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John Dodig: On Education Today

John Dodig

John Dodig

John Dodig — Staples’ popular, student-empowering principal — has spent his entire career thinking about education.  He’s worked in suburban schools and city schools; he’s seen students at every point in the spectrum.  He wants the best for all of them — and for our country.

Today’s Westport News ran an op-ed piece by the principal.  He makes many salient points.  Because not every Westporter reads the paper, “06880” is reprinting Dodig’s words — and challenge — here.

Did you know that 100 years ago only algebra and geometry were needed to fulfill the mathematics requirement for admission to Harvard and Yale? A Staples student wouldn’t even think of applying to Harvard today without having at least one AP Calculus course on the transcript and probably several more (Advanced Placement Calculus AB and BC, Multivariable Calculus).

Therefore, I feel frustrated when I read or hear people make statements like: “We need major reform of our high schools” or worse “High schools aren’t as good as they used to be when I went to school X years ago.” Clearly people making these statements are not aware of how much better many high schools are than they once were.

If we were to take a trip down memory lane to the streets of any inner city in America in the evening 100 years ago, we would probably see young people hanging out on street corners, some sitting on stoops, and others simply roaming the streets of their neighborhoods. These kids weren’t home concentrating on homework. Back then, most of these kids were probably European with a sprinkling of other nationalities thrown in.

Today, strolling down the same streets, there are still kids out at night. There are still kids not doing their homework because they are roaming the streets, but now they are probably part of a broader mix of nationalities. So what has changed?

One hundred years ago, if you lived in a major urban area there was poverty and there were gangs just as there are now. Huge numbers of young people dropped out of school or graduated high school with barely a basic knowledge of reading, writing, and mathematics. Unfortunately, some of these young people eventually wound up dead. Some wound up in jail.

But many others saw the light at some point in their lives and decided to get a job in a factory. They learned a skill, joined a union, made decent money, raised a family, moved to a place like Levittown and slowly became middle class. They stayed with the company until retirement and during that time sent their children to college to become professionals.

That concept doesn’t work any more. We don’t need people trained to bolt four tires onto a car for 35 years. Robots do that. We don’t build washing machines. They are built in other countries. What, then, do those same young people do with their lives? How will they become middle class citizens?

We are asking high schools today to do what they were NEVER designed to do….to graduate EVERYONE with skills at a level never before imagined by our society. Every student now needs to be able to think critically, work in small groups to solve problems, use mathematics at a level of at least pre-calculus, demonstrate an understanding of both the physical and biological sciences, and master the art of learning because it is something they will have to continue to do for the rest of their lives.

Westport is one of several communities in America that has attracted well-educated, hard-working people who raise families in an environment where education is valued. From infancy, Westport children understand either subliminally or by clear messages from adults that in order to replicate the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, they MUST become well educated.

It is a message similar to what Japanese children, Singaporean children, and children from many other countries hear from their parents and from their societies. Our SHS students are as good and as competitive as any student in any of the countries featured in articles describing how advanced other countries are and how America is falling behind. In fact in my opinion, Westport’s children graduate with even better skills because we emphasize critical thinking, problem solving and creativity.

What is the point of my rambling, then? It seems to me that the answer to changing American education for the masses is not to revamp all high schools using one blueprint. The problem is not an educational issue as much as it is a social issue, but few of our national leaders are willing to say that publicly.

Unless the social and cultural messages children hear from birth are not changed, masses of young children will not hear what Westport’s children hear from home every day….that education is the key to success and prosperity. That it is the student’s obligation to come to school each day prepared and ready to learn.

The delivery system for creating and disseminating culture in America is well-oiled. It is powerful. In fact we export culture. Imagine if someone in this country was able to motivate the movie, television, music, and advertising industries to make education the aspiration of every young person?

Imagine what our country would be like if those millions of kids who have always been poorly educated became obsessed with the notion that being educated, going to college, and mastering the skills of life-long learning were the best ways to fame, wealth and the good life whereas pursuing a path which leads to being a basketball, football, rap, television, or movie star may not always lead to the happiest or healthiest life?

We are good at sending messages to young people. Why not this one? If we can sell video games to young people why not this message? If it worked and all kids walked into schools eager and determined to learn (as most do in Westport), the very same schools that are now being maligned would be able to accomplish what they all want to and can provide for their students.

It is something that we can do as a nation. Why not give it a varsity try on a national scale? Let’s export Westport’s drive for educational excellence throughout our great country.

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