Commentary: Students need better life skills, higher education prep
Each year, I meet with top high school students in my district and, each time, they ask for “life skill” instructions, including information on balancing a checkbook, taking out loans, and basic how-to skills. Each year, they indicate their desire for more career counseling and preparation, and each year they have no idea that you, the taxpayer, have invested an average of $17,000 per year toward their high school diploma.
Today, Delaware, like many other states, spends more than $1.3 billion in educating our youth, as well as invests significant funding in higher education. Delaware’s population has continued to grow, resulting in more children, more classrooms, and more teachers each year. In addition, a concern for many of us is the alarming increase in the number of students with special needs.
Schools continue to be a reflection of the community they serve. Increased poverty, additional English Language Learners, and increased exposure to trauma are all impacting our schools and, more importantly, our children’s ability to learn.
A walk down memory lane provides us with a multitude of new concepts and designs to improve education and learning experiences for students. In the late 1980s, the debate was over providing full-day kindergarten and the need for a full-day experience to ensure children were school-ready and progressing at grade level.
We evolved from No Child Left Behind to ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act). We changed tests and created additional measurements, all in the need to improve learning and ensure accountability.
We gained new insight about the advantages of distance learning and technology enhancements, and provided more graduation requirements, while, at the same time, eliminating the arts and soft skill requirements, like financial literacy, for our students. We have left the basics behind and, somewhere along the way, have lost the basic purpose of education.
And, today, many of our high school graduates are not achieving any more than they were before all the change. Today, the emphasis shifts to the value and need for the state to fund prekindergarten.
Recently, I posed a simple question to education policymakers in Delaware: “When can teachers simply teach?” Teachers are expected, at some level, to be counselors and social workers in order to handle the multitude of personal issues that students come to school with.
In some instances, they even serve as highly skilled early childhood workers. Too many parents do not value the education their children are receiving or the investment that others are making in those students. Too many advancements in education have cut out the parent in the educational equation.
Even though we are graduating more students and have reduced the drop-out rate, many are entering higher education not college ready. In fact, college freshmen require remedial classes in reading, writing, and math before they engage in credited college courses. This means taxpayers have paid twice for the same education. Plus, the associate’s degree has become a three-year program, and many students cannot complete a bachelor’s degree in four years.
Equally important, local employers tell us that graduates lack certain soft skills, such as the ability to communicate and work well with others, as well as perform simple functions such as making change in customer-purchase settings.
As a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee - Joint Finance - I am committed to ensuring our tax dollars are spent wisely on one of the state’s biggest money draws there is - educating Delaware’s K-12 public school population and, in many cases, students’ first two years of college. Much responsibility has been placed on our teachers, and the state must do all it can to free up their time and workload so they can teach the basics and teach them well.
I also look forward to giving careful consideration to legislation that will likely be forthcoming this session to provide more mental health counselors in our schools. The need for mental health assistance for many students is great and, unless we take a hard look at the significant issues impacting children and their home lives, all our efforts in the classroom will be for naught.
We know that when much is given, much is expected. Delaware is up to the challenge of exceeding expectations and following through on the commitments made to our future generations.
Ruth Briggs King is state representative for the 37th District.