Education reform will lead to economic development

The $20 billion associated with No Child Left Behind was intended to set and measure a new onslaught of achievement benchmarks. The $4.35 billion dollars associated with Race to the Top was intended to provide incentives for schools to ramp up their most effective practices. But wait, the way we fill young minds is archaic and irrelevant so why we are spending billions to measure it?


Our current way of educating young people simply isn’t capable of doing what has to be done. That isn’t the teachers fault. It is our fault. Our lack of courage in tackling this issue is betraying our nation and her future. Now is the time to elect people to office – at every level – who are willing to fight for a complete overhaul of how we prepare young people for adulthood. Now is the exact right time to admit that, with nearly half of our children dropping out of high school, we are failing the United States of America. And there is no more important conversation to have. This November. Right now. Today.
Educators should be held to the highest standards, for theirs is the highest of callings. So too should elected public servants from the School Board to the President all of whom set the course, provide the resources and measure the success. No one, however, is more important in stoking the fire of success in kids than parents. True reform will not be complete without everyone changing the way they see education.


There is a universal human truth – we measure what we value and we value what we measure. Primarily, educators are currently measured by test scores, grade point averages and student discipline.  The unintended consequence is a process by which the best students are cram-fed information on which they can be tested. Since they aren’t graded on individual student impact, there is really no reason (other than personal satisfaction) for a teacher to pour themselves into anyone but the most promising. Principals, already under extreme pressure to make the numbers work when they aren’t focused on spaghetti straps and droopy drawers, can easily find themselves encouraging stragglers to pursue a GED. 


But we can flip it all on its head. This November. Right now. Today. Kids are extraordinarily resilient and – not shocking at all – they actually do want to succeed. Have you ever heard of a kid who raised their sweet little hand in Kindergarten to proudly profess that they want to drop out of high school when they get older? Me either. In fact, American students are at the front of the pack until about fourth grade - making true reform within our expertise and our grasp. 


Here’s what I think we must do:


We must grade elementary educators on innovation and inspiration in the classroom. Kindergarten through fifth grade is about igniting a blaze in every mind. This is a time of core foundational academic skills, exploration, mistakes, triumphs and passion. Elementary teachers are masters of experiential learning they only need us to make sure they have the supplies they need to prove physics really does live in the race between feather, paperclip and stone.


Middle school is a time when immature minds start playing with live ammo. It is an explosion of hormones, hierarchy and heartache. Middle school must be a time of service learning, empathy-building, self-advocacy, team-work, and decision-making. While building on core academics, middle school teachers have to infuse character and leadership because their students are transforming themselves into young adults. There is no more vital time in a child’s life and middle schools should be graded on the successful transition into high school. 


High school is a place to bring it all together in a rigorous display of collaboration.  The world needs more people who can work with their neighbor. That’s collaborating. As I write this one colleague is on the phone, one is listening to Rush Limbaugh and one is humming some bad 80’s tune. Every once in a while I interrupt one of them to brainstorm. That’s how work gets done today, millions of tidbits coming at you every second and our young people are actually better at it than we are. To ask them to unplug and sit still in a beige chair while staring at beige walls is cruel and unusual punishment. High school is about self and time management. It’s about leadership. It’s about learning how to stand out when every fiber of your being wants to blend in. High schools should be graded on the student’s successful transition to thirteenth year. Did he require academic remediation as a college freshman? Did she pass that exam to get into the Marines?


Employers, parents and students have their role in this from-the-ground-up transformation as well.  First and foremost, stop electing people to office who hate public education. There is no other way around it. If you want diplomas that signify the holder is truly ready to conquer a big, bold future you must demand that the people creating the criteria for earning such a document actually believe that education is best when it is engaging, exciting and everywhere. I mean, would you hire a football coach who hates football?


Parents, please, send your kid to school dressed appropriately with a full belly and a rested mind. Attend teacher conferences. Make sure your kid isn’t the class bully. Take away the i-pod if your kid back chats the teacher. And vote. Vote for people who understand your kid isn’t like other kids. Vote for people who think sixteen is too young to dropout. Vote for people who think their job is to make the teacher’s job possible. Vote for people who think art, music and sports are part of a complete education. Just vote.


And since Pay-Go is the law, what about the money? People who earn a diploma over a GED bring in $350,000 more over the course of their work life. That number jumps to $1,000,000 and $1,300,000 for Bachelor’s Degrees and Master’s Degrees respectively. In fact, if we cut the nations dropout rate by half, we would realize a federal tax revenue increase of $45,000,000,000 (yes, that’s billion).  I could go on and on but I think that number alone brings us back to where we started – education is the best economic development tool known to man. Today. Tomorrow. Forever.


Heather Beaven is a Florida Democrat running for US House of Representatives.