Our Educational System: Trick or Treat?
Answer my history question and get a treat. Or miss it and get a treat. But learn a little along the way.
As Executive Director of a historic foundation, I was handing out treats in front of a 200-year-old building at a Halloween Fun Fest.
Hundreds of kids dressed like ghosts and Spider-mans and princesses stood in line a block long, holding out their pumpkins or bags saying, “Trick or Treat.” Like Santa Claus, I love talking to kids, so I’d ask, “How old are you?”
If younger than five or six, I’d say, “You’re right!” and give them a handful of treats.
But, at age eight or nine, the “trick” questions became more difficult. Mostly, I asked, “Who was the first President of the United States?” Behind me in the window of our shop was a life sized cut out of President Washington. And there I was, dressed like George Washington.
With my long blue coat, tan pants tucked into knee high black boots, a gold buttoned vest, a jabot – that white lace collar I’ll never wear again – and especially my snow white wig, I was the spitting image of our first president. Well, eight inches shorter and no wooden teeth. But close enough. It was Halloween.
When a child said, “I don’t know,” I’d say, “Oh, come on. Who do I look like?” or, “Who is that guy in the window?”
Some shrugged their shoulders, said “I don’t know,” and began to walk away. I chased them down and gave them some candy anyway.
Some kids said, “Lincoln?”
Lincoln? He was tall, slender, and had dark hair and a beard. I’m short with light grey hair and barely need to shave my blond whiskers daily.
Or “Ben Franklin?” OK, my coat looked a little like Ben’s. But I’m not bald.
Some turned to their parents with an expression begging, “Help me out.” Most parents whispered, “Washington,” but a few shocked me, “Don’t ask me. I don’t know.”
Occasionally when a child was excitedly right, I’d ask, “Who was the second President?” A few guessed “Lincoln?” but not one said “John Adams.”
The funniest answer was a nine-year old boy who proudly announced, “Garfield. I’m studying the Presidents.”
“Garfield was the first?” I asked. He corrected himself, “Oh, Washington.”
My daughter, dressed truly prehistorically as a dinosaur, was helping and estimated that 40% of the kids missed. She’s prone to exaggeration, but not much. Occasionally, I asked, “Do you read every day?” Some said they did, but too many said, “No,” looking at me with an expression that said, “Can I still have some candy?” They got their handful.
The answer that shook me out of my boots was a child who said, “I don’t need to. I’m home schooled.” That stumped me – surely that’s not indicative of home schooling – so I gave him a handful of candy and scooted him along.
I don’t know what’s wrong with our educational system, but something is. I wasn’t out to do a social experiment. Maybe the kids were just too excited to think. I expected everyone to indignantly blurt out “George Washington” without hesitating.
The canvas is larger than this Trick or Treat episode. It touches the core of what we are as a nation.
The country is agonizing over the loss of and the lack of jobs. One of the drumbeats out of Washington is that the “market” is the only engine of job growth. Markets are competitive. The US must have a smart economy to grow, and employers want smart employees. Twenty-five years ago, when I worked for a large consulting firm, we couldn’t find enough business students to fill our positions, so we decided to hire the smartest graduates from any field with the idea that we could train smart people to be good consultants.
Our national debate about immigration policy is missing the point. Immigrants are banging on the doors of our universities and most innovative companies. They want to live here and pay taxes, but we make it difficult for them to come here and difficult for companies to hire them. We invite foreign students to study here, provide them with our most valuable resource, and usher them out of the country. We, a country built on the work ethic of immigrants, limit legal immigration of the best and the smartest from other countries, people who start companies and create jobs. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have begged Congress for more immigrant permits. Congress said, “No,” so Microsoft and Apple built facilities in Asia.
We blame illegal immigrants for our national woes. Somehow, they seem to find work here while American can’t. Or won’t.
The cost of college educations is rising faster than inflation. Federal, state, and local governments are reducing spending on education. Performance is declining. The US education system, once the best in the world, is now far from it.
Something isn’t working.
Maybe knowing the first president or reading every day isn’t that important.
Call me old fashioned. I think it is.
Trick or Treat? These tricks are really bad.