The Education Bottom Line Must Be Learner Empowerment

Children are empowered when they learn. That empowerment is both psychological and practical. For the building of a vibrant, free and fulfilling future for our democracy, nothing is more vital than making that kind of empowerment the focus of all our education policy.

Too often, public officials strapped for cash look for magic solutions that can solve our education quality crisis, and, wanting to feel secure in the process of magical solution seeking, look to test scores as pressure mechanisms. The logic feels easy to those in need of a substitute for the funding, administrative discipline, talent, and attention to detail, required to produce top-quality educational outcomes: numbers will force compliance with goals, and whole school systems will achieve.

But this is magical thinking. Schools don’t automatically get better because we hope they will, and pressuring schools to meet goals without the resources needed to attend to the work of meeting those goals is little more than stating our hopes with defiant alarmism.

There must be focused, visionary, coordinated attention to those details of school practice that empower students to learn.

For instance, where the average student has no one at home until after 5 pm and no safe place to play with friends, schools cannot “do better” by cutting after school programs in sports and the arts. In fact, it is precisely in underserved communities, where engaging extracurricular activities are most scarce, that public funding most urgently needs to flow to music, dance, visual arts, athletics, and after-school science and reading programs.

Developmental cognitive science shows that minds more engaged by a diverse range of intellectual and physical challenges are more focused on learning and more skillful at acquiring new information from more complex constellations of new, technical or conceptual information. Well-funded private preparatory schools, public schools in affluent neighborhoods, and major universities, all organize implicitly and explicitly around this principle. None of them would dream of degrading the quality of educational experience they offer by cutting programs that empower their students across a diverse range of disciplines.

We condemn a school to failure if we deplete or “redeploy” funding that is needed for those kind of engaged-learner skill-set-developing extracurricular programs. That money is hard to find is an indefensible argument. That an individual school or local district may lack resources is a real problem, but that states and the federal government would not be well-served to invest in education, ahead of other services, is not borne out by the facts.

Better quality education, with a broader range of opportunities and persistent access to higher education degrees, has been shown to lower crime rates in a given community, as well as increasing incomes and allowing for enhanced resilience from asset-building and open (safe) community engagement.

If we refocus funding and human attention on those elements of the educational process that provide students with opportunities for engagement, intellectual empowerment and learner-focused insight, we can break the cycle of hyper-scarce funding, low test scores and attrition—student drop-out, intellectual shut-down, teacher talent flight—that are breaking the system.

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Originally published December 17, 2012, at:

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