Commentary: Helping Children Succeed

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How do we know that we are focusing on what really matters in public education? That could be debated for a long time and still never be settled. Yet there are some things we can do to pursue success in children.

In general, our educational system does a terrific job of teaching academics to our students. However, it is questionable if we are responding sufficiently to the increasing emotional needs of children. Policymakers and stakeholders need to take a serious look at the current mental health system in our country. In schools in some parts of the country, social emotional health is being addressed with equal enthusiasm as academic gains are addressed.

While standardized testing may be reduced or devalued eventually, for the immediate future we can expect testing to be part of the K-12 academic culture for public schools, regardless of current public opinion. We hope standardized testing will continue to evolve in a positive way. Hopefully, that does not mean more testing, but changing how data may be gleaned and utilized from minimal testing. Many educators feel the testing culture has taken away a teacher’s flexibility and qualities such as “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence” are being lost. The loss of these traits by students is to the frustration of many parents and teachers. Students need instruction in both cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

In America, our students are grouped by chronological age and progress together through the K-12 system. While this might make sense socially, it ignores a student’s readiness. Even though unpopular, some students may actually benefit by being retained. Students who start off struggling from the very beginning often can get a better start on their formal education if retained. Being promoted with their peer group only makes sense if they can make adequate academic progress. Additionally, having teachers genuinely interested in them can make all the difference especially if a student does not have actively engaged parents.

It is recognized that most children are beginning kindergarten prepared with plenty of knowledge about letters, numbers, shapes, and other miscellaneous skills, because of the numerous educational toys and educational programs to which they have been subjected. Usually, it is easier to teach skills like staying focused on a task, organizing thoughts, impulse control and managing emotions to younger students than older ones.

Starting early and focusing on these skills in Pre-K and Kindergarten, may be more helpful to students in the long run than just the reading, writing and arithmetic usually taught. There is already likely a wide gap between the abilities of Pre-K and Kindergarten students before they even reach our public schools. It is at that early age that we may need to focus most to give children the background they need to succeed in the public-school environment regardless of their social-economic status.

This year in the Tennessee General Assembly, Senator Reginald Tate and Representative Raumesh Akbari brought legislation to address the high number of children suspended or expelled from Kindergarten. That subject has been referred to summer study by the legislature. The findings are expected to reveal the veracity behind why so many young children are not ready for Pre-K and Kindergarten. In addition, Senator Jeff Yarbro suggested legislation on more formalizing Pre-K. Both of these subjects are likely to continue to be debated in Tennessee, and across the nation.

On the other end of the spectrum, the state is often criticized, perhaps unfairly, about an over emphasis on making Students “College and Career Ready.” Yet in reality, the emphasis is mainly on being “College Ready.” It raises the question as to why are we pushing it on students so hard when there are other significant opportunities like trade or technical schools? It may be a bias in our culture. However, all students that want the opportunity to try college should be encouraged. And so called “failure” may really be a result of a bad fit and not necessarily lack of skills. Drive, determination, and the will to succeed are an imperative to individual success. And educators must continue stressing the various pathways to success.

Governor Bill Haslam should be commended for the Drive to 55 Initiative, a commitment to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree. The Drive to 55 is focused on ensuring that more Tennesseans are equipped with the skills and credentials that will be needed to support the state’s economy now and in the future. It is a smart strategy.

While the reality is that college may not be for everyone, roughly 26% of American’s already have a Bachelor’s Degree, it is clear that to be successful in the future, and some form of post-secondary education needs take place. Success will mean more education in the future, whether it is the military, a technical school, junior college, or at a university. Even McDonalds has Hamburger University (McDonald’s Center of Training Excellence). McDonalds founder, Ray Kroc, once said, “If we are going to go anywhere, we’ve got to have talent. And, I’m going to put my money in talent.”

It is important that educators get to know each student on an individual and personal basis, and having ongoing conversations about their personal goals in life makes a difference. Students must be guided and supported, not only at home or school, but also within the community. Yes, life may be hard but the end result of our efforts is worth it. And learning that when we fail, we simply get back up and try again. In the end, that may be the most important lesson of all.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @jcbowman. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

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