Working as an educator for the past 30 years, as a teacher, counselor and school psychologist a major interest of mine has always been student motivation. I have had the opportunity to have worked with students from the pre-Kindergarten to twelfth grade level in school systems in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. I have been in inner city, poverty-stricken districts and affluent districts. Which means I have seen students with significant social-economic disadvantages succeed, and ones that had “everything” going for them fail.
Personally, I fit into the first category. My parents divorced when I was 2 years old, my mother was a waitress that never finished High School and my stepfather who raised me (after age 7) never went to High School. My older brother quit school in the 10th grade. No one in my family attended college so I had very little family influence to pursue any academic goals. I remember as a child my stepfather telling me to get “C’s” in school. “C’s are good,” he would say. Perhaps, because he never even achieved that when he was in school. Of course, this was when I was repeating the first grade so he was trying to get me to do better at the time. I muddled through elementary school and do not believe I started to get any career interests until Middle School. There I began taking an interest in science. It was exciting times in science and technology in the late 60’s with the moon landing, Star Trek on TV, and Jacques Cousteau exploring the ocean and I was caught up in it.
However, I still had no clue on what it would take to succeed at something in life. Fortunately, High School sports changed that. I had a freshman football coach that didn’t accept excuses, and gradually it began to sink in that if you were to get anywhere in life you had to apply effort. I also started to get the idea that if other kids could go to college and have a good career, why couldn’t I? I was just as good as them. I began applying effort to my academics as well and did go to a four-year college after high school pursuing my interest in science.
As a teacher I was always very aware of how my background related to many of my students. With the students that struggled in school, the ones that had behavior issues and applied little effort to their academics, my first question to them was always, “What do you want to do after high school?” Unfortunately, most of these students had little idea of what they wanted to do. They had no realistic career ambition. Sure a lot of students up to 9th or 10th grade would say they want to be in professional sports for a career, but again few had any idea of what that would require. They were clueless to the fact that most professional athletes are recruited out of good colleges and that passing their classes is a requirement in high school in order to be on a school team.
I have learned that the key to student motivation is a career goal. A case I witness that exemplified this was a student I had in middle and high school. “Julie” was a severely behaviorally disoriented student up through the eighth grade. She would be noncompliant with teacher requests, would be augmentative all the time and swear at teachers and staff in most of her interactions. However, in the 9th grade a light went off within her. She decided she wanted to be a veterinarian and started to take school seriously. Her behavior problems disappeared and she went from a D-F student in a special education class to an A-B student in a mainstream class, all because she now had a goal in life!
Unfortunately, many students learn this much later in life. They are ten years out of high school, perhaps not having a high school diploma and they can’t stand their hourly paid position in a fast food restaurant or retail store. The most common statement I have heard from “drop-out” alumni is, “I wish I had done better in school.” Or, “I wish I had taken school seriously.” I have never heard, “I am proud that I failed in school.”
So, what is wrong with education? We are not motivating our students or providing them with enough realistic career choices.
Not every student is going to go to a four-year college, or, should. The majority of four-year college graduates today do not find work in their majors and have huge college debts to pay upon graduation. I obviously believe in education, as I became a teacher and psychologist, however, my experience in inner city schools has taught me that 90 percent of the students do not go to or finish a four-year degree. Yet, 90 percent of the high school curriculum and emphasis is on going to a four-year college! This creates a huge educational disconnect among many students that increases behavior problems and lack of student motivation. Sure, if we continually work on student’s self-esteem issues and expose them to a number of professional career role-models that could increase the likelihood of them attending a four-year college. But, again that will not work for the majority of inner city children as they have too much negative peer and family pressures around them.
I believe education needs to be about offering choices to students based on where they are. Students do need to have realistic career options after high school. For the students that find learning difficult, that can be identified before middle school, more emphasis should be placed on vocational options. Middle and high school programs should offer vocational career exposure in addition to their mainstream academics. Career education needs to be emphasized at all grade levels (Kindergarten on up) letting students know what it takes and the difference in being (for example) a carpenter, builder, architect or engineer. Most of our public high schools are failing because they are not meeting student’s needs. Public high schools, particularly in urban districts, need to be vocational centers, teaching students real-world skills that can lead them to careers that will give them higher standards of living. I have three brothers that never went to college. One is a carpenter, one is a plumber, and one is a police officer, all have as good a standard of living as I do with my B.S., two masters and PH.D degrees.