Parent Engagement

Student academic performance in the state of Wisconsin, and indeed throughout the nation, has been falling precipitously for many years now.  Third grade proficiency rates in math and reading in Northeast Wisconsin are now below the 30% mark.  That means fewer than 1 in three of our young people are reading or doing math at a level that will allow them to succeed academically or professionally.  If students continue to miss the mark through 5th grade, as most do, the odds of those students excelling in middle or high school are very small.  Uneducated adults will struggle to become financially independent and suffer much higher rates of incarceration, abuse, addiction, and mental health challenges.

We all know that our schools and our teachers are overwhelmed; as a community over the past several decades, we have become very comfortable with laying many of the challenges that our young people are facing at the doorstep of our local public school, and then returning back at the end of the day expecting all to be well.  It is simply impossible for school administrators and teachers to be experts in education, all aspects of mental health, every imaginable physical and learning challenge, food service, addiction, abuse and basic needs.  Education is a tremendously complex and all-encompassing career field that requires the full focus and attention of our teachers and administrators.  We as a community need to begin to carry much of the weight of the other issues and let schools focus on their critical mission of education. 

The truth is that in our current disconnected reality, many parent / teacher or parent / school administration interactions are negative.  Oftentimes, parents will only reach out to the school if there is a problem (failing grades, bullying, attendance problems, etc.).  The same can be said for the reasons schools reach out to parents.  These interactions are necessary, but perhaps we can find ways to bring parents and schools together in more positive and hopeful circumstances and in the process reduce the need for those negative interactions.

So how can we as a community begin to empower parents to reconnect and engage in their students’ education in a positive and proactive manner?  The goal is to empower parents to take their rightful role as primary educators of their children, and to give schools and teachers the assistance they so desperately need.  There is already some very promising work being done in Northeast Wisconsin to empower parents, including programs in the birth to 5 category, activities at some of our local libraries, and collaborations within some of our schools and after-school programs.  But the truth remains that there is literally an army of capable and passionate parents on the sidelines who we desperately need in the game.  So, what’s holding them back?

Obviously, some parents will have the ability to be more engaged than others; however, we believe that all parents should be empowered to engage to the extent that they are able and to the extent that they are comfortable.  Perhaps for a parent that is struggling, engagement takes the form of getting his / her kids to school on a more regular basis.  Attendance is a leading indicator of student success in education.  For another parent, who may have had a negative educational experience as a child, perhaps attending a parents’ welcome night at their kids’ school and having some positive interaction with the teachers and staff would be empowering.  For our ELL parents, let’s give them the assistance they need to become confident in their ability to read and speak English, and then invite them to read with their children (perhaps both in their native language and in English). 

Other parents who have more stable foundations at home may be willing to take on larger roles if the opportunities are made available.  What if every elementary classroom in Northeast Wisconsin had a parent volunteer working individually with students who are struggling behaviorally or academically?  How would the dynamics of the classroom change and how might student learning improve?  What if two or three parents volunteered to be on the playground during recess or in the cafeteria during lunch hour?  How would parent perspectives change about the student challenges that teachers and school administrators must face on a daily basis?  What if your student’s school had a thriving PTA or a school Facebook page that promoted positive interactions and support for teachers and a loyalty and respect for your school?  What if parents could reach out for support to other parents if their student is struggling socially instead of calling the principal?  What if all teachers shared basic lesson plans with parents once or twice per month as well as homework assignments so that parents could be aware of and assist in what their children are learning?

To the teachers and school administrators, what would it take to make these opportunities available?  As we envision what the future of education in Northeast Wisconsin might look like with empowered and engaged parents, we acknowledge that turning this ship will take cooperation, effort, and time.   Parent involvement will be a trickle before it becomes a stream; but if we can make these first interactions with these first brave souls a positive one, we will be developing a grass-roots team of ambassadors who will invite and recruit even more engaged parents.

The first step in the process is to get the word out.  Parents and our community need to know that our schools and students are struggling and that we need their help desperately.  The next step in the process is to provide hope and action items to invite and empower parents into the fray.  Parents – don’t wait to be asked – our kids need you today.  

Saying Goodbye

As August wraps up and the Packers season kicks off, many college freshmen are preparing to leave home and begin a new life experience away from parents, family and friends.  This can be a very exciting and somewhat traumatic time for both students and parents alike. 

The first and probably most important step in assisting your soon-to-be college student to be a thriving, independent young adult, is to allow them to take the lead in preparing for college.  The process can be a bit overwhelming, so stay close and be willing to help when needed; however, avoid the temptation to drive the bus, even if you could do everything more efficiently and effectively.  If your child is wondering what she needs to pack, direct her to her college’s admissions page or have her generically Google, ‘What should I pack for college’.  Encourage her to communicate with her roommate(s) to coordinate who is bringing what furniture and who is moving in when.  This will take some of the anxiety out of move-in day and will allow for the roommates to get to know each other a bit before they begin living together in a smallish dorm room for the next nine months. 

Although parents can use this preparation time to share cautionary instructions like ‘make sure you always walk with a partner at night’ and ‘drinking too much can have very bad consequences’ or ‘you’ll need to study two hours for every one hour you’re in class’, try not to dwell on your fears. First, know that the admissions staff at the college will cover all of these topics thoroughly during the orientation process.  Secondly, trust that the foundation you have laid over the past 18 years of your child’s life has equipped him with the tools necessary to process information and make wise decisions as he navigates his new world.  Be positive and encouraging, letting him know that he is going to do great things, meet wonderful new friends, and discover who he is in the process.

And know that he will make mistakes; much of what we learn over the course of our lives is a result of mistakes that we have made along the way; if you hover too closely, you will be depriving your student of those opportunities to fail and then emerge stronger because of the failure. 

For you ‘first time’ parents, drop off day will most likely be a whirlwind of emotions.  Your job is to do your best to keep it together until you get back in your car to make the trip back home.  Long, drawn out, tear-filled goodbyes with lots of last-minute advice need to be avoided.  Smiles, quick hugs, and maybe a slap on the back will give your student the emotional stability she will need as she begins to adapt to her new environment.  Although the next several weeks will be challenging for you, avoid the temptation to text with your child.  If she reaches out with a specific question, answer the question and push ‘send’.  If she is having second thoughts or is homesick, reiterate that she is going to be great, to hang in there and to get involved in orientation activities.  In most cases, the fewer the words coming from parent texts, the faster your child will transition. 

For those of you who will be empty nesters in the near future, you need to begin discerning God’s next role for you.  If you are married, that could mean reconnecting with your spouse in a way that was not possible with kids and kid commitments.  Take some time to discuss what a dream future would look like for the two of you (travel, hobbies, cottage, etc.) and then take steps to make those dreams a reality.  Also, challenge yourself to find ways to use your time and talents to improve the world around you.  If you loved being a parent, there are many children in your community who are desperate for a mentor, a tutor, or just a friendly face and a willing listener.  Take some quiet prayer time to see what good God needs you to do.  Although your children may need you less, the world needs you more.

Saying goodbye to a child who is moving on can be confusing and challenging.  Our identity as parents is intimately tied to our children and the time we spent raising and nurturing them.  Take this time of transition to be thankful for having been chosen to fill this awesome responsibility, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and then look ahead to see what else life has in store for you.  

Helping Your Student with Math

Here at Life Tools Tutoring, over half of the students that we work with are struggling in math.  The parents that call us are anxious and frustrated.  Many have attempted to work with their child at the kitchen table, only to have the session end in arguing or tears.  Some of our parents had negative math experiences when they were children, and others have labeled themselves ‘bad at math’ which effectively, in their minds, lets them off the hook. 

We can all agree that a certain level of math proficiency is essential in today’s world, regardless of your chosen profession.  Skills like being a wise shopper, understanding the real cost of loans, completing simple construction projects, etc. all require math knowledge.  In addition, many occupations use math every day, including engineering, accounting, insurance, finance and many positions in the medical field, to name a few.  As we mentioned in a previous article, math proficiency rates in the state of Wisconsin are hovering below the 30% rate.  Most of our kids are graduating high school without the requisite understanding of math to be successful.

So what can we, as parents, do to assist our students to become proficient in math and possibly even enjoy math?  For some parents, the first step is to stop and breathe.  Of all the dragons you will be required to slay as a parent, math class will not fall in the top ten; more importantly, God put you in charge of your child, so you have the skill sets and intellect required to guide your student to maximize his/her math potential.

That having been said, math curriculum, even at the youngest elementary school levels can be unique and unrecognizable in some cases.  Some school districts have adopted visual learning strategies to help young people see how numbers relate to real world scenarios and how to manipulate numbers in a variety of ways. The problem here is that many of us are not familiar with these new strategies; moreover, as homework has become a thing of the past for many schools, parents may be in the dark regarding how their students are being taught, and how they can help. 

Parents, we need to be proactive.  If the teacher is communicating well, outlining curriculum and providing ‘how to’ instructions for new math strategies, we to need fully engage with these tools.  We must take the time to learn these strategies and work with our students in the evenings to make sure they are understanding and keeping up.  If the written instructions are confusing, the internet will most likely have video explanations for you to follow.  (Check out the Life Tools Tutoring YouTube video to learn about ‘box multiplication’).  For teachers out there, actively engage your parents in the process; although it will require more effort in the short term, your students will find much more success utilizing this army of at-home educators.

Again, we must remember that education begins at home.  Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division flash cards are an excellent way to reinforce what your student is learning in the classroom.  Five minutes of practice in the evenings should be more than enough time to develop proficiency.  If your student is struggling with a particular concept, reach out to the teacher and ask for additional worksheets or practice problems that you can work through with your student.  Be sure to make this time together with your child relaxing and enjoyable; include snacks and don’t sweat it if some nights are more productive than others.  Make up real-world problems or questions that involve your child’s favorite cereal or use playing cards instead of flash cards.  As an aside, please also teach your young people about the value of coins – you might be surprised how little they know about them. 

As the middle school and high school years approach, parents become more and more intimidated with the idea of keeping up with their student’s math curriculum, much less assisting in the process.  We challenge you to step toward the problem; cast fear and/or laziness aside and do what needs doing.  Reach out to your student’s teacher to see what’s coming up in math class this month.  Borrow your own hard copy of the math textbook and self-teach if you need to.  “I was never good at math”, or “I don’t have the math gene” are comments that should not be verbalized, particularly in front of your student.  Although the internet is full of dark and dangerous spaces, the number of free math videos that are well-produced and easy to follow is simply staggering.  Or if the math is beyond your ability, search out a tutor (or a smart neighbor) to give your student a boost.

For those of you who are responsible for choosing math curriculum and textbooks for your school or district, please keep parents in mind.  As Life Tools tutors students from many different school districts, we can tell you that much of the math curriculum is confusing.  Moving forward, let’s try to find textbooks that teach the students how to work through a new concept and then provide four or five example problems to reinforce the concept.  The Socratic method (asking students questions until they come up with the right answer) is a great teaching technique for some subjects, but absolutely not for math.  Teachers, please provide digital slides from your lectures for students and parents to reference if needed.  When presenting a new concept, provide 20 or so problems on that concept for the student to work through so that they are able to lock down the strategy.  Mixing six or more math concepts on every homework assignment is confusing and demoralizing. 

We can get our students back on track with math and other subjects, but we as parents must step into the front lines.  Teachers are overwhelmed with challenges in the classroom, and they need our help.  Start today by asking your student what they are learning in math…and do it with a smile!

Failing Literacy and Math Proficiency Rates – Where Do We Go From Here…

In the aftermath of the school shutdowns during the Covid outbreak, there has been much discussion regarding the negative academic, social, psychological, and emotional impacts on our young people.  Although the scale and depth of the impact may not be fully understood for years to come, the devastation on state and national proficiency rates is fully apparent.  Moreover, in looking more closely at the reading and math proficiency rates in Wisconsin over time, the fact of the matter is that these rates have been alarmingly low years before Covid reared its ugly head.

We can all agree that the attempt at remote learning during the covid year was ineffective at best and an utter failure at worst.  Even though many teachers and administrators poured their hearts into making the most of that very difficult situation, and most parents engaged to the best of their abilities, little to no learning was accomplished during the 2020 / 2021 year for the schools that remained virtual.  So, the 7% decline in literacy proficiency rates, and the 10% reduction in math proficiency rates during that time period was somewhat predictable.  What is much more concerning is the fact that proficiency rates were hovering at the 44% rate in English and at the 43% rate in math, back in 2017, and either decreased or held steady for 2018 and 2019.

That means that fewer than one out of every two students in the state of Wisconsin are grade level proficient in reading and in math.  What’s even more startling is that Wisconsin fairs better than average relative to the other states in the union.  Aside from covid, then, why are academic proficiency rates so low across the state and across the country, and what can be done to achieve proficiency rates of 75% or higher – rates worthy of this great country of ours.

Some will attempt to discount this state of emergency by blaming it entirely on the pandemic and assuming all will become good again over time.  The data simply does not support this argument, so be very careful not to be lulled into a false sense of security.  Others will tell us that there is not enough money in education; again, the data dramatically refutes this red herring as educational spending in this state and across the country has doubled and tripled over the past handful of years, with the average cost of educating a student having risen to $13,000+ per school year. 

One of the main reasons that educational standards and proficiencies have plummeted is that we as parents have abdicated our responsibility as primary educators of our children.  Many of us have become far too comfortable dropping our children at the school’s doorstep and assuming that the teachers and administrators will take care of things for us.  Do you know what your children are doing during the school day?  Do you talk with your kids about what they learned in math class today?  When your student’s teacher sends home a summary of their curriculum for the week, do you take the time to read through the details?  If you have some thoughts or concerns about a how a particular subject is being handled (or mishandled) at your school, do you take the time to respectfully follow-up with the teacher and/or the principal?  If your student has homework, do you take the time to get engaged if needed?  We are our children’s teachers, and we must not and cannot surrender that critical role.

Another reason that academic proficiency is down across the country is that overall educational rigor has decreased significantly over the past 30 years.  The next time your students comes home from school, ask them to break down how much of their day was spent being taught a subject and how much of their day was ‘work time’ or ‘flex time’ or ‘movie time’.  You may be surprised.  In an effort to keep as many students ‘on board’ as possible, there has been a conscious decision in education to dumb down the curriculum and the overall workload.  Inordinate amounts of teachers’ days are spent managing unruly students, in an endless cycle of reprimands and disrespect. In addition, as some parents may not be able or available to help with homework, the decision has been made to eliminate homework to ‘even the playing field’. 

We must immediately and aggressively reverse this devastating mindset.  We must raise the bar of expectations for all of our students.  Teachers and administrators must focus on filling the class time with instruction and information exchange vs free time, group work, or work time.  We as parents need to support our schools in taking a more serious approach to our children’s education and then prepare our kids with clear expectations and respect for their education.  We need to volunteer in the classroom; we need to work together in ‘mom networks’ and ‘dad networks’ to support teachers, parents and students who might be struggling or who just need assistance.  We need to get back to the basics of teaching phonics, ‘regular’ math, science, history, technology and financial literacy, and leave the social experimenting to other organizations.  If there are students in the classroom who continuously disrupt the class, a new setting must be found for these students apart from the mainstream classroom, so that real learning can take place every day.  We need to get back to the days of no food, proper dress, and now, no cell phones in the classroom, so that our children begin to develop a proper understanding of the value of education in their lives. 

We must cultivate smart, passionate young people, especially in the STEM subjects, to become teachers and then provide work environments that are conducive to serious learning.  We will need to pay these teachers well, so the choice to teach does not significantly impact their earning potential; likewise, we must release some teachers who are unqualified or who are confused about their role in the classroom.  Most importantly, we as a community need to re-prioritize academics in our schools above sports, building needs, and social engineering.  This will allow our teachers to again re-discover their true mission and our students to reach their true potential.

Career Exploration

There are few conversations more uncomfortable to witness than a well-meaning uncle or family friend asking a junior or senior in high school what they intend to do when they graduate. The vast majority of the answers are vague and impressive sounding: “My plan is to head off to Madison, but I’m not sure what I will be studying yet,” or, “For sure something in the medical field because I took a crime scene forensics class that I really liked.” Most of these answers involved very little research or introspection and were crafted for the benefit of the asker.

To be sure, some 17-year-olds know exactly what career they would like to pursue, and some have known from a young age. A percentage of these students have a very straight path from high school, through college or trade school, and into a successful livelihood. Even for these ‘lucky’ students, however, many of them find that the career field they knew they wanted was not everything they had hoped it would be, and they eventually decide to take a different path.

How strange that we, as a society, do very little to expose our young people to the ‘options’ that exist in the working world and yet stare at them expectantly when we ask them, “What’s your plan?”

This process can be a time of anxiety and confusion for many students, especially if we advise them to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans in order to figure out where they fit. In addition, a major reason that students are unmotivated in the classroom is that they have not identified what careers they might be interested in, and, as a result, are unable to connect the dots between high school academics and pursuing their career goals.

So how can we, as local communities, assist our high school students (and even our middle school students), to experience what career fields and specific positions the world has to offer? As a starting point, we need to avoid the temptation to put this urgent obligation on the shoulders of the schools. Most teachers and administrators would be very willing to be a strong collaborating partner in this effort, but as I wrote in a previous blog, the schools are already overwhelmed with mission creep, which is destroying proficiency scores. This effort should be led by the business community and parents and will ultimately provide many benefits for local community in the long run.

What might this Career Exploration program look like specifically? The first step in this process is to prioritize Career Exploration on-par with reading, math, physical fitness, and financial literacy. Career Exploration needs to be a significant part of a student’s ‘education’, even if it is not driven directly by the teachers. But what classes or activities would be sacrificed to make room for this addition? If we, as parents, have learned anything through the virtual leaning experience brought on by Covid, we are clear that there is ‘underutilized’ and in some cases ‘wasted’ time in our students’ school day.

Perhaps we can learn from some local communities who already have programs in place to give students first-hand exposure to work options. Many high schools provide hybrid school / work opportunities that allow students to learn in school in the morning and then investigate a trade by working part-time in the afternoons. The Kimberly School District has an innovative program that introduces students as young as elementary school to guest speakers from ‘the real world’, as well as comprehensive software programs that assist students in exploring their interests and abilities in the context of specific career fields.

Additionally, could we have our Sophomores and Juniors commit an afternoon a week to Career Exploration field trips that provide generic exposure to job opportunities or specific exposure to a targeted industry? What if every student was required to tour a local manufacturing facility to learn about operations, accounting, quality control, purchasing, logistics, management, and office administration? What if we provide our students with the chance to visit a local hospital or nursing home to visit with a nurse, a doctor, a lab technician, or an insurance administrator? What if we created a database of professional people who were willing to meet one-on-one for 30 minutes with a student who has narrowed his / her career search and is interested in asking specific questions to learn more? Even if this Career Exploration process only assists our young people to check the ‘No’ boxes (I’m not interested in that), how much further ahead would they be when the time came to choose a path forward.

I challenge community leaders, business leaders, parents, and school administrators to get the ball rolling by organizing a brain-storming session. As there have been some successes around this concept locally and nationally, let’s review best-practices and implement what works. The future of our country, the future of our businesses, and the future of our students are depending on us.

Reading, ‘Riting, & ‘Rithmetic

While watching the local or national news over the past ten plus years, one cannot help but notice that school boards and administrators have been front and center dealing with a whole host of controversial issues.  Those issues include:

  • “How much sex / lifestyle choices / gender issues should be included in health class?”
  • “Is the school district offering sufficient mental health support for children as the suicide rates continue to rise?”
  • “Should BLM posters be hung in classrooms or is that supporting a political ideology?”
  • “Will the local elementary school be providing the expanded federally-funded breakfast / lunch / dinner program?”
  • “Should ‘school’ include full-day childcare for my three-year-old?”
  • “Does forcing my child to urinate in a cup for mandatory drug tests infringe on her first amendment rights?”
  • “Should we spend $60 million on the new high school building with a pool and an indoor workout facility, or just $55 million with no pool?”

As the education professionals will tell you, the list goes on and on and on. 

All of these issues have one thing in common: they have nothing to do with the original mission of the public school system which is to assist parents in teaching our children reading, writing, arithmetic, and the ability to reason.

To say that the public school system in the United States has been forced into mission creep is the understatement of the past 150 years.  The reason mission creep should be avoided at all costs is that as each new area of focus is added, organizations take their eyes off their primary purpose.  The data is frighteningly clear that math and reading proficiency in the United States has been steadily declining and our young people will surely suffer as a result.  Administrators, teachers, and parents can all agree that school system personnel are pulled in far too many directions and as a result are unable to do any of it well.

So who is responsible for this mission creep and how do we reclaim the lofty and unique calling of the public school system?  As with most national problems, there is a complex matrix of causes and players, and many of those involved had the best of intentions in mind.  Over the past 30 years, as various problems affecting our students have been identified, elected officials have defaulted to the school systems to fix all of these ills for the simple fact that the schools already had many of the kids in their buildings.  But it does take two to tango, and the schools chose to dance.  Because billions of federal, state, and local dollars chase all of these issues, school administrators, school boards, and teachers unions viewed these dollars as an easy way to pad budgets and increase salaries.  In addition, some teachers who possibly should have chosen social work or community activism as their career choice prefer these causes to ‘just teaching’.  Lastly, and probably most importantly, many parents are far too willing to place all of the responsibility of raising their children onto the schools and the professionals who work there.

We as parents have the primary responsibility to rectify this steadily worsening situation; firstly, we must take back and own our duty as parents as the primary educators and caretakers of our children. 

The village can certainly provide a helping hand, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with the parent(s).  We need to do better. 

We need to re-learn algebra if necessary; we need to feed our kids a healthy breakfast before they leave in the morning and have them pack a healthy lunch to take with them; we need to shut off our electronic devices and talk with our children about their friends, their fears, their challenges and their dreams; we need to teach our children respect for and tolerance for all people and all opinions whether or not that view is popular or supported by the latest YouTube star or Hollywood actor; we need to choose schools based on the strength of their academic offerings and not on the number of state basketball championships. 

Politicians and communities need to encourage (and fund) innovative solutions to the challenges young people are experiencing; this will allow new organizations (governmental, non-profit, and for-profit) with separate teams and targeted missions to be charged with those responsibilities.  School administrators and teacher unions and school boards must also advocate for their teachers and refocus on their primary mission – education.  They must have the courage to say ‘no’ to mission creep, even if that means sacrificing the dollars that come with the ask.

Certainly, collaboration and mutual support are critical to achieve success for our young people, but the days of placing all the world’s problems on the front mat of our local schools need to be behind us.  This system is failing our kids.

The Benefits of a Classical Education

One of the few bright spots of the past twelve months of the experiment into on-line learning for the masses is that many parents were able to experience what their students were learning up-close and personal.  As many students struggled academically and psychologically during this time, some parents became de facto students again, having to learn along with their children so they could assist them in completing assignments or studying for tests.  Some of the curriculum offered was outstanding, but some of the material left parents with question marks.  In spite of their best efforts, most teachers definitely struggled with on-line instruction, so some of the substandard curriculum was a result of that struggle and a real effort to avoid leaving any child behind. 

However, the issues with the curriculum beg the question of how curriculum is chosen in a particular school district.

There is no single answer for that question. In some cases, administrations or curriculum directors will dictate curriculum, in some cases teacher cohorts will choose the curriculum, and in some cases individual teachers will make recommendations.  Many urban schools or larger school districts generally follow national trends, whereas many rural schools tend to offer a more traditional curriculum approach.  Unfortunately, new trends in curriculum are being introduced at regular intervals, in many cases driven by pressure from government or large curriculum providers, often without the years of research and proven effectiveness that should be required before instituting a new curriculum.

As a result of the tutoring we have done over the years, we have been exposed to many different types of curriculum, covering all subject areas, from school districts all over the Fox Valley. 

In our experience, the more traditional, cohesive, and focused the curriculum, the easier it is for our students to learn, to retain, and to utilize that information later.  We have seen many ‘new trends’ come and go, some having a negative impact on large segments of the student population. 

One type of curriculum that we are very familiar with and that we would whole-heartedly recommend for school districts throughout the country is Classical Education.  In full disclosure, our children have/do attend St. Ignatius Catholic School in Kaukauna, so we have seen the benefits of a classical curriculum for over five years now.  So, what is Classical Education, and why has it been so successful for so many years?

Classical education has been the traditional form of education for literally thousands of years.  As one leading classical institution explains, “We teach differently because we have a different perspective on the Child. We believe that she is nothing less than the Divine Image, an icon of the invisible God.  She must be taught personally, in relationship.”

Classical schools and educators are committed to cultivating wisdom and virtue in their students, creating great thinkers and great leaders.

The elementary years in classical education focus on knowledge – filling the students’ minds with information they will need later.  2 + 2 always equals 4, science facts and science theory are separated out, and the Socratic method (asking the students questions like, “How would you solve this problem?”) is not utilized at all during this phase of education.  All subjects are taught in relationship to each other and in relationship to the wonder of the human person. 

The history of world is taught, with all of its blemishes and challenges, as well as individual stories of courage and strength.  In addition, classical educators take responsibility for the western tradition: to receive it, to assess it, to preserve it, and to hand it on to the next generation.  Current events are introduced in later elementary school, but the curriculum is not concerned with the dictates or the happenings of the current age.  Classical education students become excellent communicators through exposure to formal writing instruction, Latin, public speaking, spelling, and vocabulary. 

Students are taught how to be truly human in relationship to their maker and in their relationship to others.  The expectations of students, teachers, and administration regarding conduct, dress, and interactions with each other are not driven by the culture of the day but by the realization of the dignity of the human person.  Students are taught to think outside of themselves and to put their struggles and challenges in context to the struggles of human history. 

Classical education is a tried-and-true teaching model that works for students of all backgrounds and all learning abilities.  As the trend to classical education continues to blossom all over the country and the world, we hope that all those responsible for curriculum decisions will look more closely at the classical model. 

For all of those inside and outside the school walls who are frustrated with the challenges of the current education system, there is definitely hope for our students in classical education.

The Dangers of Low Expectations

As parents, students, and educators look ahead optimistically to next school year and getting back to ‘normal’, we should pause to re-examine what ‘normal’ should look like and make concrete plans to rebuild an education system worthy of this great country. 

The covid pandemic aside, over the past 30 or 40 years there has been a significant decline in the quality and substantiveness of the education our young people receive, and we need to aggressively reverse this trend today. 

There is plenty of blame to be scattered about when discussing why this has happened; some parents have completely washed their hands of being the primary educators of their children and in some cases have abdicated the parenting role as well, making it nearly impossible to educate their students; politicians have become overly involved in the education process as they mine for votes, choosing to throw tremendous amounts of money and unproductive ‘mandates’ into the system, causing some in administrative roles to chase the money versus doing what’s best for the students; teachers who have long ago lost their passion for teaching or perhaps were never truly called to be an educator wait out their time until retirement with no risk of being fired or replaced.

So where do we go from here, and how do we turn this massive ship? 

The first and most important step in this process is for educators and parents alike to dramatically raise the educational expectations for their students.  Whether our students struggle to learn due to behavioral or neurological challenges, or whether our students come from erratic home situations, or whether our students have the intellectual ability to become the next Isaac Newton, we are obligated to provide our students with the tools and the encouragement they require to achieve their full potential. 

There have been many inspirational true stories (and movies made about them) detailing the successful transformation of miserably failing schools that were transformed when a leader steps in and demands those high expectations.  But the transition to improved educational standards does not need to be that dramatic.  Many private schools, charter schools, and rural schools are providing excellence in education in very traditional ways.  These schools have many things in common: they rely on curriculum and teaching/learning strategies that are uncomplicated and have a proven track record over decades or more; they demand certain standards from their students including behavior, dress, and effort, and if those standards are not met, alternate means of educating those students are created to allow for the rest of the student body to reach their potential (even if graduation rates suffer);  and the staff and administration of these schools are committed to fielding the best teams of teachers and staff to provide the highest level of education, even though that requires them to fight the politicians, the status quo, and the education ‘system’. 

As this transition to excellence in education takes place, parents will need to take the lead in encouraging their students and demanding more. 

Instead of ridiculing the idea, parents will need to embrace the idea of homework on a daily basis and schools will need to provide parents with the tools they will need to assist their students with that homework.  When parents, educators, and the community all work together to raise educational standards in this country, our students are incredible, and they will step up. If we choose to do nothing, our young people will be unable to think critically, they will be relegated to occupations that do not challenge or interest them, never reaching their full potential, and they will be sheep all too willing to follow the next politician that promises them ‘safety and security’. 

If we choose to act, our young people will develop the confidence that comes with working hard and being successful, which will ultimately allow them to boldly pursue their rightful place in the world.

The Changing Face of Education

Subsidiarity is a principle of social organization that holds that issues should be dealt with and managed at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution.  This principal is definitely at work regarding the current state of education; as we have seen, each state, each school district, and in some cases individual schools are creating their own safe and hopefully effective education models.

Now that we are a week or two into the adventure that is education during the Covid chaos, many parents are finding that virtual teaching and learning may be a realistic possibility after all.  Although most would agree that virtual learning still lags behind in-person education (and when done poorly lags dramatically behind in-person education), that gap is closing.  In working with our students spread throughout a number of local school districts, our team at Life Tools is observing teachers becoming much more savvy with technology; instead of creating a virtual lesson plan and an in-person lesson plan, many teachers are simply live-streaming their lectures.  Whether the students are physically in the classroom or observing on-line, they are receiving a traditional amount of material presented in a very familiar and comfortable format.

The technology barrier has also been effectively overcome due to heroic efforts by school administrations, local governments, and local technology providers.  In spite of the fact that many of us parents and teachers needed to be dragged unwillingly down this road, even the ‘old-schoolers’ have found the technology to be useable and effective (if not ideal).  

Now it is true that virtual education is not a panacea for all students.  In fact, the younger the student, the more ineffective virtual learning becomes.  As any first-grade teacher will tell you, a 6 or 7-year old student requires intangibles and relationship-building that only in-person education can provide.  Regardless of how ‘good’ we become at virtual education, effective K-5 education will require in-person learning or a very engaged and available educator within the home.  In addition, the teacher-student interaction is more limited and more difficult for the virtual students; one-on-one attention for those students needing more assistance is challenging when teaching virtually and additional resources will need to be focused on providing that assistance.  We can also agree that some classes like band, choir, and certain tech ed offerings simply do not work virtually.  In spite of these shortcomings, we as a society have been exposed to the possibilities of virtual learning and the choices that lie therein.

What does all of this mean for the future of education?  Beginning at the top of the educational food chain, this new understanding has opened a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed.  As the cost of higher education has become unsustainable and out-of-line with the product being offered, many parents and students were already questioning the wisdom of the ‘college education at all costs’ mentality.  Since March, parents have been presented with a first-hand glimpse of the curriculum their children are paying for, and in some cases are rightfully unimpressed.

Covid has forced parents and students alike to question the ‘given’ that to be successful, a young person must go into debt and purchase a four-year degree.  Virtual post-secondary education will give students and parents the freedom to choose.  If university A requires my child to pay $1000 for ‘international basket weaving’ and another $1000 for ‘competitive table sports’, and college B allows my child to become certified in supply chain logistics in two years without the required ‘general education’ courses, many of us will be choosing option B.  Or if there are several successful marine biology programs across the country offering virtual learning and a student is ok with foregoing ‘the college experience’, he or she can choose the most cost-effective program, live at home, and become a marine biologist for a fraction of today’s costs.  Virtual options will also allow students to choose a course of education with or without the political indoctrination that occurs at many universities and high schools today.

Middle and high school students will have access to similar choices as this trend continues.  If a family’s local school is a failing school, they can choose to opt-out and pursue a quality education with a virtual ‘school’ of their choice, located anywhere across the country (or potentially internationally as well).  On a less dramatic scale, if a student’s local school is good in many categories but lacks a strong science or math department, a parent can find suitable substitutes on-line to keep the student on-track in pursuit of a medical career.

This reality will force us as a community to re-think education and the most effective way to serve our students. 

How will sports / band / clubs / etc. work in this new reality?  Will communities suffer without the ‘home team’ and the unity that a local school provides?  What non-for-profit or government agencies will need to step-up to fill the gaps regarding mental health or child-safety issues?  How do we as educators raise the bar for ourselves and our education teams so that we are able to compete with the rest of the nation and eventually with the rest of the world?

Perhaps it will be some time before the full effects of virtual education are known, but we would be wise to heed the clarion call that has sounded loud and clear.

Students Need “Hope and Joy” Message

It goes without saying that all of us have been negatively impacted by the Covid virus and the media and political firestorm that has ignited as a result of the virus.

Some of us have lost jobs or have had businesses shut down, some of us are isolated and unable to connect with others, some of us have heightened anxiety based on what we have seen on the news, and others of us are simply exhausted and tired of the conflicting data and contradictions.  As adults, we understand that life can be difficult, and we are gifted with various coping mechanisms that allow us to endure and persevere.  We can disconnect ourselves from the news and social media, and we have lived long enough to realize that this too shall pass with time.

Our students, on the other hand, have a more limited perspective and fewer coping skills.  They have been inundated over the past five months with fear-mongering on social media, cancelations of school and sports, confusing and contradictory mandates from all sorts of adults, and anxiety within their own homes.  If we as adults feel as though we have lost some control of our lives through this hysteria, we need to take a moment and step into the shoes of our students to realize how dizzying daily life has become.

With our youngest child going into grade 8, we do not have ‘littles’ in our home anymore.  But my heart goes out to the kindergarten or first grade student who may struggle with the first day of school because it is a big step in a little person’s life.  If we add anxiety and fear related to the Covid virus to this process, some students will be overwhelmed and shut down.

As the new school year approaches, parents, school teachers / administrators and politicians need to be cognitive of the mental and emotional well-being of our students, while at the same time keeping them physically safe.

Most of the local school districts have announced their re-opening plans, and all of those plans include the widest possible array of safety measures.  These measures are important and necessary, but how parents, teachers / school officials, and politicians present these ‘changes’ to the students will make all the difference in whether or not our students make a healthy transition to the new reality.

This messaging certainly begins at home.  In spite of the anxiety or pressures we as parents may be dealing with during this frustrating time, we must shield our students to the extent that we are able.  As every living human on the planet is now intimately familiar with the Covid virus, less information may be better than more information moving forward.  As all students in Wisconsin will be required to wear a mask for the first month of school, try to make it a fun, new experience for your younger students.  Spend the extra money on a personalized mask, or wear masks around the house while playing together.  Let your student know that there is no danger to them if they do contract the virus, but they are wearing the mask to keep older adults like grandma and grandpa safe.  If you are upset that your student is required to wear a mask, do not share that with your child as at this point, Governor Evers’ mandate requires it.

We have noticed on many school district press releases that much discussion will be had with students reviewing the daily safety requirements and impressing upon them the importance of following the new guidelines.  As most students need to hear new information a number of times before it sinks in, this strategy definitely makes sense.  However, the tone with which this message is shared with the students can assist our students to thrive in spite of the chaos, or, on the other hand, can heighten anxiety and cause them to recoil further within themselves.  Apocalyptic death sermons are not an appropriate strategy to cajole students into following the new directives.  Smiling faces (behind the masks), positive reinforcement, and a ‘let’s work together to keep everyone safe’ attitude will keep our students safe physically and healthy emotionally and mentally.

At this point in the lifecycle of the virus drama, our students need joyful hearts and hope that life will get back to normal sooner than later.  We as adults need that as well.