Thoughts on Schools, Jobs, and the Upcoming Generation

A few days back, I had the opportunity to take my kids to a Step Afrika performance at the UW-Green Bay campus. What a vibrant display of culture, physical fitness, and dynamite excitement! The performance was exclusively for students, and the venue seated homeschoolers together in one section. Across the aisle were public school kids and teachers. Both groups were polite audiences, and it was clear everyone had a great time.

As a bystander, it was also a fascinating social experiment. The experience offered an organic, side-by-side comparison of two large groups of students from differing educational models. Predictably, the adult to student ratio was higher among the homeschoolers. The age range of students was also greater and in general, it was a chattier crowd. The public school kids were also talkative, but less so, many of them preferring to interact with their phones until the performance commenced. At one point during the show, the leader asked the audience for a show of hands: “How many of you want to go to college?” he asked. In the public school section almost all of the hands went up. On the homeschool side, it was around a a third of the audience.

Observing the outworking of differing ideologies in the two groups sparked some thoughts about many of the interrelated issues facing our schools, business owners, and national leaders in the days ahead.

Lately, a week does not go by where I do not chat with public school parents who express a growing concern over their kids and how hard life in public school has become. The parents aren’t happy with what’s being taught, their kids are facing crushing social pressures, and on top of that, academic proficiency is low. Most of these conversations are with friends here in Wisconsin, but similar complaints are resounding across the country.

Equally hard to ignore are all “Help Wanted” ads and business owners lamenting the available workforce. Finding employees who show up and do their job is difficult; finding ones who actually show up on time and perform well borders on the miraculous.

When my dishwasher broke down this summer, the repair man was booked out four weeks. Regardless of how many hours he and his father put into their appliance repair business, they cannot keep up with demand. They are drowning in work but have to turn business away due to staffing.

Everyone from the chiropractic office to the auto mechanic down the road to a manger at our local Target tells the same story. National grocery store chains have even run ad campaigns during NFL football games aimed at attracting workers–not customers–to their stores. Despite competitive pay, job security, opportunity for advancement, and great incentives, businesses cannot find or keep employees. Even the United States military struggles to attract new recruits. It seems the grandchildren of brave men and women who served their country in the ’60s and ’70s would rather sit at home playing Call of Duty than respond to the actual thing.

Meanwhile, the parents of today’s young adults offer yet another compelling perspective. Some complain that their adult children declined further education after high school and are thus stuck in low-paying jobs, unable to afford much of anything, depressed over what their futures hold. But the more common and surprising narrative among parents of young adults is that a growing number of their college graduates are no better off! After school, these new grads find themselves living back at home, often working jobs outside of their fields, shackled by debt, bemoaning their meager salaries, long hours, and cost of living. These parents are quick to believe that their children are “worth more” than their non-college educated counterparts, but in truth, most of these kids simply hold an extremely costly piece of paper, often without any real-life experience that make them attractive to prospective employers.

Take, for example, this statistic: in 1979 the percentage of high school students that had a job at some point during the year was nearly 60%, and in 2000, 51%. Today that number is around 30%. Allegedly, high school has become more intense since then, with more expectations that take up the time in a day.

But the supposed increased rigor isn’t producing better students. Test scores nationwide are falling, with roughly 1/3rd of 4th and 8th grade students performing at or above grade level in math and reading. That means nearly two out of three students are below grade level. The real shocker is that compared to scores from 30 years ago, there has been an increase–not decrease–in these deficiencies. Over 1/3rd of high school students have failing grades in the U.S. and 4/10 have at least one D or F on their report cards. Yet the graduation rate in the U.S. is at an all-time high of over 85%.

The academic tailspin of Covid shed a stark light on the fact that teachers and school administrators are passing failing students and have been doing so habitually for years. Any number of factors are to blame, ranging from overwhelmed classrooms and inadequate resources to crumbling home lives and negative socio-economic outcomes. For one reason or another, holding kids back until they achieve proficiency has become an antiquated practice across the board in U.S. schools. More often than not, we pass students regardless of their performance.

Parents are not doing much to help matters. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center the percentage of parents who said they read to their school-aged child every day was 31%. Thanks to declining parental oversight, kids are getting less sleep and have poor diets. Parents who grew up doing regular household chores themselves are far less likely to enforce them on their own children. Instead it would seem these kids are either parked in front of a screen (average screen time for kids is between 5-7 hours per day) or commuting between school, activities, or care providers. When they are home, kids and teens have seemingly limitless boundaries, demanding leniency from mom and dad, often facing only empty threats or arbitrary consequences for poor behavior. (A simple trip to your local park will be demonstration enough.)

While it’s true that kids have always pushed boundaries, fewer moms and dads are actually parenting and cultivating stable family environments that promote healthy levels of work, play, and rest. Is it any wonder that by their high school years these kids are academically behind, detached from their families, and indifferent about both?

It’s not hard to put the two pictures side by side and see the relationship. In school, kids can either do or not do the work. They generally matriculate through the system all the same. Armed with smartphones their defunct parents pay for, these kids are shuffled through the mill of their various activities, their real-world merit or academic practicality notwithstanding. These kids grow up, obtain higher education or don’t, and then apply the same ethic they’ve been conditioned to their whole life: work hard or don’t; it doesn’t matter either way. Employers begrudgingly keep them on because it’s not worth the effort or cost to replace them.

As a both a former high school educator and now a seasoned homeschool parent, I have never put much stock in judging potential or mastery based on test scores or grade levels alone. Rather, I look holistically at the evidence, and sadly in this case, it’s clear. Our decrepit educational system coupled with parents who are asleep at the wheel has created the most apathetic, depressed, socially-confused, ill prepared, and under-literate generation our nation has ever seen.

In fairness, I believe there are excellent public school teachers, schools, and parents out there. I know many and earnestly respect them for their efforts. But the reason a recent photo of the coal miner father at a basketball game with his young son went viral is because it depicted a rarity: a father who works hard to make ends meet and still shows up for his boy at the end of the day. Unfortunately, these scenarios are becoming the exception to the rule.

It’s time Americans realize that the plummeting academic performance, the workforce crisis, and arguably the worst mental health among young adults we’ve ever seen are interrelated issues unlikely to turn around anytime soon. No amount of funding, school referendums, minimum wage increases, or waived student loans will fix the problem. In a social climate where ideas like tolerance, equity, diversity, and inclusion are plastered on the walls of our schools and employee handbooks, we need adults who will teach kids discipline, commitment, loyalty, and old-fashioned hard work, and then expect it from them.

Our kids deserve better. Our businesses need better. Our future as a leading nation hinges on whether we can innovate our broken systems and employ the now unfashionable values that served us well for generations.

The post-pandemic world we are waking up to is changing. It’s going to take sharper minds and stronger spirits to weather the global storms that lie ahead. Let’s get the next generation ready for it.

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