(Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)

Then I considered the collection of successful, innovative people who have never completed college, such as Joel Osteen, pastor of what Oprah Winfrey calls the “largest, most diverse church in America.” Winfrey even told a man in her Master Life Class audience with Osteen: “You don’t need a college degree! Get in there and do the job…that you need a degree is something you’re hung up on…” She told him to google Bill Gates and other successful individuals who succeeded without a college degree.

But my own experiences tutoring and teaching in public schools had suggested otherwise. Education matters, and formal education makes a difference, particularly when you’re entrusted to make decisions for tens of thousands of school children.

I had a conversation with some family members in the area to get their thoughts. “Jesus didn’t have a degree!” my sister T.N. Tate laughed after we discussed the issue for about a half hour.

“They probably didn’t have colleges back then!” I snapped back. Jesus did his church work outside the church, and some would argue that individuals without traditional degrees are best-suited for work in non-traditional settings. I would argue that it was the church’s loss to have kept Jesus out.

“I think we need to stop discrediting each other,” my sister said. “We can’t discount the one who has life experience or look at those with college degrees as gods of expertise.”

I told her what I discovered teaching in classrooms in our hometown. I had tutored at Coolidge and Ballou High Schools in The District, then was assigned — by Sylvan Learning Systems — to Neval Thomas Elementary in Northeast. The principal there noticed my talent for tutoring and offered me a job teaching a fifth grade class.

It was during the late ‘90s when the District was hiring anyone with a college degree to fill positions left open due to attrition. At the end of my first year, I conceded that my love for students seemed insufficient without appropriate teaching skills. Sure, I had been teaching little kids since I was a little kid, helping younger siblings with homework. I had become quite good at inspiring and encouraging young people, and those natural talents transferred nicely for tutoring. But teaching required more.

“I did very well with about five of my students. I helped them achieve personal goals,” I told my sister. “The others. God help them. That never would have happened in, say, Montgomery County. Those students never would have been subjected to a teacher who had no training in classroom management and the different learning and teaching styles. Tutoring four students is not the same as teaching 30.”

I have a master’s in journalism from Regent University, a degree that mostly gave me an appreciation for the history of my chosen profession and tools for projecting its future. But without a degree from a more reputable institution, some doors simply were not opened in the elitist field of journalism. I explored other career options.

“Thirty kids in a classroom is not a good model even for people with a degree in education,” she said. She has been studying education and public policy informally and working with community-based programs that offer GED and other alternative education programs for about 10 years. She earned an associate’s degree in public policy at Southeastern University, and plans to earn a master’s. “Best practices say the best ratio is 10-1 for effective teaching,” she said. “So many people come out, even with a master’s, and don’t understand time management and child development.”

We debated the merits of formal, traditional education, and she began echoing our mother, who has shunned traditional institutions since I can remember. “The education system was designed to produce factory workers and government employees. That’s not the world we live in anymore,” my sister said. “We need to be producing critical thinkers.”

With those words, I remembered an argument made more recently by multi-millionaire Robert Kiyosaki, of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” fame. “America’s education system needs an injection of innovation — which is just what entrepreneurs do. We need two different public school programs: one for employees and one for entrepreneurs,” Kiyosaki said.

“I just had a light-bulb moment,” I told my sister.  “You sound like that guy who wrote ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’.”

“Just like your light bulb just came on in this discussion, I think we need to have this discussion with more of us,” she said. “We need to have conversations like this to come to some common ground. We automatically discredit someone if they don’t have a college degree. The world has changed, and the world is continuing to change.” Indeed.

When I met Prince George’s resident Gail Fogg, who was campaigning for Prince George’s school board candidate Zabrina Epps, on Tuesday, I asked her opinion on the matter.

“People of my generation could get into government jobs and other jobs,” said Fogg, 54. “Just do the work and proceed on. But now it does take some education. I strongly push education.” She graduated six months ago with a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Phoenix. One of her daughters graduated this year from Bowie State University with a master’s in human resources, and her other daughter is enrolled at Prince George’s Community College, earning a bachelor’s in early childhood education. Epps, who said her work as a college adviser, where she found too many students unprepared for college, is what prompted her to run for a position on the school board.

Another Washington Post article reported on Ivy League degrees offered online. “That’s a game-changer,” my sister said, referring me to this article. “To me, education means preparing a person to be able to live well and contribute to their society. The game is changing.”

Prince George’s longtime community activist Donna Beck Hathaway told Post reporter Ovetta Wiggins about her internal conflict about whether she needed a formal education to serve on the school board, which sets policy and manages the budget for 120,000 students. She would put her experience working with PTAs for 20 years up against someone with a degree in, say, horticulture, any day.

I have considered that Prince George’s residents who value community service over a college education when casting their votes for school board members are on the cutting edge of something the rest of us simply haven’t grasped yet. Maybe they, like my mother, began redefining success and education for themselves a long time ago.

“Education is supposed to prepare you to be a contributing, productive individual,” my sister said, echoing our mother. “Your education could have come from 10 years of work experience or four years in an academy...I think the school board in Prince George’s is just out of balance. You need to have both.”

I agree. I think there are degrees of wisdom and strength of character that come only through life experience, and degrees of intellectual prowess that are best developed in academic settings. A student body would be best served by both.

DisclaimerThis is a non-scientific user poll. Results are not statistically valid and cannot be assumed to reflect the views of Washington Post users as a group or the general population.

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