American Dream or American Nightmare?
by Donna Garner
I well remember the unhappy day in third grade when our son's test scores came back. Because he had been diagnosed with a learning disability which hampered his ability to read, his scores were dismally low. His third-grade teacher who had spent the year helping him to overcome his reading problems, sat and cried with me. What would have happened if at that point in our son's life, we had made a career pathway decision for him? To what fate might our good intentions have doomed him? We could never have predicted that he would overcome his reading problems through intense instruction in phonics, become an outstanding student who would graduate with a good GPA from a major university, and establish himself in a successful career.
I recently read about a school district in Illinois where third-grade students during the school day are sent to a large furniture manufacturer in order to learn the finer points of polishing furniture. These may be good skills to learn in vocational courses that students and their parents have chosen; but I do not believe that all students need to focus their school day on work-based learning, particularly in the elementary and middle school years. Children should be taught that there is more to life than greed and workforce skills.
Another school district in Kansas requires the entire high school student body to spend a large part of the day watching videotapes which cover such things as the correct way to mop a floor, run a golf-course sprinkler, repair refrigerators, and fix vacuum cleaners.
The term "School-to-Work" is becoming the new buzz word in education. Surely everyone agrees that each student should transition easily from school to work at some point in his life. It is important that we teachers help students to connect why they are learning such things as the correct way to punctuate clauses, figure the square yardage of a room, memorize the names of states and their capitals, and measure ounces and liters.
However, my concern with School-to-Work initiatives, which are being forced on local schools through federal and state agreements, involves this question--who ends up being in control of the curriculum that is taught in our local classrooms? Do we want the federal government or even the state to make career choices for our elementary students by scripting the curriculum, or should that decision be made by parents and their children? Do we want our classrooms turned into career centers; or should they be places where knowledge-based, traditional academic content is taught? Do we not have the obligation to expose every child to a solid foundation of core academic content from which he can choose whatever path he wants to follow?
In a world which almost guarantees that a person will change his vocation several times during his lifetime, what happens if a student specializes too early in a particular career pathway? Will he have the flexibility to pursue another career because he has mastered a broad-based, academic curriculum? Have we limited his background so much that he is locked into his original career choice? What happens if the jobs in that career choice dry up? What happens if he moves to another part of the country where there are no jobs in his selected field? Will he have the foundational skills to change to another career successfully?
As teachers, I think our best effort should be spent jealousy guarding our classrooms from outside interruptions. We need every minute we can get to make sure that our students learn to read with ease; it is when they get to that level that they will plunge into the world of the written word with eagerness. They must be taught to write and speak correctly so that the doors of opportunity will indeed be opened to them. We teachers must become protective over every single minute that is spent on activities which are of secondary importance. The school day must be kept to its primary mission which is to teach academic skills. When our students have memorized a foundational concept, we teachers are not finished until we have pushed our students to implement that memorized skill at a higher level in all kinds of real-world situations; however, that level of expertise only comes after intense time and effort on-task.
The job of educators should be to make sure that children receive a quality education which will give them limitless choices for the future. If they want to go to college, they should have the background to pursue that choice. If they want to go to vocational school, they should have solid foundational skills upon which to base their new skills. After all, no matter what a student does with his life, he still should have the background knowledge to be able to participate as a good citizen and to be able to enjoy and appreciate the world around him.
Think about how locked out of everyday enjoyment a person would be who has never studied William Shakespeare, Frederick Douglass, the Brownings, Harriet Tubman, the Bible, Robert Louis Stevenson, Greek and Roman mythology, Martin Luther King, Charles Dickens, etc. We in our society are surrounded with literary allusions. A person who has never studied the great pieces of literature will go through life missing the point of numerous plays, television dramas, comedies, jokes, political references, movies, American jargon, etc. That person will be isolated from much of society and will not be able to connect with others through a commonly-shared culture.
Policymakers must not let the American dream be circumvented into the American nightmare by forcing students into narrow and limited career choices at too early an age. Our goal in the public schools should be to prepare students to master the basic skills so that they can pursue any and all career pathways that they desire. Employers, parents, and students should expect nothing less from their schools.
Midway High School Teacher
236 Cross Country Drive
Hewitt, TX 76643