Students should have to pass a civics test to graduate from high school

Last week the state of Arizona became the first state in the nation to require all high school seniors to pass a civics test in order to graduate.  The test would be based on the same test new immigrants are required to take in order to become a citizen.  Indiana and several other states are also considering making this a graduation requirement.  I hope the state of Alabama will make it a top priority as well.
The test is being pushed by an Arizona-based group named the Joe Foss Institute.  The Institutes stated goals if for all 50 states to require the test by 2017, the 230th anniversary of the Constitution.  There slogan is, “Patriotism Matters.”

If you’ve never seen this test it is incredibly easy.  It asks very basic questions about our history and our government.  Here are some examples:

  • What are the colors of our flag? Red, White & Blue
  • When do we celebrate our independence? 4th of July
  • Who was the first president of the United States? George Washington
  • Who is president of the United States? Barack Obama
  • Who is the governor of Alabama?Robert Bentley
  • How many senators are there in the United States Senate? 100
  • What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called? Bill of Rights
  • What are the three branches of government? Legislative, Executive, Judicial

Incidentally, that last question made the news recently when the Pew Center for Research found that 35% of adults could not ONE branch of the government.  That tells you all you need to know about the state of history and civics education in this country.  It is beyond sad.  It is scary! To be bluntly honest, if one can’t pass this test they don’t deserve to graduate from high school.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
If you have ever seen Jay Leno’s “Man on the Street” interviews or Water’s World on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News you will understand just how little some people know about the basics of history, government and current events.  Those segments are so funny but, in a way, so sad.
We want voters to know history, government and basic economics so they are not swayed by politicians during election season.  If we don’t know the basics it is easy to be manipulated by every promise and every sound bite and every commercial.
Knowing and understanding history is important because history is constantly be written and rewritten.  I always my students history is written by people and people have biases and prejudices.  Unfortunately, much of the bias in high school and college textbooks leans to the very liberal, multicultural end of the spectrum.
For instance, we know the American Revolution, Civil War and the Great Depression happened.  Those are historical facts.  When textbooks and historians start trying to explain why they happened that is where their biases start to show.  It is important to read and understand both sides of the story of historical events to be able to understand points of view and make informed decisions for oneself rather than take what a textbook or an “expert” says as the truth.

To understand the hows and the whys we must first understand the very basics.  That is why I believe this test being implemented is a good start to reemphasizing the importance of history and civics in the classroom.

Education Stat of the Week: According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, in 1969, 48% of American kids walked or biked to school.  Today, only 13% walk or bike to school.

Education Quote of the Week: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” - Winston Churchill

Education Matters- Graduation rates rise; Soft skills in decline

Just as we were getting ready to dismiss school for the Christmas Break, Governor Robert Bentley and State Education Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice held a news conference to promote the states graduation rate.  The Governor also discussed what businesses all across Alabama are hungry for from the graduates of Alabama high schools- better soft skills.

Soft skills are those things that many of us take for granted; those things we just expect people to know.  Many business leaders across Alabama and in Franklin County have taken note that students graduating from today’s high schools just don’t have them the way they used to.

So, what are soft skills?  Showing up to work on a daily basis; showing up to work on time; staying at work all day; working effectively and efficiently while at work; in short, a strong work ethic.  Soft skills also include such things as having a good attitude on the job, being able to communicate with co-workers and supervisors effectively, and strong listening skills.

Now, while I agree with Governor Bentley that the “soft skills” issue is a problem.  I’m not sure I agree with the solution.  I don’t think getting the two-year college system involved will be very effective.  If they don’t have these skills by the time they leave high school, I’m not sure a community college can reverse the trend.  It is our job in the high schools and elementary schools to make students understand that the little things make a huge difference.

If a student is habitually late for school or class, if they come to class without proper supplies (pencils, pens, paper, textbooks, etc.), if they sleep in class, if they’re disruptive and disrespectful in class then it’s very likely these same bad habits, or soft skills, will carry over to the workplace.

Studies have shown that most people don’t lose jobs because they lack in hard, technical knowledge.  They lose jobs because they are not responsible for themselves.  They don’t have the “soft skills,” which is just basically another word for responsibility and work ethic.  

I have had the opportunity to talk to a lot of CEO’s, business owners and business managers over the past two years.  All of them have told me in some form or fashion that many students coming out of high schools today do not have these skills.

One prominent local CEO told me that newly hired workers coming out of high schools didn’t know where their paycheck comes from.  He said they feel entitled to a paycheck; that they don’t have to work for it.  Unfortunately, that attitude is coming from how they acted in school and it comes to school from the home.  It is nothing more than habit.  When students feel no consequence from bad habits in schools and homes they will carry that bad attitude or bad work ethic to the workplace.  

I had another business manager tell me that they just can’t find good people to hire.  They said they may have upwards of 100 people apply for a single job but by the time the prospective hires fail drug tests and background checks they are down to only a handful of prospects.  Even then, the people who would be called in for an interview had no idea that things like tongue rings, rings in eyebrows, visible tattoos, bright colored hair and improper dress might be a turn off at the interview.

This gets me back to graduation rates.  If our graduation rates are on the rise but our “soft skills” are on the decline, what does that tell you?  It tells me that may graduation rates may be artificially inflated.  Maybe we are graduating and passing students who don’t really deserve to be passing or graduating at all just so we can show great numbers to the media and the whoever else is paying attention.  

I try to explain to my juniors and seniors on a frequent basis that when they walk off that stage at graduation there will no longer be someone there to hold their hand through every step in life.  If they don’t take responsibility for themselves and they don’t take initiative there will be real-life consequences.  

If you show up late for work repeatedly, you will be fired.  If you talk back to your supervisor, or you can’t work well with others, you will be fired.  If you are dishonest, a cheater, or unethical, you will be fired.  If you do these things through a couple jobs it will be hard to find another job.  If that happens who is going to take care of you and your family, if you have one?  

You will always be able to get a job and keep a job if you do the following things: 1) develop a marketable skill or trade, 2) be willing to ask for help, 3) show up on time, 4) stay the entire time, 5) work and play well with others, 6) work hard and do a little extra, and 7) show a little gratitude.

Education Stat of the Week: According to a Renaissance Learning study, the average book assigned at the college level for summer reading is written at a seventh grade reading level.

Education Quote of the Week: “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted.” - Garrison Keillor

Education Matters - A better education can improve your life

I’ve been fortunate to be able to write a column for local newspapers for a couple of years.  The subjects have been wide ranging from conservative political to motivational and inspirational to education.  I have settled in on education for a variety of reasons but none more so than how much education affects our daily lives, our standard of living, our relationships, our health and well-being.  I could go on an on.
It is a well established fact that the higher education level one achieves the more money one earns over the course of a lifetime.  There are exceptions to this rule but they are rare.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a high school graduate with no college can expect to earn, on average, about $35,000 per year and faces an unemployment rate of 7.5%.  Someone with a Bachelor’s degree can expect to earn, on average, about $53,000 and faces an unemployment rate of only 4.0%.  The numbers obviously get better with Master’s and Professional degrees.  Think about it this way, the person with the Bachelor’s degree stands to earn over a half million dollars more over the course of a career than the person with just a high school diploma.

I will be the first person to tell you that money can not and will not buy happiness.  But, one can’t argue the fact that it makes life a little easier.  Take your health, for instance.  According to the National Poverty Center, people with an extra four years of education had less incidences of heart diseases and diabetes.  People with only a high school education were twice as likely to report that they were in fair/poor health and used twice as many sick days than their higher educated counterparts.  They were also twice as likely to report that they smoked and almost three times as likely to report they drank excessive amounts of alcohol on a daily basis.  Naturally, these numbers would validate what the Population Reference Bureau reported- that people with an extra four years of education outside of high school lived, on average, 12 years longer.

Remember, all the numbers above are averages.  Some will be much high and some will be much lower.  I know many people who have only a high school education and have done quite well for themselves.  There’s a catch, however.  They have worked hard to develop a skill or a trade that has made themselves marketable in the workplace.  I know several people who have a four-year degree working in jobs they could’ve got right out of high school or they are unemployed waiting for someone to GIVE them a job.

If you plan to go to work right out of high school by learning and developing a skill or trade that is marketable then you are going to be much better off than a person who spends four or five years in college accumulating debt and majoring in a subject that has no value in the marketplace.  So, again, numbers can be misleading but they are good indicators.  

When we counsel young people (and, older adults changing careers) we need to be very careful in the advice we give.  We shouldn’t push everyone to a four-year college degree because it isn’t for everyone.   My advice would be this: 1) Research, research, research to find a skill/trade/career field that you are good at and one that people will willing pay you to do, 2) work to develop that skill/trade/career field to the best of your ability, 3) learn everything you can about your field and become an expert, 4) find a mentor in that field that will help you learn the ropes and navigate your chosen field, and 5) develop the soft skills necessary to be an great employee and maybe, if it is your goal, you can one day become a good employer.  (What are soft skills and why are they so important?  That is the column for next week.  Until then, remember education matters!)

Education Stat of the Week:  According to the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. ranks 25th in math and 17th in science among industrialized nations.

Education Quote of the Week: “A formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.” - Jim Rohn

Great Leadership Quotes

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." - Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philospher

"Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."- Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain

"A leader is a dealer in hope."- Napoleon Bonaparte

"You take people as far as they will go, not as far as you would like them to go."- Jeanette Rankin, first woman elected to Congress

"Great leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can accomplish."- Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."- Elanor Roosevelt

"Lead me, follow me, or get out of the way."- General George Patton

Quotes on Education by the Founding Fathers

1. Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have is this. When I have a subject in mind. I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it... the effort which I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought. - Alexander Hamilton

Three little-known facts about student loan debt

In 2010 total student loan debt passed total credit card debt.  Since then it has passed the $1 trillion dollar mark.  Once known as the ticket to to the American Dream, student loans can live with someone forever and a huge financial burden.  Here are a few facts you should know about student loan debt from the blog:

Seven Great Quotes

"We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that they are someone today." - Stacia Tauscher

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Ten leadership lessons from the IBM Executive School

Louis Mobley, the creator of the IBM Executive School was tasked to create a course to train top and mid-level managers at the technology company.  He identified ten values and attitudes that all top leaders shared. They are:

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As more and more of our lives goes online and mobile identity theft becomes more of a problem. Here are six simple online security precautions you need to take right now: