I know it is a tired old metaphor, but it fits the point I want to make so well: education is a three legged stool. As long as all three legs perform as intended, the stool does its job. When I was a boy, a short, three legged stool was used in the barn to sit on while milking cows by hand. If one of the legs wasn't right, the poor milker could lose his balance and find himself sitting in a gutter filled with stuff the cows didn't need anymore. Each leg fully participating was important for getting the job done without making a big mess.
Teachers, parents and students comprise the three legs of the school stool. All three must play their part well if we are going to succeed.
The state of Arkansas has committed millions of dollars to strengthening the legs on the stool. Since the teachers are the only one of the three over which the legislators have much real control, they have been getting most of the attention.
To begin with, the legislators have raised the standards for entry into the profession, thus ensuring a higher quality of beginning teachers. It upsets some administrators who claim the standards make it impossible for them to find qualified teachers, but the changes are necessary if we are going to improve this leg of the stool. We are one of the few states that not only tests new teachers for knowledge but also for performance. They must demonstrate a disposition for working with students and the ability to manage a classroom well. For teachers who are already certified but not getting the desired results, workshops on the most effective approaches are being funded and experts are being sent into their classrooms to coach them. It is an exciting time to be teaching.
Though our legislators don't have as much control over the parent leg of the stool, they are not ignoring that leg. School districts are now required to maintain a parent center. These centers are stocked with materials to help parents help their young students succeed in school. They also have resources to help parents succeed at parenting. People who staff these centers often conduct workshops on both subjects. Teachers are required to make contact with parents throughout the school year and to be available to counsel with them on the progress of their students.
Both common sense and research show that the more involved the parents are in a child’s education, the better children perform. Parents should know what is going on and computer programs such as Edline, make that possible. Edline, sponsored by the state, allows parents direct access to a student's grades, homework, and other school activities.
The student leg is the most difficult part because we are talking about motivation. Motivation cannot be legislated. Exceptional teachers can sometimes motivate reluctant students, teachers like Mr. Holland in Mr. Holland's Opus, or Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver. But, to expect all teachers to do so would be like expecting all baseball players to be an Albert Pujols. Parents have the most significant strings to pull for motivating their kids and more parents need to pull those strings.
Too few students see the connection between what they do at school and their futures. It is up to parents to constantly help them make these connections. They need to demonstrate the importance of education by helping with homework, by reading with them, by showing them how math fits in with life, or discussing current events in light of history.
So often, when families gather, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts use it as an opportunity to laugh at times when they pulled some prank on a teacher if they talk about education at all. The little ears hear this and often go off to school with mischief on their minds. How much better it would be to talk to the children about how a limited education has limited their lives, or how their education has led to success.
Pastors and youth leaders can also play an important role. Teach your young people what proper Christian behavior in the classroom would look like. Also talk to them about the importance of literacy to their faith. Christianity is a religion of The Book. This means it takes literate adherents if it is going to prosper. The Church cannot afford a generation of believers who cannot read, yet I hear way too many students declare that they hate to read. The whole community needs to work to motivate its students, because when students get a good education we all benefit.
I think most of us are a part of one or another of these three legs of our education stool. In the past we have spent a lot of time fixing blame, but in the future, let's do whatever it takes to make each leg of the stool strong.