Placing a Value on Education
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Why has the high school dropout rate been such a great, persistent problem? Why do 1.3 million students drop out of high school annually? Why are there so many high school dropouts, especially in African American and minority communities, even as, generally speaking, education opportunities abound? I believe both the cause, and the solution to the dropout problem can be summed up in one word—values.
As individuals and as a society, we tend to invest our most precious resources into those areas deemed most important to us. Our personal resources to which we ascribe the highest value and worth—life, money, time, family, passions, energy, etc.—are typically invested in places where we put the highest priority. Families who value sports spend a great deal of time, money, energy and passion in sports. What we value usually receives the best we have to offer.
The humbling but hard truth is that, for thousands of students across the country, education has never been a true value and priority for them, their parents, or for other adults responsible for raising these students. Moreover, during their life spent outside of a school building, these students rarely think, observe, interact and otherwise experience life within inspiring, encouraging environments where education and a quest for knowledge are valued, let alone the highest priority. On the contrary, when we observe the uninspiring environments to which many students are normally and naturally exposed, we learn that everything but education and learning is being promoted.
To more fully comprehend what is transpiring with many low-performing and non-performing students during school hours where they spend one-third of their day, we must give critical thought to those mind-altering, values-defining, life-shaping environments where youth and students are spending two-thirds of their day. Many students spend two-thirds of their day receiving the message that an education is not important. This causes students to in effect rationalize, “Why would I invest so much of my time, energy, passion, money, effort, on this boring, meaningless enterprise otherwise known as learning? “
In short, many youth are failing academically and dropping out of school because, to them, learning has no value and thus no relevancy. Therefore, many of them are not even trying to compete and succeed academically. It’s not that they lack capacity—they lack interest. How often does anyone actively pursue an endeavor which they deem unimportant and irrelevant? Our values determine where we will, and will not, invest our most precious resources.
How do we raise the consciousness around the value of education so that students and families will make the investments of time, energy, passion, and effort necessary to study, learn, excel and graduate? Listed below is a five-point strategy to seed education as a value, build a culture of learning and increase graduation rates:
- Teach Character Traits and Skills for Living —Those who are serious about inspiring and motivating students to value education, thrive in school and graduate from high school will be intentional about teaching students bedrock character traits and life skills that lead to lives of purpose, hope, success, meaning, and personal fulfillment. Before we can teach youth to truly value education and learning, we must teach them how to value and appreciate their lives. This requires a thorough, in-depth teaching of character traits and values, those internal endowments that govern and regulate our thoughts, actions, decisions, attitudes, reactions and choices. While many students have great specific skills (computers, singing, dancing, rapping, etc.), many of them lack the most important skills of all: skills for how to live successfully. As a result, they engage in conduct that leads to arguments, suspensions, expulsions, incarceration, drug addictions, fighting, dead ends, and even death. Teaching and training in such bedrock character traits as self-love, self-discipline, respect for self and others, industry, resilience, fortitude, and hope can change not only academic outcomes but actually, transform lives. Character is destiny. Successful people tend to have learned invaluable character traits that advance academic and career achievement and personal fulfillment. Yet, many students and individuals who drop out of school and experience continuous failure in life have never been taught these precious character traits. Indeed, many students are not even aware that these transformative internal endowments exist. There are certain endowments that are inextricably linked to success—students who lack these character traits often experience failure…and not only in high school but in life. There are character traits linked to a general “dropping out” mentality and heart set. This means, dropping out of high school is just one of many otherwise important endeavors out of which they quit or drop out.
- Teach an “education on an education” and Provide Academic Enrichment —failing students must be systematically taught an education’s value and must be taught the skills necessary for academic success. Low-performing students need a fundamental “education on an education.” This means dedicated time must be given to instructing youth and parents on WHY an education is such a big deal. This will help raise the consciousness and increase understanding of an education’s value. Moreover, these students must be equipped with the skills successful students possess. These classes will teach students how to study, take notes, prepare for tests, do homework assignments, and prepare home or after school study environments. Provide classes specifically designed to teach and train students how to be good students and how to excel and comport themselves in the school environment. These sessions will also teach students WHY these lessons and behaviors are so important and what will happen if they are not used.
- Provide personal counseling—Provide high-touch, one-on-one personal and academic counseling to African American students—and to their parents! Effective counselors can reach the heart and head of students and make an impact and inspire transformation and attitudinal and behavioral change where others have failed. Yet, in many schools and states, many low-performing students rarely receive sorely needed counseling because the severely high student-to-counselor ratios do not allow this counseling to occur. During a time when students on the verge of dropping out need counseling more than ever, they rarely have access to these precious resources.
- Establish a culture of academics—Communities and groups outside of school should work collaboratively and strategically with schools to help foster a culture of education and learning in the spaces outside of school where students spend two-thirds of their day. Athletic leagues, organizations, churches, and other community groups must be intentional and purposeful about building ancillary learning environments, emphasizing academics and teaching youth and families the value and importance of education. When students are outside of school, churches, youth groups, skating rinks, etc. must not only echo and reinforce the message that school is important but should also reward and highlight academic success. These after-school experiences must reemphasize to youth and families why education is important and also teach them how to listen, learn, dress, study, be respectful to teachers and peers, and how to use situation-appropriate behavior. Groups outside of school must consistently send messages to students and parents that an education and learning are a community value, not some meaningless “while-I’m-in-school” exercise which has no real importance and relevancy outside of school.
- Provide caring accountability coach—For each failing and troubled youth, try to identify one caring adult the student sincerely respects, or who is interested in working with youth. Establish a relationship where that respected adult agrees to show his or her care for the youth by holding the youth accountable for their school work, conduct, and decisions. Youth need genuine caring and concern from an outside source to reinforce, affirm and remind the youth of their value and potential for success. The caring adult essentially takes this position to the youth: “I care about you and how you are doing; therefore, I will be checking in on you next week to see how you are doing on that assignment. Getting individuals and institutions to place a value and emphasis on education and learning will help change youth behavior and outcomes.
Dennis Bland is president of the Center for Leadership Development, an Indianapolis non-profit organization dedicated to empowering African American youth for the highest academic, college and career success. Founded in 1977, CLD offers sixteen curriculum-based youth development experiences.