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Building a better America

Many of us have heard the complaint that while we’re spending billions in Iraq building roads, water projects, power stations, hospitals and schools, we could be putting that money to better use right here at home – say in our own education system. Well, that may sound good on the surface, but that’s the easy way out, without taking the time and expending the energy to look into a very complex set of issues. The real issue with the way we handle our education system is not that we need more money, but rather HOW that money is being used, because more money thrown at our school system does not automatically translate into a better education for our kids.In a survey taken in the 1950s, teens identified and ranked the seven greatest problems they faced in school: talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise in class, running in the halls, cutting in line, dress-code violations and littering. Today the seven greatest problems teens identified are drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery and assault.Obviously the problems of society imbrue into our school systems, and it is not the school’s responsibility to do what parents should be doing. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that our schools are doing all they can to prepare our children to face the real world.Fortunately, the remedy doesn’t mean throwing money at the problem. Perhaps it’s more a matter of vision, flexibility and less bureaucracy on the part of our school districts. To wit: Why can’t our school districts focus a class or a course at each grade level on what it takes to survive in 21st Century America? Does anyone recall the classic late-’60s movie “To Sir with Love,” starring Sidney Poitier, or the 1988 Academy Award-nominated “Stand and Deliver” with Jaime Escalante? Both movies told the story of how kids, whom society had given up on, end up succeeding because someone (a teacher) not only shows interest but believes in them. The kids respond by exceeding expectations. For those parents with school-age children, how many classes do your children receive about maintaining a positive attitude, learning how to believe in their individual importance, how to make wise choices? What about building positive habits or thinking creatively or just plain old persistence? It seems to me that with some training in those disciplines, the issues of drugs, alcohol abuse and the other tribulations our teens face on a day-to-day basis could be ameliorated. Employers consistently tell us that too large a percentage of young people entering the work force, whether after high school or college, lack the skills and character to succeed in the workplace. They also tell us that they wish faculties at all levels would take more responsibility in helping students acquire the skills that employers are looking for.Some of the skills found wanting in today’s workplace are dependability, attention to detail, teamwork, obtaining and analyzing information, problem solving and – this next one is a biggie, folks – writing clearly!The source of the list of skills employers want is the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which surveyed nearly 500 employers. Their findings can be found in the Department of Labor’s “Building a Nation of Leaders.”Redressing the above will take time and teamwork, and faculties must realize that their role within our system is changing and there must be an implicit social contract with their students. Students, on the other hand, must recognize their teachers’ expertise in their given fields, as well as their importance as professional skills coaches.Our last presidential election provided another unfortunate example of what our educational system is not teaching our children. Post-election surveys tell us that far too many voters do not understand the full range of rights and responsibilities that belong to all Americans, which might help explain why so many of our young voters, fresh out of school, choose to stay home rather than exercise their civic duty and vote.Polled after the election, far too many citizens could not answer basic questions such as: How does the government raise revenue? What is the national budget process? Where does the money go? What are our largest or most expensive programs? What do these programs really cost? What’s the difference between the national debt and the deficit? Why does it take so long to reduce a deficit? In essence, young people are graduating from high school and college and don’t have a clue about the most basic of issues – i.e., how the government collects and spends the money from the taxes we are all paying.The issues of education are complex and nuanced, but perhaps parents can begin by teaching their children that school is about more than just grades. It’s also about accepting constructive criticism, learning to accept certain responsibilities, and working to master material rather than simply cramming for tests. During his first term, President Bush and Congress took an excellent first step by introducing more accountability into our education system. As a second step, perhaps the president should create a “White House Gold-Star Panel on Education” and include leaders from government, business and education. By and large, our educational system is a good one. But it could be so very much better with a little imagination. Perhaps we can continue the quest in 2005.Butch Mazzuca of Singletree, a Realtor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@earthlink.netVail Colorado


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