Education Opinion

If we’re so smart, why are we broke?

By Anthony Cody — July 28, 2008 4 min read
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Americans are awakening from several decades of spending and consumption with little to show for it. We are realizing that when we had the chance to engineer more efficient cars and put solar panels on the roof to harvest energy from the sun, we did neither, and as a result we are slaves to our addictions and in debt to support them.

Our schools have bought into the idea that we exist to feed the American Dream, which means our students must graduate from college, prepared for the six figure salary, the fancy car, the house in the suburbs (and the crushing education debt) that awaits them. Anything less is unacceptable as a goal. So they must have Algebra in the 8th grade (so they can fit in geometry, calculus and trigonometry courses in high school) and graduate from high school prepared for nothing less than a four-year college education.

Gone is vocational education. Anyone who advocates it runs the risk of being accused of harboring “low expectations” for our students. This ignores the fact that, according to a recent report from the Center for the Study of Jobs and Education:

The great numbers of high paying jobs of the future that are claimed to require college graduation and high academic skills for all high school students are a hoax. The majority of the jobs of the future in Wisconsin and the United States are low or average paying jobs that require short term or moderate-term on the job training and do not require high-level academic skills in academic areas, particularly in higher mathematics.

Furthermore, preparing students for future options other than college does not mean we ignore higher order thinking, and does not mean we do not teach them to strive for excellence. These things are not the exclusive domain of the college-educated. A skilled craftsperson solves hundreds of problems a day, and may take years to grow as an expert. Skilled technicians can earn just as much or more than college graduates as well, as this report from the Southern Regional Education Board makes clear.

There is something else we have lost. At the same time we have boosted the amount of higher math our students are required to take, we seem to have lost the most elemental common sense math from our schools – and our society. The past decade has seen people encouraged to borrow against the equity in their homes to make consumer purchases. This practice was sometimes even justified as “good debt,” because the interest is deductible.

Many of our students live in areas where neighborhood banks have closed, and the local financial institution is a check-cashing store, where you can get an advance on your paycheck and wind up paying more than 400% interest. These cash advance facilities are located almost exclusively in poor neighborhoods and near military bases. This easy money is a trap, and far too many of our students wind up getting caught.

And credit cards are an even easier temptation. According to this article in the New York Times, “Today, Americans carry $2.56 trillion in consumer debt, up 22 percent since 2000 alone, according to the Federal Reserve Board. The average household’s credit card debt is $8,565, up almost 15 percent from 2000.” Much is made of our imperative as teachers to prepare our students for college. It seems to me we ought to have an even more compelling imperative to prepare our young people to support themselves without becoming enslaved by debt.

When I look at my state’s math standards, I find that in the 6th grade students are supposed to learn to solve problems involving ratios and percents. How is it that they are graduating from high school not understanding what happens when they charge up their credit cards? I believe it is because these things are taught in the abstract, and practical applications are often ignored. Math applications are taught “so you can pass the test,” and that is a poor substitute for real learning.

We need a return to common sense when it comes to math, and to the potential of vocational education programs. There are fantastic math problems embedded in practical problems that can be posed by teachers working in real-world situations. When I taught 6th grade math, one year we hatched eggs in my science/math class. For science, we learned about the development of the embryo and the habitat the chicks would need. In math, my students designed chicken coops, and made scale drawings. Some even built three dimensional scale models. Students were engaged by the reality of the problems they were solving. New research in England is finding that students develop their brains in unique ways when they work with their hands in school.

In our schools, computer labs have taken the place of shop classes. This gives students access to useful writing and software tools, but something is missing. There is something magical about solving math problems to design something and then actually building it with your own hands. And vocational education is much more than a wood shop. Modern vocational education can include opportunities to use technology to care for the sick, design bridges, or prepare for careers in biotechnology. In my district, Oakland Technical High School has a Health and Bioscience Academy, a Computer Science and Technology Academy, and an Engineering Academy. The students that graduate from these programs may indeed go on to a four-year college, but that is not the only thing they will be prepared for.

Perhaps if we gave students more room to pursue real-world interests, and made school meaningful for those who might not be college-bound, we might have fewer of them drop out.

So what do you think? Should we revive consumer math? Is there room for vocational classes in our high school curriculum, or should our only goal be college for every child?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.