This educator says it’s time to shake up our school system and try something different
Have you ever spent a few hours in a small windowless room? What if you were left in such a room for several days? Or perhaps several months?
How would this make you feel?
Many people would feel trapped. They’d find themselves longing for something more.
In a small, closed-off room, a window is a source of hope. For many young people who feel stuck in a life they can’t control, education is a much-needed window and source of hope.
Their classes provide them with glimpses of the many other lifestyles, cultures, and experiences they can discover.
Every child deserves such educational opportunities. Most teachers recognize this. They strive to craft classes that inspire, spark young imaginations, and allow children of all backgrounds to see the many possibilities at their fingertips.
Despite these efforts, the National Center for Education Statistics says that in 2021, “there were 2.0 million status dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24” in the U.S.
Concerned parents and educators wonder why so many American high school students are dropping out. This also leads them to ask what school officials across the U.S. must do to have more of an impact on young learners.
Julie ColesJulie Coles, an experienced educator and author has a few answers in this regard.
“Throughout my career in education I’ve was a special education teacher, classroom consultant, vice principal, and headmaster,” Coles says. “But I am currently enjoying my seamless transition to writer and author.”
Her love of writing works in tandem with her deep appreciation for all things educational.
Coles says, “Having a fondness for thinking about, and implementing, innovative ideas to improve the quality of education, retirement has afforded me the time to write about new ideas for rebuilding America’s public education system.” Students who demonstrate impressive resilienceDuring her time as an educator, Coles worked hard to motivate her students. She also found that they inspired her.
“One student, who was diagnosed with diabetes and other medical complications associated with diabetes, required hospitalizations or home-care that led to lengthy absences from school,” Coles explains. “Having the ability to reserve her seat throughout each absence and provide home tutoring services, as needed, she succeeded in her determination to remain in school. What was truly amazing and deeply challenging was each physical, mental and emotional conquest she and her family endeavored to achieve throughout her tumultuous ordeal. The ability to concentrate on her education while participating in a grueling weight loss program, and also learning new routines to manage her diabetes was a true display of her personal resiliency.” When life exerts undue pressure on young learnersOther students faced complex emotional turmoil.
The alternative education program in my school welcomed a diverse population of young adults,” Coles says. “It was common for many to arrive with medical, emotional, social and family support issues. So often the real challenge for the entire staff was balancing the pressing demands of so many of our students’ lives beyond school with efforts to educate them.”
These youngsters had weighty responsibilities and stressors that children aren’t typically expected to shoulder.
She and her fellow educators tried to convince these students that in spite of life’s turmoil, focusing on school would be good for them in the long run.
Coles laments, “But too often it was difficult conveying the benefits of working hard and appreciating delaying gratification to needing relief from a current situation and the difficulty of refraining from being tempted by immediate gratification.
Why some students quit
She saw many students quit school, and she says it became clear why they chose to do so.
“Students who grow up in improvised neighborhoods and receive substandard education are at greatest risk of quitting. While many students are resilient or receive unyielding support of parents – mentors – positive influencers and others who regularly encourage them to remain in school, there are many who do not prevail,” Coles says.
In addition to not having basic needs met, some students feel that if they’ve failed in the past, they’re likely to fail again. This outlook is bleak, and they’d rather avoid it.
“Repeated academic failure is one of the greatest causes of students quitting school. For so many students having to experience ongoing cycles of failure is one of the greatest deterrents. Those who attend school on a regular basis, sit in classes making a sincere effort to understand what is being taught only to have their effort rewarded with failing grades understandably reach the conclusion there is little chance of me succeeding,” Coles says.
Anyone’s self-esteem would take a hit if wrestled with tough concepts that they just couldn’t seem to grasp, while colleagues seemed to have no problem understanding the new ideas.
“And we wonder how so many students develop apathy about attending school,” Coles says. “Think of it as being one of many passengers standing at the platform at the train station. When the train departs and the majority of passengers, or in this case one’s classmates, have boarded the train but you did not. Similar to passengers remaining behind while watching others board the train and then depart, many students are left behind because they feel totally clueless about what was shared during a lesson.”
But this situation need not continue, according to Coles.
She says there is a solution.
“School districts that promote school autonomy by placing responsibility into the hands of truly qualified and dedicated school leaders, is one of the most positive changes I had the pleasure of experiencing as a school leader,” Coles says. “When school leaders, staff members and a school-based governing board are free to assess and address the needs of the school, they have a greater chance of being taken seriously.”
Coles feels that while every school’s profile includes aspirations of achieving academic success, these aspirations may be hampered by restriction of districts that require uniformity of policies, teaching practices, allocation of funds, selection of curriculum and other educational resources that typically overlook the real needs of the student population.
Coles led an autonomous school, an experience that expanded her perspective on what student’s actually need and how those needs can be met.
How helpful are suspensions, expulsions, and failing grades?
One key change that Coles feels needs to be made in schools are very specific uses of shame as disciplinary and even motivating techniques. They’ve been used so often over the years that they’ve become synonymous with the American education system.
Coles names the techniques and suggests what should be done with them, saying, “All public schools should refrain from assigning failing grades, suspensions and expulsions.”
She adds, “Removing students who endanger the safety of themselves, or others is the one exception. But please, let’s dispense with calling it expulsion and respond in a more humane way. There’s no shame in needing counseling support. If the behavior is at the extreme level requiring psychiatric intervention, students would be better served receiving counseling services in a different facility while continuing their education.”
Coles believes that discontinuing the practice of assigning students a failing grade is fair because the students are not responsible for educating themselves.
She says, “Schools need to adopt the practice of errors being seen as revelations related to learning or instructional gaps. Detecting gaps in learning could be remedied with an educational plan. Providing additional instruction or a different method of instruction will lead to improved performance outcomes.”
She added, “But if absences, refusal to participate or make an effort during lessons results in students needing to be held accountable, receiving a No Credit (NC) will allow the student to take the course over again without enduring double jeopardy; particularly for high school students where transcripts are consequential in determining the fate of students with aspirations of attending college.”
Coles points out that the current system fails to consider the extreme changes in judgment students make between their freshman year and their junior or senior year.
“Failing grades due to poor judgment during their first year in high school should not be allowed to hinder their future aspirations,” she explains. “The maturational process over a four-year period needs time to develop. Retaking a class until a passing grade is earned is a more valuable lesson than assigning a failing grade.”
Coles says this is because most freshmen use entirely different judgment by the time they become juniors and seniors.
Help teachers, so teachers can help students
Coles also feels teachers require more school-based professional development training support. One of her most recent books, Cultivating Exceptional Classrooms, addresses her concern that schools need the support of parental and community-based organizations that can help promote equitable access to quality education for students.
Coles points out that teachers achieving proficiency in the planning of lessons that actively engage students in learning, delivering quality instruction, and advancing use of technology and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) programs are needed in public schools currently lacking quality educational resources.
Coles says, “I hope students reading this article will get that is their right to receive an education that places greater emphasis on supporting the learning process and less emphasis on grades earned. Students can work collectively to request participation on school governing boards or request the establishment of a school governing board.”
In her experience, school based governing boards are more likely to engage in discussions about proposed policy changes.
She advises high school students to keep in mind that they can request an opportunity to examine Grade Point Averages (GPA) policies, saying, “Transcripts should allow for some grace in the early years of every high school student. Instead of GPAs being reflective of the times of not having used one’s best judgment, college admissions staff should have their attention drawn to the entire transcript to appreciate growth in maturity, usually reflected in the ascension of grades as well as the increased volume of passing grades.”
Coles adds, “In fairness to most freshmen, many are never made aware of the GPA system prior to entering high school. But the ones who discover what a transcript is and how the GPA system works when they meet with a high school guidance counselor for the first time are at a major disadvantage if the meeting occurs during their sophomore year.”
“We need a system that allows students to opportunity to grow,” Coles says. “Focusing on transcripts as an opportunity to rehabilitate their learning habits to improve their GPA instead of experiencing debilitating moments that will negatively weigh against them in later years will fuel a student’s motivation to not abandon their education.”
Coles doesn’t want any student to be left in a figurative small, windowless room. Instead, she hopes school systems across the nation will adjust standards to ensure every child has a window or educational source of inspiration and hope. To learn more about Coles’ proposed changes to school systems, visit www.imagineamorepromisingfuture.com