One of the issues in education that’s hard to get a handle on is connecting the dots between education and life. Children today are full of questions: “Why do I have to read that book?” “Why is math important?” “Why do I need to know Spanish or French or Mandarin Chinese?” Why do I need to pay attention?” Why? Why? Why? Save this column, because I’m going to tell you why.
All of the data quoted in this column comes from the Southern Education Foundation. SEF has been around since 1867, and education is the foundation’s thing. The foundation believes that education is the “vehicle” to a prosperous life for all students.
I’m sure many parents and grandparents are like me. We reflect on the world as we knew it when we were coming up. For example, in 1958, for every $1 a college graduate earned, a high school graduate earned 70 cents. A high school dropout could earn about 62 cents. Even in 1958, dropping out before getting to high school was bad news. They would earn less than half (45 cents) of what a college grad would earn.
That held true until about 1978. That’s when trend lines headed downward to where they sit today. For every $1 a college grad earned in 2012, high school grads earned only 49 cents, roughly what a dropout earned in 1958. If they have some college, but no degree, it’s 57 cents. If they’re a high school dropout or dropped out before high school, they made 30 cents and 28 cents respectively.
I’m sure you remember in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, after high school there were good manufacturing jobs everywhere you looked. In Bibb County, Bibb Mills was going strong and everyone wanted to get on at Brown and Williamson or Robins Air Force Base. The other avenue was the military: Some volunteered, and others were drafted.
Memories are nice, but the world of my upbringing and possibly yours does not exist anymore. Manual labor won’t get you very far. School is more important today than at any time in our history. If you have it, the doors to a successful life are open. If you don’t, hard times await.
That picture is still hard to convey to students, and adults are to blame. Many of us have spoiled our little cherubs, and they believe they are God’s gift. However, reality will at some time or the other sit on everyone’s shoulder, and we’ve done a poor job of preparing them for the world they will live in. My mother provided a roof over my head, food for my stomach and clothes for my back. But if I wanted more, I had to work and earn the money to get it. She grew up in rural Arkansas and knew the value of education.
The best exercise to teach children how school and work connect is for them to see it in action. Let them stand eight hours and work doing what you do. If you get paid by the hour, sit down and explain to them how many hours it takes to earn enough money to put gas in the car, a roof over their head and food in their belly. They won’t get it right away, but it will help them start sorting it out. They’ll soon see they would rather make that college grad dollar than the high school grad’s 49 cents. And the dropout’s meager money will be out of the question.
Teachers, principals, janitors, school bus drivers and anyone else children come in contact with during a school day can help, too. First, they need to know their students’ circumstances. Children learn better from people they know care about them. There are mornings I see young students standing outside of motels waiting on school buses. I wonder what’s their story. Do their teachers know where they live?
Unfortunately, we have more students who live in households making closer to dropout wages than college grad wages. The data is irrefutable: More than 62 percent of the state’s students in 2014 come from low income homes. I’ll write more about poverty and education in the weeks to come. It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s getting worse.
This isn’t just a Georgia problem, although it’s acute here. The majority of the nation’s public school students come from low income families. Unless we address the issues of these families, American exceptionalism will be as fleeting as our childhood memories.
Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet@crichard1020.