It’s the beginning of the school year, and education issues will as usual be very much in the news. Articles will appear acclaiming the success of U.S. schools or deriding their failures. Debates will ensue about Common Core and whether it works. There will be arguments over whether students learn better from books or from computers, statistics about the ignorance among our young, and commentaries about why U.S. students perform so poorly on tests compared to those in many other countries.
Issues of money will enter these debates. Only Norway spends more money on elementary and secondary students than the United States, yet the performance of our young people is less than stellar. We’ll hear voices saying we need to raise teacher salaries and spend less on administrative costs. Some will tell us we need to hire more teachers and so shrink the number of students in classrooms.
Like most of my fellow Americans, I have opinions on all these issues. And like most, my opinions are … well, opinions. I lack the expertise to analyze what ails U.S. education and how we might fix it. In fact, after more than 50 years of listening to experts—I was a victim of the New Math of the mid-1960s—I’m not sure anyone has real solutions to these larger problems.
But I did teach seminars in Latin, history, and literature to homeschooling students for 20 years. I also taught Latin in a public school for two years and Adult Basic Education in a prison for two years. (I loved to tell my homeschooling students, “I taught in prison,” leaving them to wonder whether I was incarcerated or simply an instructor.)
From those experiences I learned some basic lessons that might, if put into action, enhance our educational system, not from the top down but from the bottom up. Here are some of them.
It doesn’t matter whether Johnny is enrolled in a private academy, a public school, or a home school. He will excel—and by excel I mean he will make fuller use of his abilities—if mom and dad keep track of his progress, if they stay on top of what he’s doing in school and what he’s supposed to study at home. Too little homework? Give him books to read. Too much homework? Offer encouragement and speak to the teacher. If he doesn’t understand word problems in math or he has trouble with grammar and composition, work with him. Never depend on the teacher alone to educate him. You are his parent. You are his chief educator. Guide him and keep watch on what he is learning.
All too often, parents and teachers have low expectations for our young people. We don’t challenge them, we don’t raise the bar, and then we wonder at their mediocrity.
As a teacher, I met with parents who would tell me their son or daughter was struggling with Latin declensions. What exactly, I used to wonder, did they mean by “struggling?” Did they mean that Sally was sweating bullets trying to memorize the second declension endings of the noun “servus” or that she had opened her Latin book for 15 minutes that week and exhausted the rest of her assigned homework time plunking away at her cellphone? Most often, I suspected the latter.
Too many of us forget that young people are intelligent and will often rise to a challenge.
An example: I used to teach a seminar to seventh- and eighth-grade homeschoolers called 3-Rs (Reading, Writing, and Rhetoric). The goal of this literature-based composition class was to develop writers. The students kept journals three times a week, submitted papers every week or two, and ended the spring semester with a 1,500-word essay whose subject was “Where I will be in fifteen years and what it cost me to get there.” These 11-, 12-, and 13-year-old kids turned in compositions that matched in length and often in quality those written by college students.
High expectations are a must for student success.
Teach the Basics
Two thousand years ago, the basics for entering Plato’s Academy were reading, writing, and mathematics, specifically geometry. A hundred years ago, the basics in a U.S. schoolroom were reading, writing, and mathematics. Today, we have packed so many subjects into the curriculum that the basics are often neglected, buried beneath extraneous courses.
Think about it. If we can read, write, and cipher, we can master anything from European history to advanced calculus. Fail to learn those three subjects, and disaster occurs.
In 2016, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, reported that 40 to 60 percent of first-year college students needed to take remedial courses in math, English, or both.
Because they never learned the basics.
Limit Social Media
This admonition should be axiomatic by now, yet everywhere I go—my favorite coffee shop, the public library, the bookstore—there they are, children and teenagers punching away on their phones. Too much time spent on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other sites leads to shorter attention spans, an inability to concentrate, and an unhealthy desire for constant stimulation and entertainment.
In addition, limit electronic devices in general, including video games. Unless the kid goes online to pull together information for a paper on Genghis Khan or to research the formation and nature of black holes, cut down the screen time.
Make Allies of Your Children
We should constantly remind our students and ourselves that we are allies, not enemies. We are in this battle together—and sometimes, as most parents and teachers know, it is a battle—and we can more easily win if we work together. To use a sports analogy, we are the coaches, our children are the players, and the opposing team is ignorance.
Encourage a Passion for Learning
If Tom, 10, loves dinosaurs, head for the library once a week and check out the books on prehistoric reptiles. If Grace, 9, likes to scribble stories and poems, buy her a journal, give her some nice stationery to write letters to her grandparents, and ask her to share her compositions with you. If Martha, 7, takes a shine to arithmetic, put her on the computer and let her play math games to her heart’s content.
We all want the best for our children. If we can give them the tools for learning, and even more importantly, if we can give them a love for learning, then we will have given them the best.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.