Thoughts on Education Reform, Pt 1: Athletics & Academics

Every time there is a presidential election we hear folks asking what the prospective candidates will do about ‘the problems with our educational system.’ It gets old very quickly; nevertheless, it has become a staple of presidential campaign platforms and so it is necessary to talk about education, sadly, from a political point of view.

In 2008, then Senator Barack Obama made a speech at a school in Colorado. He was, I suppose, in part laying out his agenda for how to ‘fix’ education. He spoke that day about No Child Left Behind which he simultaneously praised and condemned. Condemned might be too harsh a word, but since he was in large part appealing to his constituency, it is apropos. And then he hit the nail on the head: “We don't have to accept an America where we do nothing about six million students who are reading below their grade level.” That was probably a political dig, but I agree even if I disagree that we were ‘doing nothing about’ it. I think if we ask any teacher, they would disagree that ‘we’ were doing nothing about it.

Whatever else we might say about teachers, students, parents, politicians, or custodians, this is a problem: children cannot read.  As an educator, I am only too well aware of the struggles our children have when it comes to reading. Being a newer educator, I’m not exactly certain yet where or what that disconnect is, but there are reading issues prevailing in our classrooms.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of reading programs available and there are thousands of well-educated, dedicated, passionate teachers using them to help children read. I know that the teachers I work with would balk at the idea that they are doing ‘nothing about it.’

So, if that is true, and I think it is, how can someone start off a blog post, syndicated by Huffington Post, that starts this way: “The education reform movement is failing”? (Vicki Cobb) I’m not sure what education reform movement is being referred to because I thought our president had solved all those problems and had reformed NCLB; I guess I was wrong. People demand teachers be accountable; politicians act; people get frustrated when teachers do what politicians say. There is one disconnect. 

Personally, I do not happen to believe that education needs to be reformed. Maybe people's expectations need reformed. Maybe where we spend our dollars in education needs reformed. Maybe the way we teach each individual student needs to be reformed. At the end of the day there will always be problems until we address some seriously significant issues–simple issues–that will not be solved by merely throwing more money at the problems. We need to reform our mindset about how we adults are behaving when it comes to education. We don't need education reform; we need people reform. 

In part 1 of this 3 part series of posts,  I will begin laying out what I believe will help improve education and might bring about some of the reform that people are evidently clamoring for in the United States. Maybe if we practice some of these things we can help close the achievement gap that exists between the USA and, say, China. At minimum, I would like to see our children become better learners, better readers, and take a life-long joy in learning about this world in which we live.

First, I think we should de-emphasize athletics in schools (which is not to say eliminate). I’m sure this will rankle the hearts and minds parents whose children derive their self-worth from their ability to throw or catch a ball, but I think it is necessary. I do not even think it is enough to have eligibility tied academics. A Notre Dame football was recently suspended from the team for exercising ‘poor academic judgment.’ So of all the football programs that exist in the USA, we hear about one player being suspended for academics? Really? And this is supposed to teach us exactly what? Of all the programs that exist in the USA there is seriously only one athlete having academic issues? Really?

I think athletics are over-emphasized, over-valued, and an overall distraction to academics in our schools. What I mean is this: I’d like to see as much emphasis, enthusiasm, financial support, and volunteerism from parents for academics as there is for athletics. Why not have a booster club for academics? Why not have cheerleaders for ‘nerds’? Why not have book clubs? Writing clubs? Chess clubs? Math clubs? Cross-country reading groups? Academic baseball or golf? We should have art shows and talent shows. We should have drama clubs. 

It seems to me that we have no problem whatsoever raising thousands of dollars for new football stadiums in the USA—at the taxpayers expense!—but we have to beg, borrow and steal when it comes to a new playhouse or library levy (and I’ll have more to say about the arts later in this series). Author Anne Lamott has done significant work when it comes to libraries and I have appreciated reading about her passion for these ‘places of small miracles.’

If we want to help children keep reading, reading more, reading better then we should not have to worry about budget cuts affecting libraries or curriculum or the arts first. The majority of the population can live without school athletics, but you cannot even be an athlete without knowing how to read and think and comprehend.

I’m not opposed to athletics. I am opposed to the infatuation we seem to have with them and the lack of enthusiasm we have for reading or learning. I want to see academic competitions with parents lined up out the door. I want to see more things like Literacy Night that we host at my school a couple of times per year (in contrast to the hundreds of athletic events we host/participate in yearly). Maybe we could have teachers on the radio calling commentary on students while they are taking a test: “I see Johnny is erasing his answer on #3…what’s up with that Bill? Oh, I see…he wanted to add another paragraph and cite some references. Good for Johnny!”

I don’t know. All I’m saying is that maybe a switch of emphasis will help bring about the reform folks are looking for. Maybe it’s not reform of the same tired methods we need, as much as an utter revolution of ideas and emphasis?

One final thought. Why is it if you are an athlete your coach can demand that you spend x amount of hours working out, lifting, running, practicing, watching film (even in the summer!!) and getting your body in shape and building stamina and that if you do not meet x requirement, you don’t play. But if a teacher makes a similar requirement of a reading or math student it is an issue because ‘it might cut down on family time’ or some other such nonsense? Think about all the hours demanded by coaches all in the name of ‘being the best player’, but that backlash teachers receive if the same student has an equal amount of reading to do before the next day. Think about all the evenings and Saturdays parents give up for athletic competition, but how many parents show up to school on test day to cheer on their kids?

You want your student to do better on tests? Well have them read for an equal amount of time that they practice their football or basketball skills.

Reform or revolution? I think by and large we have our priorities way, way out of balance in America.

In part 2 of this post, I will discuss my second practical thought on how to improve education in America: Lessen government involvement. 

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