Once upon a time in a land called America, schoolchildren were taught how to cross the street by their parents or their older siblings. Red light means the cars stop, and green light means the cars go. Wait for the red light and make sure the cars have stopped, look both ways, carefully cross the street. For decades, first graders across the nation successfully crossed the street without tens of thousands of dollars' worth of flashing lights and annoying beeping and counting and pictures of a cute little walking man at every stinking intersection.
Those early pedestrians understood that the cars were bigger than they were, and that they needed to pay attention to the traffic and what was going on around them; a grasp on reality that many of today's pedestrians have not yet achieved. As more and more laws are enacted on the pedestrian's behalf giving him the 'right of way', fewer and fewer pedestrians are taught what the right of way is or how it works. The phrase itself is frequently reduced to a weapon, something righteous for disgruntled have-nots to hold on to and disparagingly yell at those they perceive to be the haves.
Being granted the right of way means the legal right of one entity to proceed with precedence over others in a particular situation or place.
Here are some things that having the right of way does not mean:
Not everything that looks like progress automatically is. Do the crosswalk lights and timers make us a safer society, or just lazy? Or worse? Early in the morning in Any City, USA you can find people waiting for the little walking man to give them permission to cross the street, though ten minutes have passed since the last car did. Is it a fear of getting caught crossing against the light that maintains them on the corner like zombies, or more frighteningly, did crossing against the light never even occur to them?
Perhaps the issue is neither safety nor laziness, but conditioning. Law enforcement and government routinely use tricks like pulling drivers over for not using their directional to change lanes although there was no other driver behind them to see it, to turn citizens into less thoughtful beings.
Always use your directional.
Always wait for the walking man.
Pedestrians have the right of way.
Always do what the officer says.
Look around and around!
Most of all, think, think, think!
Cross when it's safe.
Blink when it is necessary.
Enjoy the right of way and be considerate.
We're all part of the same big traffic jam. The sooner we stop honking at each other, the sooner the traffic will clear.
Teachers, school administrators, school boards and government agencies across America work diligently to educate our youth, yet the U.S. consistently ranks squarely in the middle of worldwide achievement in Science, Math and Reading. How can this be in what we all like to think of as the greatest nation on earth?
There are two underlying fundamental problems with the American education system in the 21st century. The first is that there is not now, nor has there ever been, an American Education System. From the time of the first New England schoolhouse to today, local education has been paid for by local tax dollars, with local government setting curriculum and standards for hiring teachers in accordance with the bidding of local voters.
Beginning at a time in our emerging nation when simply knowing how to read and write qualified one to be a teacher, grassroots teaching methods, policies and procedures were in place and in practice long before anyone thought about an education 'system', and subsequent attempts to improve, define or standardize education have always approached the task as a molding of the status quo. This unintentional approach of building from the bottom up works great for pyramids, but less well for creating a system designed to achieve particular goals and provide for and create consistency; a defined vision at the top that can be disseminated downward is a better method.
The second underlying issue within education in America is that whatever systems we do have in place, e.g. testing, grading and requirements for academic advancement, are haunted by decisions and conclusions that were arrived at long ago, based upon a mere spec of the information (not to mention technology) that we possess today.
As one might expect, when there no systems in place where a need exists, any system that presents itself may quickly become the de facto system until or unless it is replaced by a more popular system. A case in point is the standard A through F grading system which was devised at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1897. Originally the lowest grade at Mount Holyoke was an 'E', however after one year administrators purposely changed the failing grade to 'F', and so it has been since. That seemingly innocuous and logical decision has caused incalculable emotional damage to students over the ensuing years.
Where a grade of 'E' might elicit thoughts such as 'I did very poorly', or 'I don't get this subject', or 'I could have tried harder', a grade of 'F' is interpreted as, 'I failed'. And in that despondent moment, 'I failed' can easily turn the corner and become, 'I am a failure'. No - you're not.
Another case in point is the use of the Bell Curve, or Normal Distribution Curve, which forms the basis for much curriculum design and social classification in education. A normal distribution is an arrangement of a data set in which most values cluster in the middle of the range and the rest taper off symmetrically toward either extreme. A graphical representations of a normal distribution is often called a bell curve because of its flared shape.
Height is an example of something that follows a normal distribution pattern. Most people are average height, the number of people that are taller and shorter than average are fairly equal and a very small (and still roughly equivalent) number of people are either extremely tall or extremely short.
Below is an example of a normal distribution curve:
When test scores are plotted, results within a class will also result in the bell pattern, with most students scoring in the mid-seventieth percentile, with fewer students scoring in the mid-eightieth and mid-sixtieth percentiles, and only a few scoring very high or very low.
In the twentieth century students were often categorized by their place a bell curve plotted using scores from tests that were usually culturally and economically biased and always regarding subject matter more familiar to those students with an aptitude for academia than those with an aptitude for the arts, or service, or mechanics. From one's place on the bell curve terms like D student were born and frequently spoken within earshot of the student, often causing students to feel shame or guilt or stupid. Worse, some students come to believe that they are a D student when in fact they suffer from a correctable learning disability or are truly gifted in a non-academic area.
Since the system we have is the only one we've ever known it is all but impossible to imagine education differently, but if starting from scratch, we might ask, "What is our primary responsibility to our children, and to society vis-à-vis our children?"
First and foremost we need to ensure that each student has the skills and information necessary to successfully function as an adult in society. These would include the ability to read and write, use a personal computer for basic tasks, fill out a job application - both online and on paper, balance a checkbook - both online and on paper, create and balance a household budget, navigate one's city and cook basic meals. Appendix A contains a more complete working list.
Additionally, we have an obligation to provide our students and our teachers the resources that will enable our students to compete with the very best minds in the world in their chosen fields.
Furthermore, we owe it to our young people to enable them to discover the things they are good at and help them nurture those gifts.
The era of participation trophies and orange slices has taken a lot of heat in recent years, but those well-meaning soccer parents and coaches are on the right track - they're just using the wrong vehicle. The notion that every child should win and no child should feel like a loser is noble and sounds reasonable, except that competitive sports is an activity that is specifically designed for the sole purpose of creating an equal number of winners and losers!
Unlike a soccer match, school is a place where all the children can win. We must start by assuming that everyone is good at something and work to assess each student's aptitude, inclination and inherent ability, and then provide them with the opportunity to explore, test, evaluate and move forward..
Lastly we must come to the realization that we cannot improve the American education system until an American Education System exists. Many state's rights proponents see education as one of the last parts of their society that hasn't been usurped by the federal government, and are loathe to make concessions. However, in order to compete in the world market and give our children a chance at keeping up, we must as a nation establish and maintain a lofty set of minimum requirements for high school graduation - one that truly reflects such a desire!
In the upcoming third and final installment of this piece, we will take a look at how we might accomplish some of these lofty goals.
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