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We are all responsible for making education better

“No excuses.” It’s a motto teachers across Mississippi post in their classrooms to show how serious they are about their students’ education. In a state where only 70 percent of students graduate from high school and just 40 percent of young adults have enrolled in college, a good teacher cannot accept any excuse for mediocrity.

The excuses children offer for why they didn’t do their homework or study for their tests are varied and predictable: The dog ate my notes; I was tired after the basketball game; I didn’t realize we had a test!! In low-income school districts, the excuses are more poignant: My baby kept me up all night; I had to work late; The lights in my house got cut off.

The adults I encountered in my two years of teaching English in Greenville — politicians, fellow teachers, parents who send their children to private school, parents who send their children to public school — routinely provided the same two excuses for the state of education in Mississippi’s public schools: The kids don’t want to learn, and the parents don’t care.

Whatever the excuse, a good teacher knows not to take it. But while it is easy enough to teach children not to blame their low grades on their pets or coaches or family situations, getting adults to embrace the “no excuses” mantra is a lot harder. We all really seem stuck on the idea that lack of motivation, on the part of both students and parents, is the reason our schools are failing.

They do care, but they don’t know how to care in a way that will help them succeed in school and in life. Too many Mississippi children think that being a good student means having clear handwriting and being nice to the teacher and staying out of trouble. Not enough of them understand that to be outstanding students who become valuable employees and productive citizens, they must ask questions, read for pleasure, and follow current events.

And of course parents care about their children’s education. The parental instinct to want what’s best for your child does not disappear when your income drops below the poverty line. But just like their children, many parents do not know how to demand an excellent education from their neighborhood schools. I encountered parents who wanted me to call them every night with a report on their child’s behavior. If executed, this plan would only have brought frustration to everyone involved. But parents suggested it because they did not know any other way to develop a relationship with their children’s teachers.

We need to take the natural motivation that students and parents already feel and put it to better use. Instead of teaching students to be obedient, schools should encourage them to be inquisitive. Teachers should develop methods of communicating with parents, including issuing detailed progress reports and conducting regular in-person conferences, to promote meaningful relationships with their children’s caregivers. In too many cases, the impediment to success is not a lack of motivation, but an inability to channel it in an effective way.

But let’s say the conventional wisdom is correct. Let’s say the majority of students and parents don’t care about education. Even if this is true, we cannot accept this fact as a fixed, unchangeable excuse for why our schools are failing. We must explore why some Mississippians are not invested in our state’s school system, and then fix it.

In an excellent school system, students, along with their parents, have a host of reasons to believe in the importance of education. The most obvious reason to care about school is because attaining a high level of education allows a person to have a brighter future. But there are also day-to-day factors that make school worthwhile. In an excellent school district, students relish going to school because it is a place where they can play on the soccer team or act in the school play or be editor-in-chief of the yearbook.

Unfortunately, in so many of Mississippi’s underperforming districts, schools do not offer the opportunities that make students and their families care about school. Students graduate from high school unprepared for college or good jobs, making a diploma seem worthless in many children’s eyes. And many Mississippi public schools lack the non-academic, extracurricular activities that make students in highly achieving districts excited to go to school every day.

We tell children and parents that they are supposed to care about education, yet we present them with schools that do not adequately prepare them for life on the streets or in the workplace, schools that do not offer students the opportunity for daily enrichment and exploration. Why should they believe in the importance of an education when the education they are provided with is so poor?

It is the job of lawmakers and community members alike to make all Mississippians care about education. This starts with raising the standards for graduation, so earning a high school diploma will actually mean something. It seems counterintuitive to make it tougher to graduate when Mississippi’s graduation rate is already so low. But if students thought their high school diploma could get them somewhere, that having one means being able to go to an excellent college instead of a mediocre one, that they could get a job that pays more than minimum wage, they would have more of an incentive to stay in school.

Mississippi has already started the process of raising standards by making standardized tests more rigorous. But the department of education must go further by ensuring the tests encourage deep, critical thinking rather than a simple regurgitation of facts and concepts. As they stand now, the tests reward memorization over analysis, and until they start requiring students to think for themselves, we will continue to graduate students who can follow directions instead of citizens who can solve problems.

The Children First Act, a set of recommendations released by a 15-person task force late last year, will also help communities take more ownership of their schools. One of the act’s provisions requires schools to publish student achievement data, including graduation rates and test scores, in local newspapers. This information will enable parents to see just what kind of an education their district is providing, and will provide them with the power to protest when their schools are not performing.

But the burden of inspiring our students and their parents to care about education does not fall only on the shoulders of state officials. Communities can help in a variety of ways: Local businesses can provide internships to local public school students, showing them what kind of jobs will be available if they commit to their education. Retirees or other residents with flexible schedules could volunteer to direct a school play or advise the student newspaper. Churches and other houses of worship can raise money to buy challenging books for their local schools.

Even communities that already have excellent schools can help as well. One of the greatest problems in low-performing school districts is that many parents and students do not know what a good school looks like, as they have never been part of one themselves. Excellent school districts can provide struggling ones with suggestions for what makes a great school; they can even arrange tours of their schools to show parents how an excellent school runs.

We are all responsible for making everyone in Mississippi care about education. No excuses.

Eleanor Barkhorn taught high school English in Greenville for two years. She is now a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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