An all-encompassing responsibility
“We must never lose sight of the fact that the student, as the learner, is not only the center of the school system, but the only reason for its existence.” This quote by R.B. Jackson gets to the heart of why schools exist.
Despite the new initiatives, the fancy educational terms, and the ever-expanding responsibilities of schools, we miss the point if we forget that students give schools its purpose. With this in mind, the foundational consideration of all educational institutions must be how best we can serve students. An equally foundational response must include adequate preparation for success in the wider world upon completion of school. Doing this in the 21st. century, however, continues to shift from creating workers with basic proficiencies for inevitable placement in monotonous, factory-type roles, to preparing students for innovative, creative, imaginative, ideas driven work, with the skills, competencies and attitudes which engender incredible flexibility and resilience. The former characteristics are decidedly fundamental for survival in our new and ever changing landscape.
However, creating the programs and the curricula necessary to achieve the above is secondary to success in education. Understanding and respecting the individual needs of each student is primary. Underpinned by the aforementioned, education, by its very definition is about eliminating barriers to student success. In short, education requires education practitioners to do all possible to ensure the success of students — a complex and grand responsibility indeed.
One mandate of any education system must be to get students into and out of the system as expediently as possible. In order to do this, educational institutions must be focused not only on high impact teaching and learning, but also on understanding and eliminating the many barriers to student success. For example, that positive parental involvement increases a student’s performance and success in school has been proven time and again in many different education systems and countries. Concomitantly, that the lack of positive parental involvement can be a barrier to student success is also true. More importantly, however, that multiple strategies have been innovatively employed, by many different education systems and countries, with great success, to overcome the barrier of an uninterested and or unable parent have also been proven.
Therefore, the tendency to blame parents for poor student performance rings hollow in an age where access to information and the huge potential for local and international collaboration exist. Moreover, it can be argued that today’s pervading parental indifference is in itself due to the underperformance of our education system. Indeed, the education “crisis” has been long in the making.
Let’s briefly examine another measure — school dropouts. How many students drop out of Bahamian schools each year, and what are the main reasons? While accurate statistics appear in short supply in the Bahamian education system, according to a 2006 report by the ABC News Corporation, American students were dropping out of high school at a rate of 2,500 per day. A later report by the New York Times, estimated that 1.2 million American students had dropped out of high school in 2010. While we may not know the exact number in The Bahamas, we do know that both government and private organizations engaging in work with marginalized youth are being overwhelmed by the numbers of citizens requiring services as a result of dropping out of school. We can deduce, if only anecdotally, that we have a similar school drop-out issue in The Bahamas.
The reasons students drop-out of school can be multifaceted and complex. Sometimes though, the reasons are rather simple. According to the National Drop Out Prevention Centre at Clemson University, the top four reasons students drop out of school were — they did not like school, they were failing and didn’t feel able to catch up, they did not like their teachers, and they felt that they did not belong at school.
Other published research points to identical factors in jurisdictions outside of the United States and highlights that dropping out of school is more of a process than an event. That is, students experience feelings of inadequacy over time. When looked at together, what becomes clear is that schools have a lot of control over maximizing and or minimizing opportunities for student success and graduation rates. To state it in a more challenging way, schools have to decide whether their modus operandi create or eliminate barriers.
Unlike poverty, unstable home environments, drugs, violence, abuse and other insidious factors that can also play a role in students’ decisions to leave school, the leading factors as mentioned above are within the realm of schools to address. This in no way underestimates the importance of positive parental involvement and community support. It is understood that in the best circumstances, students and schools would have a broad support base of parents and social partners. However, the absence of these supports does not have to be a fatal barrier for student and school success. In the absence of home and community support, schools must put their shoulders to the plough and bear the responsibility of securing the future of the society. Schools are best positioned to do so. Few other institutions have access to students in the same numbers or for the same length of time. Few other institutions can have the kind of impact schools can have on deciding the direction and influencing the degree of success enjoyed by a country. Key to success in this area is being bold enough to accept the full depth of the responsibility.
Of course, when dynamics such as presented above are at play, policy makers have to dig deep to ensure that schools are fully supported, both in terms of legislation, and human and financial resources. It is fully recognized that financial resources are in short supply all over the world, and so emphasis must always be placed on developing and supporting robust human resources, ensuring that the best people are in positions of power, and that professional development holds a privileged position in the organization. Indeed, in the end, it will be the people who get the job done.
So, what are the most important lessons here?
1. The old saying still rings true, even with the best educational programs, the most futuristic curricula, and facilities with all the bells and whistles, students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Education is doomed to failure if anything/anyone other than students gives it purpose and motivation.
2. The most successful school systems around the world create trends rather than follow them. Industries adapt to the innovations of schools rather than schools adapting to industry, and successful school systems have a no-excuses approach to student success, embracing the mantra as was done in Ontario, that schools control the conditions for success. If schools are to be more successful, they will need to embrace the full responsibility of motivating the country and giving themselves permission to take the leadership role and set the trends of tomorrow.
3. Barriers to student success can be obvious external impediments such as drugs and poverty, but even more often, they are the intangible attitudes and feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness held by students, that cost nothing more than a positive, attentive, and caring teacher to address.
This is our full responsibility.
Makia Gibson is a passionate educator, working to improve education for all Bahamians! More at www.yestoeducation.com