A couple weeks a go, it was Spring Break in Middle Tennessee. Scrolling through my social media feed, I was suddenly inundated with pictures of friends taking their children to Chicago to see Hamilton, to New York to visit the Museum of Natural History, a week at the beach. I must admit most of my friends are of the middle class persuasion though we as a family cling to that classification precariously. Still my own kids went to see their aunt in Chattanooga where they visited the Adventure Science Museum and toured Lookout Mountain. Meanwhile, kids from poorer families spent large chunks of time in their homes whiling away time, waiting for parents who couldn’t afford to take time off from work to get home.

I’m not trying to cast stones at anyone. Parents who continue to invest in the educational experiences, often at great sacrifice, of their children should be commended. And yes, I count going to Walt Disney World as an educational experience. One of the traps that we fall into is thinking that education only falls into a formal category, whereas learning is as natural as breathing to children, and therefore every experience forces their brains to grow and expand. Think of it in computer terms. The larger a database a machine has, the greater likelihood you’ll get a relevant answer when you query a search. Same holds true for kids. The more experiences they have as a kid, the more likely they’ll be able to take advantage of an opportunity in the future. Why is this a hard concept for policymakers to grasp?

Parents intrinsically know this. Why do you think wealthier parents invest so heavily in extracurricular activities despite the high cost? Do you think they harbor illusions of Johnny being a star pitcher in the majors? Or little Jennie becoming a concert pianist at the Met? Well, some do; those are the ones we all snicker at. The rest of us realize the important life lessons that are taught through these extracurricular activities. Lessons like grit, teamwork, leadership, self-confidence all are grown through participation in extracurricular activities. No less an authority than Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has gone on record saying, “Kids who have a significant involvement in an extracurricular activity have a capacity for focus, self-discipline, and time management that I see lacking in kids who just went through school focused on their GPA.”

Despite reams of data that illustrate the benefits of extracurricular activities and their input on children’s lives into adulthood, the last four years have shown a dramatic decline in participation from children in poverty, while participation by their wealthier peers has grown. School budget cuts and rising costs have served to cut the rate of participation by disadvantaged youth to 56%, while participation by upper and middle-class children rests at 75%. You are fooling yourself if you don’t think that makes a difference later in life. 

While extracurricular activities certainly affect kids later in life, the other part of the equation to look at is social networks and access to mentors. Remember the old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? There is some truth to that statement. Obviously, succeeding in life requires a certain skill set, but the opportunity to demonstrate those skills hinges on your social network. Don’t believe me? Try getting a job without using any of your social contacts. Go ahead, throw your resume out into the pool of similar resumes, and see what kind of results you get. I know the answer because mine’s been floating out there for nearly a year.

People in lower income households have smaller social networks. These smaller networks lead to reduced opportunity for upward mobility. Look at it this way. If my child decides that he wants to be a lawyer, I can hook him up with friends who can sit down and explain the intricacies of what a lawyer does. I can later use those friends to help secure an internship that will give him an advantage against other kids pursuing that career. When it comes to college, I have the resources for us to tour several campuses. I understand how the system works or know people who navigate it for a living, and I can call on their help. Once my child graduates, I can again call upon my social network to help secure him an interview and increase the likelihood of job placement. A child from a poorer home has fewer of those advantages. That’s where the importance of mentoring and developing of social networking comes into play.

It’s undeniable the importance that extracurricular activities and a wide social network play in the opportunity for upward mobility, yet we fail to invest adequately in either while doubling down on the narrative of increased academic rigor. Riddle me this: if a kid is reading at an advanced level but has failed to develop leadership, or even team building skills, and doesn’t have a network that can open doors for them, how do they benefit from their advanced reading level? Is there some kind of giant radar that I am unaware of that will suddenly recognize them, pluck them out, and reward them for all that rigor? Who are the real beneficiaries of those high test scores?

I would argue that once again, it’s adults who get to hold up test results like winning lottery tickets. Lottery tickets that allow adults to double down on policies that fill them with a feeling of superiority and allow them to create a captive market.  A very profitable captive market. But do we ever really look at what happens to these kids after they leave high school? Do we ever look at where these children end up employed?

The National Center for College Education conducted a study on the level of education that students attained based on their socio-economic status. While the results between middle and lower income students achieving an advanced degree wasn’t too different, 29% to 14%, the number of high income students was over 4 times as high, 60%, as that of low income students. That’s a little disturbing. While a single reason couldn’t be pinpointed, inability to navigate the system, inability to manage time, trying to balance work and class all came in to play as reasons for not attaining advanced degrees. Still think it’s all about rigor? Chew on this for a moment. A poor student with test results in the upper 5% of test scores is as likely as a wealthy child with just mediocre scores to attain an advanced degree. If that is not a red flag, then I don’t know what one is.

What happens to those upper 5% kids, as well as their less high achieving peers, who fail to get that advanced degree? Invariably they become underemployed. Which results in bad outcomes for both the individual and society. Clive Belfield, professor and researcher at Queens College in NYC,  uses the term “opportunity youth” to describe kids between the ages of 16-24 that are not in school or employed. He puts their number at 6.7 million and breaks down the classification such,

“Some opportunity youth are ‘chronic’: they have never been in school or work after the age of 16. Others are ‘under-attached’: despite some schooling and some work experience beyond 16, these youth have not progressed through college or secured a stable attachment to the labor market. We estimate a chronic opportunity youth population of 3.4 million and an under-attached opportunity youth population of 3.3 million. Both groups are failing to build an economic foundation for adult independence.”
According to Barfield, “After each opportunity youth reaches 25, he or she will subsequently impose a future lifetime taxpayer burden of $170,740 and a social burden of $529,030.” Furthermore, “Considered over the full lifetime of a cohort of 6.7 million opportunity youth who are aged 16-24, the aggregate taxpayer burden amounts to $1.56 trillion in present value terms. The aggregate social burden is $4.75 trillion” You have to remember that an under employed individual is more likely to require government assistance and more likely to be involved in the criminal system and have health problems.
.We like to talk a whole lot about getting kids career and college ready, but have we lost sight of a deeper obligation? An obligation to get them ready for life. While nothing but living can truly prepare us for life, shouldn’t we try to give children a bigger tool box, maybe one not so specific, before we send them out into the world? After all, if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. A well-rounded education provides a multitude of paths to success for a student. A rich variety of experiences needs to be a part of that education. An education that is a balance between the development of soft skills and academics. The kind of education wealthy kids have been getting for a long time.

Every town  has an organization like the Nashville Public Education Foundation. Organizations that say they support every child having a great public education. Increased extracurricular activity opportunities and increased mentoring opportunities would seem to be perfect initiatives for them and a way to alleviate the pressure from traditional schools. It’d be nice if they took up the challenge.

I came across an article the other day talking about college wrestling and how Penn State was changing the face of that sport. In the past, the championships were staid affairs where matches were won by a score of 1-0 or 2-1. Participants would do everything they could to hold on to an advantage and not run the risk of giving up points. But now, Penn State’s coaches have changed all of that. They encourage their wrestlers to have fun and wrestle freely. They are not scared of giving up a few points because they know they are going to score a lot more. The results have been impressive; this year they had 5 individual champions and won the national championship for the 5th time in 6 years. They are obviously on to something.

What if we took the same approach with education? What if we stopped teaching for test results and started teaching for ever-widening experiences? What if we embodied Dewey’s axiom that education isn’t preparation for life but life itself? What if we taught kids that education was not just in the classroom, but rather before school and after school as well? My 6-year-old son can do Jiu Jitsu drills for 2 hours straight without complaint, but will often complain about having to go to school. Why is that?

Metro Nashville Public Schools are pushing the concept of STEAM with Project Based Learning as a primary element. PBL is a powerful tool and its impact was readily apparent at Metro Nashville Public Schools’ recent project fair. Kids were given a reason to get excited about education. Two problems though. One, show me a PBL project, and I’ll show you a teacher dipping into their bank account. Second, how do you execute a project and make sure you hit all the standards? One or the other is going to have to give a little. I nominate the standards or at least a modification.

Every aspect of life is not measurable and sometimes we are called upon to use skills we never knew we had. We try to quantify how ready people are prepared for life based on a period of time that is in all likelihood less then 15% of their entirety. No one will even know how successful their lives were until they reach the second part of  the “college and heaven” goal voiced at a religous school recently visited by President Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos. It’s like me with my sobriety, I could be sober for 25 years but if I have a drink the day before I die, I die a drunk.

Also like with my sobriety, we do know the practices that will increase the odds of a successful life.  For me it’s stay out of bars, don’t get too stressed, keep a good social network, etc. For kids it’s, read a lot, let the process of learning become ingrained, learn the value of work, keep a good social network, etc. Some of those lessons are learned in the classroom, some not, but we owe it to all kids to make opportunities available for them to learn all of those lessons independent of their parents fiscal or social standing.

Over the last several years writing this blog, I’ve met some of the most creative, passionate, dedicated teachers imaginable. What if instead of just focusing on test results, they were allowed to bring those skills to the classroom in a truly meaningful fashion? What if they were able to teach kids to have fun and learn freely? What if we made a variety of extracurricular and networking opportunities readily available to all kids? What if we were to allow teachers to really prepare kids for life and all the different kinds of challenges they’ll face? Now that would be education reform that I could get behind.


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