Poor education breeds poverty, and poverty breeds poor education. The proposed remedies often involve more funding for schooling, more schooling, more testing, and now, more remedial education at the postsecondary level, whether in two-year or four-year colleges. I think this is a fundamentally mistaken way of looking at education and employability. It only exacerbates the problem. And it does so at great financial and human costs.
It is a mistake to think a high school or college degree is the same thing as an education. It is a mistake to think that school is the only place people can learn or can be taught. It is a mistake to think that each component of the current curriculum is important for everyone and that everyone needs to study all subjects for 12 to 16 years. It is a mistake to think that academic testing demonstrates knowledge, wisdom, or desirable employability.
Schooling, in many kinds of cases, postpones maturity and prevents employability, rather than fostering either. Schooling in those cases is counterproductive. Plans to make schooling more effective just make things worse because schooling is the wrong way to look at education and employability. Particularly when school is uninspiring and dismal.
While I think learning should be a lifelong process, and while I think that everyone should be educated as much as possible, the current structure of K-12 and colleges and universities acts against that. School poisons even many of the best students' attitudes about learning and thinking, and students cannot wait to be done with any kind of learning that even smacks of school. Kids who love literature and who find math difficult or incomprehensible are nevertheless made to toil endlessly uphill in math classes. Students who love science and find literature boring are yet made to suffer through the reading of literary works chosen by people who teach them as though they were administering medicine or punishment.
Many students, once they are old enough to get away with it, do not attend classes they come to hate; or they fail them or drop out, or do the minimal necessary just to get by and get out with a piece of paper in their hand that says they are now miraculously employable. But as every employer knows, and as every college teacher knows, the high school diploma is not a sign anyone is going to be a good employee or a good student. Even good grades are not a sign of that. And that is equally true of the college diploma and grades, and becoming more and more true as people who ought not to be in a college degree program at the time are nevertheless there because college is falsely touted as a necessary or beneficial rung on the ladder to success.
Most jobs, even good jobs, do not require much of the information that is taught in schools, but more specialized knowledge and skills. In too many cases school has just become a weeding out process for determining who should go to the next level of artificial obstacles and barriers. Schools should teach students how to read, how to calculate and understand basic calculations, how to communicate clearly in whatever form is most appropriate for the material and ideas they wish to get across, and they should help students refine their thinking, reasoning, and creative skills. Over and above that students should be able to go on in those subjects they like at the time and can handle. They should not have to suffer through the subjects for which they have no current talent or taste. Perhaps later they will learn those things and will want to learn them. Perhaps never. But as long as they are learning meaningful, useful, and interesting worthwhile things, there should be no point in forcing them to fail in subjects that have no purpose or meaning for them. Algebra, geometry, trig, and calculus are not knowledge most people ever use, and there is an "opportunity cost" in trying to teach them to people not likely to learn them and not interested in learning them at the time. Those students' time could be much better spent teaching them things they appreciate and can use that have nothing to do with math at all.
In the meantime, students of a reasonable age should also be taught workplace skills, probably in work places or in places designed to be a cross between schools and workplaces. Not as sweatshop victims, of course, but as apprentices. Current high school and college graduates all too often cannot build anything, grow anything, repair anything, compose, create, discover, or invent anything. They cannot determine other people's needs, solve even minor social and ethical problems, or appreciate goodness, beauty, or truth, unless they have learned how outside of school. That seems a terrible waste of productive learning years.
Schools ought to be places that nurture individual and social strengths, not places that, at great expense, forcibly try to inculcate and remediate what students cannot learn and what teachers in some cases cannot teach. In an ideal world, teaching would inspire students to want to learn as much as they can all their lives, and give them the foundation to do that. But in Alabama, as elsewhere, we confuse coercion with inspiration. Wanting no child to be left behind, we act like kidnappers with the same goal. We drag too many students kicking and screaming through a meaningless academic curriculum that doesn't help them or any of the rest of us, while neglecting teaching them things that would actually be useful and interesting to them and that would help them find good jobs and be able to grow into better ones. And all too often we leave no children behind only because we make them go through a time-consuming system that simply leaves them behind as adults.
Colleges and universities should be places where people come to learn when they are ready and because they want to learn, not diploma mills or obstacle courses that don't serve students, employers, academia, or society in any truly useful purpose. And rather than cutting down on college enrollment, it seems to me that enrollments would swell if people all their lives could take the courses they wanted to (when they were ready) without at the same time having to take courses they don't want and cannot handle.
Schools do not do a good job educating most students. They do not make
people more employable or even better learners. They do not make students
better people. Rather than trying to extend and expand the current model
of schooling in this state, at great cost for no or little benefit, we
need to re-design it altogether. That should help solve the education and
the employability problems at the same time, and for far less money.