talk to regularly who can get to know them and help guide them to a worthwhile career path. Also, schools should provide more career learning opportunities through in-school class lessons, after-school experience programs, speakers, and field trips. By presenting them with the possibilities and giving them more first-hand knowledge and experience, kids can better narrow down what careers they have an interest in and have the tools and resources to succeed in that field.
By providing students with these assets, kids will feel much more prepared and informed and a lot less anxious and stressed. This will, hopefully, have a positive effect on reducing the number of school shootings and stifling our high suicide rates among teens.
Provide uniforms for all students.
Something else I think will help the welfare and mental health of kids? Uniforms.
From the latest North Face jackets, iPhones, and Nike sneakers right down to the brand of bangles they wear on their wrist and the type of phone case they have, kids today have become obsessed with status, trending styles, and branded clothing and accessories, especially kids in more privileged suburban schools.
I’ve never really understood this particular phenomena. And, honestly, I think it’s because I wore uniforms from first grade through senior year of high school. Uniforms eliminate needless competition among students and reduce stress placed on a student to wear the ‘cool’ clothes.
These brand obsessions and status symbols can especially impact children from low-income families. Many who come from poorer economic backgrounds are bullied and made to feel ashamed to come to school because they think they don’t fit in.
They may decide to skip a class or an entire day because of it. They may sit at the back of the room and never raise their hand or participate because they are worried about standing out or drawing attention to themselves. Think of their education and development. Think of the amount of hours that will be wasted because of something as simple as the clothes on their back.
Not only this, but uniforms reduce the time spent picking out outfits and finishing laundry, lending more time to doing schoolwork, packing a healthy lunch and water bottle, and going to bed earlier.
They also eliminate the ridiculous dress code requirements of recent years. I can’t tell you how many infuriating stories I’ve read involving girls who were sent home because of absolutely insane dress violations. Because apparently showing too much of their shoulders and legs is “distracting” to boys. Because apparently schools are teaching our girls that a boys’ education is more important than a girls’ when we should be fighting rape culture and teaching our boys to respect girls no matter what they are wearing. Because apparently we live in 1919 and not 2019. So, if the girls have to have strict requirements, so do the boys…Uniforms for all.
Uniforms put everyone on an equal playing field and put emphasis on what really matters: education.
Stop eliminating the arts from schools.
Many schools decide that, in order to deal with limited budgets and avoid deficit spending, they need to make cuts in non-academic programs. And what programs are always first on the chopping block? The arts.
A war has raged for years now. The battle between sports funding and arts funding. And sports programs always win.
Tickets and concessions at games after-school and on the weekends. Donors. Sports fundraiser nights with the community, parents, and alumni. State championship wins splayed across the front page of community newspapers.
Sports bring in more money and publicity to the schools.
Now, don’t get me wrong, sports do provide kids with useful skills that they can take with them throughout life. Sports promote exercise and positive physical health management. Athletes learn teamwork, friendship and relationship building, and leadership skills. These programs create a good outlet for kids who have pent up negative energy and aggression from the bullies at school or a tough home life. They can also help some kids with time management and academic performance.
But, being involved in the arts provides students with the exact same benefits and opportunities.
However, unlike the arts, sports can have a negative effect on students.
Participating in sports can sometimes be life threatening. Students have passed out on the field due to dehydration and exhaustion. Injuries, as well as subsequent surgeries, can put kids out for the rest of the season and affect mobility for the rest of their life. In addition, studies have shown that in high-contact sports, such as football, soccer, and lacrosse, 2 out of every 10 students will suffer from a concussion this year. Duke University also found that athletes that have not sustained a concussion can still suffer from micro-structural changes that damage the brain.
Anyone know the stats on concussions sustained during the school musical?
Sports can teach children to be overly aggressive, combative, and competitive, engaging them with learned behaviors from their coaches and parents to “win at all costs.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a parent downstage right during a production of the Wizard of Oz screaming at their kid to get their head in the game.
Sports also provide a gateway to institutionalized drinking that kids carrying with them into their college years and beyond. Drinking often stems from peer pressure, learned behaviors from their parents and/or the immense stress they are put under to perform well and win games. This stress and pressure can prove too great for some students who end up slacking in their studies and turning to alcohol to take the edge off.
In a piano recital, if you mess up, you are still applauded at the end. The most your teacher might say is to practice harder for next time. The arts are not as make or break as sports.
And it’s not just drinking. In recent days, vaping has become rampant among the student population, especially amongst young athletes. This harmful habit is ending sporting careers and causing epidemic respiratory illnesses.
In the end, the arts provide all the benefits with hardly any of these posed risks.
So, why are sports treated with higher regard?
Now I realize I’m a biased card-carrying theatre kid, but the arts have such a positive impact on children. The arts inspire a “try your best” and “we’re all winners” mentality that will help them be a kinder and better person into adulthood. The arts broaden students’ minds and help make them more well-rounded.
Listening to music improves cognitive functioning. Playing instruments, memorizing lines and lyrics, and reading music all improve long-term memory and increase neuron connections in the brain. Acting in the school musical fosters self-confidence and communication and improvisation skills. Creating a painting or a sculpture trains kids in creativity and freedom of expression.
We must urge schools to keep the arts alive, fight against budget cuts, and argue for more funding and donations for these programs.
Make sure children have activities and programs that enrich their life, such as more nature and play time, as well as libraries and free reading hours.
Within the same vein, many schools think that because of low academic performance and funding cuts, they must eliminate other non-academic pursuits during school hours.
For many schools, that means saying goodbye to outdoor recess and libraries.
But, play, nature, and reading time are essential to child development. These activities give students the opportunity to take breaks from academia and come back re-freshed and even more ready to learn.
Play is so important that it was actually designated a right for every child by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. Play helps a child interact with the environment around them and expand their imagination. It also allows them to interact with others and build social-emotional skills.
Nature promotes curiosity and adventurousness. Being outside gives kids unstructured time to de-stress and re-charge their brain.
Literacy, too, is considered an essential human right by almost all in civilized society and is a key tenet to education. Through reading, children can see into other worlds and learn about other life experiences. They expand their vocabulary and become better writers. Reading ability is also one of the biggest indicators of graduation success.
Give kids their recess back. Take them on a day trip to hike and explore in the nearest park. Provide library and independent reading time again. Fund these enrichment activities.
Change is challenging, but necessary. These meaningful action steps and solutions for improvement that I’ve discussed are just the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion. So many complex factors affect our education system, the quality of education our children receive, and the welfare of our children in general. But, we need to continue the discussion and we need to act. (Feel free to start a discussion below in the comments and tell me what ideas you have to improve education and funding. All positive and constructive dialogue is welcome.)
I’m not saying all the stars will align and it will be perfect. I’m not saying it will happen overnight. And I’m not saying it will be easy. But, with research, hard work, and a dash of creativity, we can improve our schools and make impactful and lasting change.
By investing in our children’s education and welfare, we are making an investment in the future. We are building a more intelligent and free-thinking society. This means new technological innovations, better job markets, more medical cures, less crime, successful solutions for our environmental crisis, and more.
Mending our education system can help us mend the world.
Want to create positive change today? Here are some actions steps you can take to help our teachers and schools:
- Vote for candidates whose platforms support teachers and education. Volunteer for their political campaign and help promote their candidacy in your community.
- Write Congress members and express your stance against funding cuts and your desire for positive education policies and legislation.
- Contribute to and/or start a local school supply drive. Donate supplies to the Kids in Need Foundation.
- Fundraise for and donate to Room to Read and help global literacy and girls’ education.
- Volunteer at your local schools as a classroom helper, field trip chaperone, event coordinator, cafeteria worker, and/or maintenance team member.
- Reach out to teachers in your community by sending them thank you letters and baked goods.
- Donate to DonorsChoose, GoFundMe Education, and other charities to help fund education programs, services, and schools in need.
- Help your local teachers and schools set up a campaign on a crowdfunding site and spread the word for donations.
- Tutor students.
- If you have a particular expertise/career with knowledge to share, ask your local schools if they need a speaker, career day volunteer, or a job mentor for students to shadow.
- Donate to and volunteer for your local food banks and giving charities, especially those that provide clothes and food to children and families in need.
- Donate to and volunteer for Americans for the Arts to support arts education.
- Write articles and op-eds for your community press supporting local schools and discussing upcoming ballot issues/candidates.
- Plan a fundraising event for local schools.
- Join a local youth mentoring program in your community and be matched with a child to help guide them and shape their future.
- Take issues to the school board and request they be on the agenda and discussed at the next public school board meeting.
- Organize a pro-education group and peacefully protest against harmful policies and budget cuts outside your local city hall, school board meetings, your state capital, and/or in Washington D.C.