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Teachers make the difference

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(Every year, foundations, think tanks and various other organizations produce lengthy papers detailing what‘s wrong with the state of education in our public schools and colleges, and what can be done to improve it. Yet nothing happens. Billions of dollars are spent on technology but the scores don't budge, and the same (if not more) percentage of students continue to drop out of school or take forever to graduate. The tomes that the education experts and the educational-industrial complex produce to rectify public education have one thing in common: they rarely reflect what the students themselves think! It is as if they are convinced that students aren’t capable of analyzing what’s wrong with education, yet the pundits are full of suggestions as to how to foster critical thinking among them. The irony is obvious to everyone except to the tome producers! This is the third and final article in a series on what students think is wrong with our educational system and the meaningful and practical steps that can be taken to improve it. You can read the first and the second part here and here.)

Jamie believes that what ails higher education in America is the high cost of tuition. If students can be stress-free and debt-free, their interest in mastering the subjects, and hence their scores and graduation rates, will rise. Tying learning outcomes to real-world standards and offering year-round classes will also help.

Deisy thinks that investing huge sums of money on educational technology has not matched the expectations of its proponents. Laying off teachers while installing the latest gadgets in classrooms to “improve and enhance” education has set education back. Online classes are not as effective as regular classes. In fact, for many students, online classes do not work at all. As Deisy sees it, we need to get back to the basics. While technology can help, schools should invest more on hiring good and inspiring teachers and less on hiring managers and administrators. We all lose if schools are treated as businesses. Education may have a business part to it but it can at best be secondary. As long as we focus on the true purpose of schools and colleges, which is to educate and help students develop critical thinking skills, they will do well. “If, instead, all we focus on is “innovation” through technology, there will hardly be any progress.”

Michael sees textbooks as a barrier to higher education, both in costs and content. “I have compared our community college books to texts used at San Jose State University, and they are very different in rigor and complexity. I believe community colleges don't prepare you enough for state universities. For example, most community college students don't realize how much harder universities are, that they will have to adjust so rapidly. This leads to students failing and wasting money on units that are not completed.”

Keenan is reluctant to blame teachers alone for what is wrong with our education. Most teachers are dedicated, selfless souls who contribute much to shaping minds but are poorly compensated in return. Unless students take responsibility for their own learning and motivate themselves, not much will change. “I take responsibility for my life. It saddens me to see that many of my friends look for excuses when their results do not match their expectations. Hard work and good study habits are critical.”

Eduardo doesn’t agree with the pessimistic view many hold about the American education system. “I believe our education system is outstanding compared to other countries because it gives us a lot of opportunities and a lot of financial help if we need it. There’s always a way or another in which you could receive a decent education. I have had access to good education and have received help when I needed it. Thanks to our system, I am well on my way to becoming the first person in my family to go to college and have a good carrier.”

Krithika feels that more money should be spent to increase the number of certain classes offered per semester. “Almost every semester of my community college career, I have been faced with the dilemma of filled classes, and have had to delay taking the classes until the following semester. Important classes such as the biology, physics and chemistry classes are offered every semester but each is offered only one class per semester. This is frustrating because the classes get quickly filled and there is a restriction of only about 35 students, so those who did not get the classes that semester need to wait to take it in the future. Lack of more classes forces students to extend their education at community colleges to more than two years. This creates a cyclical effect where students who have more units in a college get priority during registration and often fill up classes so that incoming students are forced to wait.”

For Gurleen, the real problem is that schools have become a chore for many, a boring place where nothing of importance happens and time and money are wasted. She is baffled by this mindset. “School is where you get to expand your mind, where you are inspired to become life-long learners. After all, education is a journey, not a destination. If we can encourage kids at a young age to love school, then they will be more willing to go to college. In community colleges, things are a little different. Students have many choices but they also are beginning to confront the harsh realities of life. The coursework itself is not challenging, but balancing work and school is. I know that over the years I’ve had to put school on the back-burner because medical expenses, bills, work, family life, et cetera, had gotten to be too much. I know this is the case with many of my peers. Unfortunately, not all teachers and colleges are accepting of that. Instead of making life easier for students, who have to juggle responsibilities, they make it harder. In 2011 I was rear-ended driving to school. The accident left me out of school for 3 weeks. I was given Fs for all my classes that semester because it was too late to drop the classes. Instead of helping me and allowing me to get Ws, the college ruined my academic history. After I recovered, I went to talk to a counselor who told me my major, nursing, was too impacted and that I should just drop out of school for a while. It is never acceptable to tell students to drop out of school, particularly when they have to miss classes due to medical reasons. Counselors nowadays are asked to see 600 students or so per semester. Because of this, they can only see students for no more than 15 minutes. If teachers, counselors and administrators become more understanding of what students have to go through day in and day out, things will improve. The graduation rate will go up significantly.”

For Garcia, the real problem lies with parents who force their children to enroll in colleges even when they are not ready, either emotionally or intellectually. “Success in community colleges is largely based on independence and determination. Students with these skills tend to be the most successful. If a student doesn’t have these traits, he or she should do something else, either a job or some kind of internship, where these skills can be developed.”

Maybelle believes that peer-to-peer transfer of knowledge is the key to success for community college students. “Students who are good with a subject should help those lagging behind. Teachers can help set up blogs or social media to facilitate these types of interaction for their classes. In this age of social media, learning from peers can really advance education and increase graduation rates.”

As Emily sees it, one of the most frustrating things in college is trying to get the classes you need. “One of the best things colleges could do would be to cut down general ed requirements. Many of these requirements are unnecessary and pre-historic. They have no relevance in the lives of students. That way we could get our degrees in two years and move on with our lives. The other thing that must be addressed is student loans. Student loans are out of control. The cost of tuition has gotten so high that many students cannot even think of attending college. My parents are well-off, but since they had to put my sister, and now me, through college, they are just about broke. College education should not be so expensive.”

For Courtney, education will improve only if the attitude of people in charge of education – teachers, counselors, deans, administrators – changes for the better. The number of caring and competent teachers and counselors are too few. Unless they learn how to address the needs of students in a caring and professional way, as opposed to indulging in favoritism and carelessness, very little in education will improve.

Danilo finds the whole system of teacher evaluation deeply flawed. “Some of my teachers in high school were flat out horrendous because they were not evaluated properly or often enough. I would end up getting discouraged because I believed my teachers were not doing a good job teaching and I wasn't learning as much as I should. It was very frustrating.” Danilo wants a more rigorous system of teacher evaluation. Even more, he wants colleges to act on the evaluations. He feels that the evaluations are only for show, just going through the motion, that colleges are not sincere about removing teachers who aren’t doing their job. “We have to remove incompetent teachers from our schools and colleges and hire the best possible teachers, irrespective of age, experience or gender. If we do that, education will progress by leaps and bounds.”

Ares believes that if teachers become more active with students, education will become more meaningful. This includes more group work assignments and informing students about their progress every week, so that remedial actions can be taken when necessary. Teachers should walk around the classroom after assigning problems and see how the students are doing, helping where help is required. Teachers should also encourage students who are ahead help struggling students. This empowers students and promotes learning. Unfortunately far too few teachers do this. They just lecture and then leave. Teachers need to become more conscientious about their responsibilities and keep up with all the new tools and techniques of teaching that have proven to work.

Christy thinks that technology can be a good educational tool but the way it is used now does more harm than good. “Everything has become so internet-based that professors have lost touch with their students and their academic goals. Teachers have started viewing their actions in the classroom as a “job”\ rather than a passion. They no longer interact or connect with their pupils. However, learning is a two-way street between the teacher and the student. Great teachers make learning a joy but unfortunately there are too few of them. Colleges should hire the best teachers because a single bad teacher can easily ruin lives. Perhaps when colleges are hiring teachers, they should include one or two student representatives to interview the teacher as well.”

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