Basic Education

     We've been hearing a lot in recent years about the poor state of education in this country. So the push is on to improve public/primary education. This new movement is good, right? Well, I guess. Except it's not new; the state of American math and science education was decried back in the 1950s when the Soviets surprised us by launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and a push to improve basic education was begun then. We've been pushing to improve basic education in this country for nearly two generations, yet American students still rank near the bottom when compared with their peers from other developed nations.

     Odd, that. Our higher education system is possibly the best in the world. Most advances in science and technology are made by Americans, or others who were educated in American colleges and universities. Our colleges and universities are so good that an awful lot of foreign students register in them to take advantage of what they have to offer. Evidently the American public/primary education system is good enough to prepare students for the world's best higher education system. Or is it? I'm constantly appalled when I talk with the younger members of my family and discover the basic things they don't know.

     Be that as it may, I see an inadequacy in our primary education system that goes far beyond the teaching of academic basics.

     When I was growing up, all you needed to get a decent job was a high school education. It was even possible to find good-paying factory jobs with less than that. There were plenty of adults making a living wage who had a ninth grade education or even less. College, despite the way the GI Bill had increased the number of people getting higher education over the previous generation, was still basically reserved for the elete. Junior colleges and secretarial (business) schools were virtually unheard of -- there was little perceived need for them. There were trade schools, but most specialized or technical training was done on the job.

     So what kind of work can you get today with nothing more than a high school diploma? Retail clerk, stock worker, bussing tables, counter worker at a fast food joint. Even in those low paying occupations, a high school education isn't necessarily enough. Check it out; most bookstore employees have college degrees, as do coffee shop employees (no, I'm not talking Dunkin' Donuts) and -- in big cities, anyway -- table servers in restaurants.

Today if you are entering the job market and want a job that actually pays a living wage, you have to have education beyond high school. Business school, computer school, tech school, junior college, college, whatever. High school just doesn't do it anymore. Sure, sure, I've heard it said this is because high school doesn't do a good job of teaching basic job skills. But can high school properly teach those basic job skills and provide the basic academic education that will raise our students to higher levels of educational development in comparison with their peers in the rest of the developed world?

     I suspect not. Factory work that was so common a couple of generations ago has mostly gone overseas to countries where wages are calculated in dollars per day, not dollars per hour. Office workers need far higher skills than they used to. With nothing more than a high school equivalency certificate, I was offered a job as assistant manager in a retail store when I got out of the Marine Corps. Today? Forget that unless you've got years of experience or at least an associate's degree in business administration. I was more interested in working with books, so instead I got a minimum wage job as a library clerk. (Side note: Minimum wage used to be enough to live on, today it's poverty level.) In that job, I not only stacked books, but ran a check-out desk, assisted with the bookmobile, and made purchase recommendations. You want that job today? Better have a college degree.

     Have you picked up on where I'm going?

     Public/primary education in America isn't failing our kids because it isn't teaching them the basics, it's failing them because it's only teaching them the basics. They need education beyond what high school can provide. Witness the wild proliferation of business, computer, tech schools and junior colleges over the past couple of decades. The problem is those schools all charge tuition. How are you supposed to pay tuition when the only job you can get is hamburger flipper at $6.00/hour? You can't, that's how. You need mommy and daddy to come up with the bucks to put you through school and continue to support you. But what if they don't have the education for better paying jobs? You're stuck in a deadend, aren't you?

     As I see it, our system of public education needs to break out of the K-12 box and start offering k-13 or even 14, with the last year or two being business, computer, tech school or junior college. Teach the basics and teach job skills. Otherwise we're raising a generation with no future, a generation with no hope of achieving the American Dream.