Equality equals better health and happiness

New research shows that equality, not other issues, equal the most health and happiness. This new research isn’t shocking news or anything. I’d wager that most people would agree that feeling like an equal does correlate with happier feelings. Still, it’s an interesting issue that should be made more public.

British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson has been researching healthy vs. non-healthy societies for decades, and recently sat down with YES! Magazine to discuss his findings.

Wilkinson notes that the healthiest societies he’s come across don’t have more income, more education, or more wealth—but the things they do have are more equitably shared. He also points out that inequality is linked to issues such as higher rates of mental illness and drug use, eroding trust and increased anxiety and illness.

I think this is highly relevant research when discussing educational choices. In most cases, conventional schools don’t promote equality. Schools promote adults as better and smarter than youth, bullying as a norm and the school itself as knowing more than parents. The school speaks and everyone must listen. There’s no equal footing. This system truly sets up schools and the people who run them as far more valued than the families who attend them.

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College not all it’s cracked up to be for high school graduates

In a previous post we looked at research about how public schools don’t prepare kids for college. However, it’s not just before college that’s the problem. After public school kids arrive at college there are some problems as well, beyond the remedial classes discussed in the last post.

Three of every four students in one survey (pdf) told surveyors that they thought college would provide them with substantial support to help them cope with academics, non-academic responsibilities and help them enrich their social life. In other words, these students expect some major hand-holding through college. Over 50% said college did no such thing.

Many students who start college never finish. Research shows that just half of students who enroll in college end up with a bachelor’s degree. This creates a financial issue too as one study (pdf) shows that college dropouts amount to $4.5 billion in lost earnings and taxes to state and federal governments across the nation.

One recent study of more than 2,300 undergraduate college students found that around 45% failed to demonstrate any significant improvement in learning during the first two years of college. A book based on the research, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, and its accompanying report, specifically notes that 36% of students showcased no significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication over all four years of college and that 1/3 of all college students never took a class requiring them to read even 40 pages per week. The report goes on to show that most students who did experience grade improvements over high school, did so only modestly.

+ Why universities are failing

High School Graduates Not Prepared for Work

In a previous post we looked at research about how public schools don’t prepare kids for college. Due to the fact that very few high school grads are college-ready, it makes sense that not all kids go to college. That’s fine, not all humans need college. However, most high school graduates also aren’t prepared for work.

High school graduates aren’t ready to work

During a survey (pdf) of more than 400 employers across the U.S., it was found that almost all employers say that high school and college graduates should have the following four major skills down pat in order to succeed in the workplace:

  • A professional work ethic.
  • Critical thinking and problem solving skills.
  • Good oral and written communication skills
  • Ability to work on a team and participate in team collaboration.

The problem? Around 70% of employers stated that new workers with high school diplomas had no professional work ethics and no critical-thinking or problem-solving abilities. 54% of employers think new workers are math deficient. A full 81% of employers said high school graduates couldn’t manage written communication, while over 40% of employers said high school diploma holders were entirely unprepared for even entry-level jobs.

High school grads were deemed “adequate” in just two areas – information technology application and teamwork and collaboration. Still, simply being rated as adequate is nothing to dance about.

It’s not just those major skills above that employers are looking for though. Creativity and innovation is important to 73% of employers. We already know that public schools are stifling student creativity, but how much? 54% of employers say that high school graduates are totally creativity deficient and packing kids off to college doesn’t help. Just 4% of employers rated students with two years of college as having “excellent” creativity skills and after four years of college, just 21% of employers said the graduates were creatively excellent.

Other skills deemed important by employers in the survey included workers who are capable of handling increased responsibilities over time, project management, community involvement and interpersonal skills. High school graduates have spent a lot of time on learning how to take standardized tests, but they’re not being taught these very basic and necessary skills.

Not surprisingly, over 27% of employers said that they’d be phasing out hiring high school grads within five years. Since this research was completed in 2006, high schoolers are facing this predicament right now.

What about the future?

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Do Public Schools Prepare Youth for College?

Often people wonder if democratic school students will be college-ready. In fact, folks can get downright snotty about it, saying stuff like, “A school like that won’t prepare your son for college or a real life!” People are incorrect. Kids in alternative ed. programs go to college all the time, but that’s besides the point.

What really irks me is that so many people declare (loudly) that public school is some magical college-readiness world, when in reality, a landslide of research shows that public schools fail, almost entirely, at getting kids college-ready.

Traditional schools don’t prep kids for college:

A 2006 study showed that just 51% of high school sophomores are enrolled in programs defined by their high school as “college prep.” Only 31% of high school graduates complete a basic college preparatory curriculum and amazingly, just 14% earn math or science credit in Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. Not that AP students are prepared. Of the small amount of kids who do take college prep courses in high school, only 60% get the minimum score needed for college credit.

According to ACT 2011 scores, just 25% of high school students are college-ready. Just 4% of African-American students who took the ACT test were deemed college-ready in all subjects. A full 28% of all students, across the board, failed in every single category of college-readiness according to the four ACT benchmarks.

It’s not just ACT tests either. According to 2011 SAT scores, fewer than half the students who took the SAT in 2011 are prepared for college-level work.

It’s estimated that at least 43% of students at public two-year colleges and 29% of students at public four-year colleges are enrolled in remedial courses, plus about $2.5-billion is spent annually providing remedial instruction for new college students. Worse, about four out of five students who have to take remedial classes in college somehow graduated from high school with grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher. Many statistics are far worse. For example, 90% of California’s community college students need remedial math and 75% need remedial English.

White rich kids get some college prep, but not others. One article points out an obvious problem - schools in well-off neighborhoods do offer at least some college prep, yet schools that mostly serve low-income, black and Hispanic children typically don’t offer college prep. In fact they usually offer curriculum choices designed only to meet the very minimum state graduation requirements.

Colleges don’t just look at grades and test scores. For students who set their sights on four-year schools or Ivy League schools, extracurricular activities are a must. Yet, high schools with homework in overdrive leave little time for any normal human to fit in extras of any sort. Too bad, because activity is more (pdf) than just getting into a good college. Kids who don’t participate in outside of school activities are 49% more likely to use drugs and have lower GPAs overall than kids who do get extracurricular time. In addition, kids who participate in sports and other activities while in high school are more likely to volunteer, register to vote, feeling comfortable speaking in a public setting and pay more attention to current events. Other benefits of activity for youth include teamwork, discipline, goal setting, leadership, independence, self confidence, stress relief, character development and personal growth plus acceptance of others.

What students say:

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Does Democratic Education Prepare Youth for College?

A common argument I personally hear against my son Cedar’s democratic school is, “How will your son be college-ready without school?” And by school, I should point out that people mean public school. Since my son attends a democratic school, his ability to be college-ready is usually discounted.

That’s actually fine with me.

  • First of all, college is only useful if one wants to be there. With that in mind, if Cedar wants to go to college, I’m down with it. But, if he doesn’t end up wanting to go to college, or he wants to go when he’s older, I’m okay with that as well.
  • I don’t believe college is necessary for a happy or successful life.
  • If Cedar is gung-ho about college it’ll be fine, because all sorts of free school and other alternative schooled kids get into college easily. If he does want to go, he’ll get prepared. His staff at school and I will help him figure out how to do so. At this point he’s just ten-years-old, so I’m not really worried about his adult life just yet. He’s got lots of time to figure the future out.

Lastly, and most importantly, democratic schools are modeled much closer to real world issues than traditional public school models. In most colleges the ages mix, parents don’t do your homework for you, you have course choices and no one is standing by forcing you to do stuff. You’re expected to take personal responsibility for your education. If you don’t take responsibility, you face real consequences, such as failing classes, being asked to leave a program or loosing scholarships.

College, in my experience was nothing like elementary through high school. Democratic schools are designed to teach the necessary skills a person will need to succeed in college – for example, self-regulation, freedom of choice, independent learning, knowing how to spend your own free time, taking responsibility for your actions (both good and bad), creativity, problem solving, working with others (and alone) and many other important skills that benefit the average college student.

It’s funny because people are so concerned that democratic education fails to prep kids for college. Yet, how successfully do traditional schools prepare students for college? In many cases not much. We’ll look at that next.

Democratic School Benefit – Zero Arbitrary Homework

I remember homework. Barely. I didn’t do much of it when I was in elementary through high school. I thought it was boring and a waste of time. Plus, after sitting all day at school, the last thing I wanted to do was sit some more. I did all my college homework by the way, likely since I was in college by choice (longer story for another time).

Anyhow, I think one of the best things about my own son attending a democratic school is that there’s no lame homework. That said, I didn’t fully realize how cool no homework is until I saw homework in action in my own house. Sure I’d seen friends with kids in public school deal with ongoing homework trauma, but it’s not affecting me much when the trauma happens at a pal’s home.

Then I moved in with someone and he had kids in public school. Thus, I got to see homework in action with my own eyes. It’s not pretty. Here are some of my major pet peeves about homework.

It’s a total time suck: There are weekends when all that happens at my house is homework. I’m not kidding. Forget family time. Forget trips to the bookstore on the weekends. Forget hiking. It’s completely unreasonable that kids are expected to sit 5 days a week in school, then sit all day on the weekend doing homework too. It’s not just weekends either, kids are also sitting all day after school doing homework, in many cases claiming that they need to forgo sleep and meals to even get somewhat close to finishing.

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What is deschooling and how long does it take?

If you’ve been looking into alternative education paths, you’ve likely run across the term “deschooling.” I’m not sure who officially coined this term, but I’d guess that the 1971 book Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich has much to do with this term’s popular use among unschoolers, homeschoolers and other alternate schools today.

What the deschooling means:

For practical kid-minded means, deschooling stands for a period of time, the adjustment period if you will, that comes after a child is removed from a current educational system. The deschooling period is a time when a child, or an entire family can re-group, get rid of school-minded thoughts and if necessary, recover from harm the school inflicted.

By getting rid of school-minded thoughts, I don’t mean getting rid of learning. Deschooling is more about finding out that there are other approaches to life and learning that don’t involve structured schooling.

What deschooling is like

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Free School Benefit – Plenty of Free Play

A new study looking at 34 child care centers serving young children found that parents are instrumental in how much physical activity (or not) kids are getting. In all cases, no matter the setting (inner-city, suburban, Head Start, or Montessori) researchers found that kids are sitting sedentary for most of their day and that very few children are meeting physical activity levels for their age group (ages 3-5 years).

Although in some cases, kids weren’t playing enough due to lack of funds, i.e. the center couldn’t afford a decent playground, in many cases, child care staff at these centers blame parents as a main cause for the lack of activity and play. In some cases parents told the child care staff that too much active play may result in injury. In other cases, staff felt pressured by state guidelines and parents to push academics before play.

The researchers note that both societal priorities for young children—safety and school readiness may be hindering children’s physical development and recommend that child advocates should think holistically about the potential unintended consequences of such policies.

Academics before play… in 3 to 5 year olds! It’s a real problem, and not just in this specific study. Plenty of research is stacking up that shows that schools in general are cutting recess time and limiting free play all in the name of academics.

What is free play exactly? 
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What really constitutes a failing school?

President Obama has been fairly outspoken about what he thinks of schools in America, noting at various speeches that “Four out of five schools will be labeled as failing.” Along those same lines, last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Congress No Child Left Behind (NCLB) would end up labeling about 82% of all public schools as failing.

According to the New York Times, some question those high failure numbers, calling them out as inflated. The Times points to a new study conducted by the Center on Education Policy that shows that just 48% of the nation’s 100,000 public schools were actually labeled as failing under the NCLB law this year. Not that 48% is so much better than 82% though.

48% in fact, is the highest number of schools ever to be labeled as failing since President George W. Bush kicked off NCLB in 2001. Additionally, the Obama administration is accused of, “Overstating the numbers to make a political point for reauthorization,” by Margaret Spellings, Mr. Duncan’s predecessor as education secretary under Mr. Bush.

Whether or not the Obama administration has inflated their numbers, 48% is still woefully depressing. Plus, in the grand scheme of things, it’s all based on test scores anyhow. Thankfully most educators and others are no longer fans of NCLB, with many states signing up for the NCLB waiver, which allows schools to perhaps better set their own versions of holding themselves and their kids accountable for learning.

Still, as it stands, a school that cannot get their students to pass the right tests is considered a failing school.  Is that really the best definition of a failing school? Or should schools be rated on more substantial issues?

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How useful are standardized tests?

I’m not a fan of standardized testing. It’s not very useful and a great time waster in my opinion. Mostly though, it really bothers me that some people (some school staff and some parents) use these tests to make snap judgments about our kids abilities. Why not get to know a kid instead and allow his likes, dislikes and other personality traits to form your opinions about him, not some test.

On top of forcing snap judgments, standardized tests are insanely unrealistic.

Consider real life: How often, at work or just in normal conversations with others are you given test experiences? When was the last time your boss asked you, “What will you do to solve this finance problem? A. Nothing; B. Make a new budget?; C. Ask Fred what to do?; D. Crunch those numbers again?” I’d wager this rarely happens.

As an employee, you’re expected to give an insightful answer, one much longer than a test answer. The best jobs expect even more – they want you to think outside the box for a very creative answer. Tests do not encourage thinking outside the box. Tests just aren’t that realistic.

Furthermore, much of school now, thanks to No Child Left Behind, consists of standardized tests and getting kids ready for said tests. I’m not the only person who thinks tests mean nothing in the long-term…
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