WALL STREET JOURNAL (August 2011)
Learning The Hard Way
By Joel Klein, 08/20/11
Mandy Williams, aka Black, posted:
Up until two years ago I took little interest in the education system, although in the book I co-authored with my sister, I stated, "The education system is one of my pet peeves. I think it is a political nightmare." It was a passing remark – never intended to become a theme or a cause. But life has a way of interrupting plans. Our book was launched by Neiman Marcus and then detoured into the world of education when we were asked to develop and teach a financial literacy program at KIPP Houston High School.
I see first-hand much of what is being debated, and agree that unions are part of the problem. But so are politicians and government agencies. We have been invited to speak at educational conferences. Amongst public school teachers, curriculum supervisors and administrators there is consistent frustration as many of them know what is in the best interest of their students, but the "system" with its required curriculums and financial challenges create insurmountable roadblocks.
Students in private schools have many advantages; including their parents are typically better educated. However, we are finding adults are often intimidated by financial topics. If they are not comfortable with financial matters that means they are not able to educate their children.
So, now we have a problem that exists across all socio-economic levels. On a topic that affects everyone. You would think that the education system would realize the importance of financial literacy, because if it is not taught in school, how will people learn? Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is expensive. Not only in terms of money, but in terms of values and priorities that get misplaced or forgotten.
Texas has mandated financial literacy for the 2011-12 school year. However, they do not provide the funding for materials. The twelve required topics are more than a full semester course, yet they are supposed to be incorporated into other classes. Topics include balancing a checkbook, which is math, whereas I believe understanding whether an expenditure is a smart use of your money is financial literacy. And nowhere does the program address how values and priorities should drive your financial decisions. Layer on top the recent State budget cuts, and I feel like I should be teaching our program to the legislators.
This is a perfect example of why our current education system does not work. But whether we like it or not, our education system is going to determine the future of our country. Not only should we look at where we stand in terms of standardized tests, but we also need to focus on our drop-out rate. I, for one, am embarrassed by the high percentage of students who do not graduate high school. But given the sorry state of many of our schools, I understand their "why bother?" attitude. The debate of whether all students should go to college, or whether vocational or trade schools are legitimate alternatives is important, but should not be the primary focus. Preparing students for life has somehow gotten forgotten. The home economics and life skills courses are falling by the wayside as budget cuts protect the subjects that are "tested." The basic question that needs to be asked is, "What is the purpose of an education?" I believe it is to prepare students for life. Give them enough information and opportunities so that they can take control of their lives rather than have their lives control them.
If you want to change things it means getting involved, because doing nothing is a decision. It means you accept the status quo. Teacher unions have significant power when it comes to politicians, based on their financial strength, lobbying efforts and the sheer number of members. However, do not underestimate the power of grassroots efforts. Or the potential impact of millions of voters if they demand an education system that better prepared our students, our communities, our nation.