Schools for the future: Part 2

Having devoted two weeks to the education of the highly-gifted, let’s turn our attention to improving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for children who are not part of the intellectual 1 percent.

After all, we have entered an age in which math and science will be extremely important, both in the world of work and in the arena of citizenship.

In modern manufacturing, higher math skills – even a knowledge of the calculus – are becoming important for high-paying jobs.  

In an economy which will feature fewer permanent jobs and more entrepreneurialism and self-employment, bookkeeping and accounting have become essential skills for millions.

In a world in which personal health is affected by thousands of environmental factors – and the very climate of our planet is being altered in unpredictable ways by the cumulative impact of human activity – understanding science is essential to responsible citizenship.

In short, our children must all grow into adults who are comfortable with math, science and technology if they are not to be hopelessly irrelevant, nearly unemployable, and generally cut off from the world now opening before them.

What might we – here in Chesterfield – do to improve the quality of STEM education for our kids?

One step would be greatly to increase our commitment to adult education.  

If educational researchers agree on one thing, it is this:  Children who grow up in families where the adults are well-educated, and actively involved in their children’s education, have enormous advantages in school, and in later life.

These advantages are most apparent in two crucial areas:  reading and math.

I have long urged that our public school system develop ways of assuring that all children enter kindergarten ready to read.  Unlike President Obama and former Governor Kaine, I’m not sure that that means adding yet another year of public schooling – mandatory pre-K for all four-year-olds.

For one thing, a four-year-old who hasn’t grown up with adults who know how to teach reading readiness, and model reading behavior, is already, at the age of four, well behind the children of better-educated parents.

Our schools should identify two-year-olds who are likely to be educationally disadvantaged.  Based on that, we should develop programs to educate adults – parents, grandparents, neighbors, church and community groups, individual volunteers  – in a position to help very young children get ready to read.

Similarly, Chesterfield’s schools should develop voluntary programs for parents and others, including teen tutors and adult volunteers, willing to assist students preparing to tackle complex math and science topics.

Developing such a program would not necessarily involve re-teaching algebra or physics to every parent in Chesterfield County.  In the internet age, there are countless resources, many of them free, which adults can access on their own.  What the schools must do is to encourage parents to make use of these resources, and help them identify those most likely to be helpful.

If we became truly aggressive – and we should – we could work with our county libraries and community colleges to create programs for parents who need to know “just enough” to help their students with high school math and science.  

We could also create volunteer tutorial programs, perhaps using retired teachers, to coach parents having specific questions and problems.

The idea is to empower parents to help their own children with subjects they have largely forgotten.

Merely by establishing a program for the parents of kids starting one subject – algebra – we could make an enormous difference in success rates.  And that would take a great strain off our schools – both in the  classroom and in dealing with the consequences of academic frustration.

Chesterfield should also look into making far greater use of summertime, when our school buildings sit idle and many teachers are looking for short-term employment.

For some reason, we insist on charging tuition for what few summer-school offerings we have.  This should end.  Summer-school should become a regular part of our educational program, with special courses adapted to the needs of students and the season’s outdoor  opportunities.

For students who find mathematics challenging, we should create optional courses which begin in August and roll right into the regular year.  By spending several hours a day, for several weeks in August, on one challenging subject, students could begin the regular term with an enormous head start.

Summer is also a great time to teach something our science curriculum is often lacking – the importance of observation.  In biology, students could be encouraged to get their noses out of books and laptops by taking special, outdoor-oriented courses geared to observing wildlife or cultivating plants.  

We have entered a new era, which requires that we do whatever we reasonably can to prevent children and teens falling behind in the mathematics and sciences.  This will demand new approaches, and a broader view of how, when, and where education takes place.

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