put kids first

Punishable by Death: The Quest for Literacy

The concept of basic literacy is taken for granted across much of the civilized world today — but there are still corners of the world where the simple ability to read and write are reserved only for an elite few. Most recently, young girls and women in such countries as Pakistan and Afghanistan have been killed, shot and threatened for simply seeking, or supporting, literacy rights.

Restricting the right to education is not a new concept, and has been used by groups in power for centuries. The Catholic Church prevented the Bible itself from being translated into the tongues of the common people for centuries, and celebrated mass in Latin only until the Reformation.

This was a deliberate effort on the part of the Catholic Rulers to prevent the education of the common folk since they could not read the Bible for themselves and were forced to depend on the clergy to provide instruction for their daily lives. An uneducated populace is easily ruled.

This is also what prompted James Madison to write centuries later: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

Of course, in the newly formed United States, the same form of control and persecution existed. Many states had specific laws prohibiting the education of “persons of color.” The state of Georgia penal code read:

“Punishment for teaching slaves or free persons of color to read. — If any slave, Negro, or free person of color, or any white person, shall teach any other slave, Negro, or free person of color, to read or write either written or printed characters, the said free person of color or slave shall be punished by fine and whipping, or fine or whipping, at the discretion of the court.”

Across the water in the British Isles, the English passed injunctions against the teaching of children by those of the Roman Catholic faith, mandating that all Irish children must be taught in English-sponsored schools by Anglican teachers, in order to convert the youth of Ireland away from “the popish faith” and make them more amenable to Protestant rule.

As late as 1825, the Protestant hierarchy petitioned the King, saying:

“amongst the ways to convert and civilise the Deluded People, the most necessary have always been thought to be that a sufficient number of English Protestant Schools be erected, wherein the Children of the Irish Natives should be instructed in the English Tongue and in the Fundamental Principles of the True Religion.”

In every case of education prohibition, the end goal was to repress a certain demographic, preventing them from becoming literate and gaining the potential to throw off oppression. Today, the primary groups of people being denied the opportunity to obtain education are female, and the perpetrators in most cases are patriarchal religious leaders. To such leaders, educated women are a threat. Preventing them from learning to read or write also prevents them from becoming independent, and maintains the status quo.

On July 4, 2012, an activist named Farida Afridi was shot and killed at the age of 25. Farida promoted women’s rights and education in Pakistan. On Oct. 9, 2012, a young teenaged girl named Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head on a bus, for daring to attend school in the same country. Another Pakistani girl, Hina Khan, has since received death threats for attending school and speaking out for education rights.

In Afghanistan, female children attending the Zabuli Education Center (the only girls’ school for miles around) must wait until the school administrators test the well water for poison before getting a drink. Another school located in Kabul was targeted with over 100 hand grenades, and girls in the city have been sprayed with acid.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as many African countries, do not depend solely on government support for the non-education of women; in many areas the prevailing religion dictates that women remain secluded, illiterate and firmly subjugated. Organizations aimed at improving female education must battle not only government interference but religion driven political organizations, like the Taliban.

According to policy brief titled “Empowering Women, Developing Society: Female Education in the Middle East and North Africa“:

  • As female education rises, fertility, population growth, and infant and child mortality fall and family health improves.
  • increases in girls’ secondary school enrollment are associated with increases in women’s
    participation in the labor force and their contributions to household and national income.
  • Women’s increased earning capacity, in turn, has a positive effect on child nutrition.
  • Children — especially daughters — of educated mothers are more likely to be enrolled in school and to have higher levels of educational attainment.
  • Educated women are more politically active and better informed about their legal rights and how to exercise them.

Access to education and literacy rights continue to be a matter of concern across the globe, as non-compliant countries continue to use non-education as a tool to subjugate large percentages of the population. Breaking this trend is the fastest and most effective way to raise up not only the groups targeted by such restrictions, but to improve the economy and health of the geographical regions thus affected.

Why The U.S. Education System is Failing: Part I

Once upon a time, enthusiasts designed a formal education system to meet the economic demands of the industrial revolution. Fast forward to today and, with the current global economic climate, it seems apparent that the now established education system is unable to meet the needs of our hyper-connected society – a society that is in a constant state of evolution. This blog series aims to examine the problems preventing the U.S. education system from regaining its former preeminence. I would love to hear your reactions to each piece. Without further ado, let’s begin.

Lack of parental involvement. Of all the things out of the control of teachers, this one is perhaps the most frustrating. Time spent in the classroom is simply not enough for teachers to instruct every student, to teach them what they need to know. There must, inevitably, be some interaction outside school hours. Of course, students at a socio-economic disadvantage often struggle in school, particularly if parents lack higher levels of education. But students from middle and upper class families aren’t off the hook, either. The demands of careers and an over-dependence on schools put higher-class kids at risk too when it comes to the lack of parental involvement in academics.

School closures. It’s been a rough year for public schools. Many have found themselve on the chopping block quite literally. Parents, students and communities as a whole feel targeted, even if school board members are quick to blame unbiased numbers. There is no concrete way to declare a winner in these cases, either.There is no formula for determining right or wrong. There are times when a school closing is simply inevitable but communities should first look for other solutions. Instead of shuttering underutilized public schools – icons of the community – districts should consider other neighborhood uses. Maybe a community center. Maybe adult education classes. Maybe a cooperation agreement with a local college that opens up the building for paid courses. Maybe even a health center, or location for other district office space. Closing public schools should not be a short-sighted procedure. The decision should look beyond immediacy, and 10-year plans. The decision should focus on the only investment that really matters: a quality public education for all our nation’s children.

Overcrowding. The smaller the class, the better the individual student experience. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14 percent of U.S. schools exceed capacity. At a time where children need more attention than ever to succeed, overcrowded classrooms are making it even tougher to learn and tougher still for teachers to be effective.

Screen culture. I am an advocate for technology in the classroom. I think that by ignoring the educational opportunities that technology has afforded us puts kids at a disadvantage. That being said, screen culture overall has made the jobs of teachers much more difficult. Education has become synonymous with entertainment in many ways. Parents are quick to download educational games as soon as kids have the dexterity to operate a touch screen, and with the best of intentions. The quick-hit way that children are learning academics before and during their K-12 careers makes it even more difficult for teachers to keep up in the classroom setting, particularly since each student’s knowledge base and technological savvy varies.

Lack of diversity in gifted education. The “talented and gifted” label is one bestowed upon the brightest and most advanced students. Beginning in early elementary grades, TAG programs separate student peers for the sake of individualized learning initiatives. Though the ideology is sound, the practice of it is often a monotone, unattractive look at contemporary American public schools. District schools need to find ways to better recognize different types of learning talent and look beyond the typical “gifted” student model. The national push to make talented and gifted programs better mirror the contemporary and ever-evolving student body is a step in the right direction. Real change happens on a smaller scale though – in individual districts, schools and TAG programs. That progress must start with understanding of the makeup of a particular student body and include innovative ways to include all students in TAG learning initiatives.

Well that is the end of part of on my series. Stay tuned for par II and remember to comment.

Computer Science in K-12 Classrooms Needs to Catch Up

It’s estimated that in the next decade the number of computer science jobs in the U.S. will outnumber qualified people by 1 million. That’s 1 million jobs for the taking that Americans will miss out on because of inadequate skill sets. Despite this, only 10 percent of K-12 classrooms have computer science programs. So what gives?

The Problem

Traditional subjects like English and math receive a lot of play time in K-12 classrooms and they are considered “building blocks” for other subjects, like computer science. So when a high school senior decides to seek out a college degree in English, or mathematics, he or she has a general idea of what to expect in the classes that follow. The same can be said for arts-based topics, like the visual arts or music. Feasibly a young person accepted to college for those topics has had several years of training in it and plans to build on that base knowledge.

The same is not necessarily true for computer science majors. If only 10 percent of schools are teaching computer science courses (and we don’t know how extensive those programs may be), then it’s a safe bet that many of the kids entering those college classes have no idea what to expect. Or even worse – young people who may show promise in computer science never realize their potential because there is never a primer class to alert them to it. Despite its prevalence in the “real world,” computer science classes on K-12 campuses are not much changed from a decade or two ago.

There is also the slow nature in which K-12 schools, especially public ones, adopt new technologies. Classroom computers are nothing new but the science behind today’s careers is constantly evolving. It is difficult for classrooms to find the resources to keep up with the changing face of computer science. In some cases, by the time a particular technology is obtained or curriculum purchased, it is already on its way out the door as being considered cutting-edge. It can feel overwhelming, and frustrating, and this red tape keeps technology from reaching students’ hands in a reasonable time frame.

The Solutions

To meet the computer science job demand, K-12 schools will need help from outside partners. This could come in the form of area businesses willing to donate needed technology to make more classes happen or curriculum partnerships with groups like Code in the Schools. If every computer science classroom tries to re-invent the wheel, a lot of time and resources are wasted. So asking for help is the first step.

There also needs to be a larger focus on computer science at a younger age. This does not just mean computers and mobile devices available in K-12 classrooms but should include lessons on the “how” of the technology. The site Code.org has basic coding activities for children as young as Kindergarten – so teachers should be taking advantage of these resources. Waiting until middle or high school is simply too long to wait to spark an interest in K-12 students in computer science.

Finally, special attention should be paid to getting young women interested in computer science learning. Research tells us that girls are just as adept as boys at learning STEM topics, computer science included, but their interest tends to drop off in late elementary or middle school. Knowing this, educators should make sure girls are exposed to the same computer science learning as boys and encouraged through organizations like Girls Who Code. It may still take a generation to get to the point where young women feel completely comfortable seeking out computer science opportunities, so in the meantime support systems need to be there.

What solutions would you suggest for the lack of computer science in K-12 classrooms?

Read all of our posts about EdTech and Innovation by clicking here. 

The Japanese Philosophy of Kaizen and U.S. School Reform

Education may very well be the single most important ingredient in allowing a person to achieve success in life. The ascendancy of each individual defines the prosperity of our society; school reform is the backbone of a continuously developing education system. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” Education is a continuous process of converting information into knowledge that can help students develop and explore further information.

In order to learn, a student must take new information and process it in a way that relates it to what is already known, and in the process form a newer, deeper understanding of the material. Just as learning involves changing one’s understanding of concepts and ideas over time, social phenomena such as education must also be subjected to ongoing scrutiny, evaluation, and change. It is necessary to recheck policies and practices upon which education systems are based, and continually strive to make improvements.

Constantly improving

The Japanese have a philosophy of continuous quality improvement called “kaizen,” which they apply to many areas of their life. Kaizen is the idea that one does not need to wait for something to be broken in order to fix it. Rather, one should always look for opportunities to improve upon current processes, making things incrementally better as time passes. This drive for continuous improvement should apply to our educational system; we need to constantly be striving to make things better, reevaluating how we do things, looking at the results we are achieving, and taking steps to improve things incrementally.

In the same way that kaizen theory speaks to improving life in general, we should apply the same principles to U.S. K-12 education. We must consider ways in which our educational system can and should grow, change, and continuously improve in ways to best serve our children. In order for the United States to continue to progress toward a knowledge-based society, it is necessary to reform and streamline our education system to enable the development and assimilation of information as knowledge. Our schools are the primary institutions to facilitate transference and conversion of information into students’ knowledge base. It is our duty to keep a watchful eye on the schooling processes, and to change educational policies and practices to ensure improvement.

Reform, or consistent improvements?

Over the past century, many reforms have taken place throughout the U.S., and on a continuing basis. Despite the constant need for change, very few, if any, of these reforms really made their way to the school level. Most of the initiatives that led to reform originated from dynamic leaders who were capable of implementing these changes in an extraordinary fashion, despite the presence of various radicals in strong opposition to these changes. However, as soon as the leaders moved on to their next challenge, these radical individuals returned to their old ways. The reform was diminished, and eventually there remained no trace of it.

Study after study has shown that the American educational system is not just in need of regular, continuous quality improvement. Something very different is needed since the system is in a state of fundamental disrepair. Our children are performing poorly compared to other developed countries. Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are performing even worse.

Whether you believe that continuous improvement is good for our educational system or not, what is certain is that our educational system needs to change. Rather than always calling for radical reform when the numbers don’t work in our favor, always striving for improvement and never letting our classrooms become comfortable is a better route to K-12 success.


Year-Round Schools: How it Affects Teachers

In my last post, I talked about the ways that students are impacted when they are on a year-round school schedule, instead of having traditional summers off. Today, I want to look at another group impacted by a break from the typical summer-break school calendar: teachers. Does a lack of a season of rejuvenation for educators lead to burnout in the classrooms – and how is pay impacted? Let’s take a look at these, and other implications, of year-round academic calendars and teachers. In this article, we will discuss how year-round schools affect teachers.

No Summers Off

Every job comes with its share of headaches and at one point or another, employees in all industries claim that they are “burned out.” Teaching is unique when it comes to burn out, though, because an unmotivated, exhausted teacher has a direct effect on the young people in his or her classroom. Summers off has long been the light at the end of the tunnel for teachers, particularly in urban areas with higher discipline problems and overcrowded classrooms. In a year-round setting, lengthy breaks are gone, replaced with shorter, more frequent ones instead. Though the loss of those summer months may at first seem like a drawback, many teachers end up liking greater frequency in time off. With shorter, more concentrated spurts of instruction, teachers can exert more energy and face the daily struggles with the hope that there will be relief soon. There is still as much time off, but it is more evenly distributed.

More Red Tape

Teachers who work at multi-track year-round schools, or schools that rotate student schedules so time off is staggered and the school is always open, have more work to do. Part of the financial allure of a multi-track schedule is that a school is always at full capacity which means that teachers share classrooms. “Roving” teachers have to live from carts or temporary storage in some cases in order to make their classrooms accommodating to other teachers. There are also cases where a teacher may not get the allotted time off because he or she is changing a grade level or subject and there is no time off between tracks.

Single-track setups feasibly have less of the issues of multi-track schools but there are still some conflicts, particularly if the teachers are parents too. If their children go to a traditional schedule school, their breaks may not line up and could lead to childcare issues.


In most scenarios, teachers make the same amount of money in their districts whether they work at a year-round or traditional school, though the pay schedules may differ. Teachers who made extra money teaching summer school still have that option in year-round districts that offer remedial courses during break periods. Where some teachers see the biggest economic cut when they teach year-round is in the three months of summer that other teachers often seek out part-time or seasonal work.

Based on the type of work, this could mean a loss of income in the thousands every year. For teachers satisfied with holding down just one job and paycheck, a year-round schedule may not have any economic impact on their families at all.

Research has not found any large negative effects on teachers who teach on year-round schedules instead of traditional ones. Like any profession, the preferable schedule depends on the individual. For veteran teachers who have been teaching in a traditional setup for years, a switch to year-round schooling may be more jarring than a newly-licensed teacher. Overall, though, the job and time off are comparable – just different.

What pitfalls do you think teachers on year-round schedules face?