(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP) (By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)

All of the reforms pushed onto public school districts in recent years fail to take into account that in many parts of the United States, going to school just isn’t very important. In this post, Joanne Yatvin, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English who now supervises student teachers for Portland State University and writes books for teachers, talks about how to make room for cultural differences in K-12 education so that more young people will feel like they belong in school.

By Joanne Yatvin

Recently a local newspaper article about poor school attendance touched on a view of education very different from the one that predominates in government, business, and the media. While the Common Core Standards and the states that have signed on to the initiative are calling for more rigor in K-12 grades and college or post-high school training for everyone, their message is falling on deaf ears in many places in the United States.  For lots of students and their parents, school is just not that important.

The town featured in the article is a small rural one in Oregon with a high rate of student absence that can’t be explained by illness or poverty.   Last year 40 percent of first graders were chronically absent, and 70 percent of high schoolers missed enough days to equal five weeks of classes. When school officials and teachers were questioned about the causes of those problems, they came up with some answers: family hunting trips, a scarcity of doctors, dentists and other medical services locally that made day-long trips elsewhere necessary.  But the answer most often voiced was that the town’s population didn’t really value education.

In that place the majority of adults, who have no college education or not even a high school diploma, are working at jobs they like, earning adequate wages, and living lives that satisfy them and their families.   One mother who was questioned defended her son’s absence for a recent hunting trip by citing family values: “What they are getting out of that experience outweighs three days of school…The bonding, the experience—what it takes to deal with a dead animal–is not something that will change for families like ours.”

To the teachers and school officials that response seemed more reasonable than many others they hear when parents are told that their children are missing too much school.  Those answers boil down to, “So what?”

Without examining the student absentee situation in other places, I’m convinced that there are cultures of attitudes, customs, and beliefs everywhere that influence people’s behavior more strongly than any government message.   Take a high-poverty area in big city, for instance, where most adults have limited education, low paying jobs, and no savings. Typically, they do not expect their children to live lives any different from theirs.  On top of that, the local schools are crowded, rundown, and tough on misbehaving or truant students.  When a couple of kids in the neighborhood decide to take a day off, why not join them?  It’s a lot more fun than going to school.  Some parents may object, but their kids do it anyway.  Other parents don’t know what’s going on; and still others figure it’s just normal kid behavior.  That’s the culture of the community, and it’s hard to go against it.

High-poverty communities are not the only places where culture rules, however. There are towns and whole states that cling to the traditions of the past and see the world in terms of their own physical environment.  For most local people school is okay as long as it fits with their own values and customs.

For the present I don’t see much of a chance of changing cultures.  America will have to evolve into more of a melting pot than it is today.  But I believe it is possible to make schools more attractive and relevant to local populations without diminishing quality.  Almost always there is an overlap between a local culture and the national vision of educational excellence that if emphasized would lure students and their families back to school.  Let me describe, briefly, some things that could be done within that overlap.

First, provide more high-school electives, especially courses related to the jobs available, but also ones in the arts and crafts. At the same time, reconsider the widespread practice of requiring all high school students to take multiple courses in math, science, and a foreign language.  For many young people, such courses do not serve their current interests or their future aspirations.

Next, make community interests and activities part of the classroom curriculum.  Young children can read or listen to the teacher read about local events and discuss and write about them.   Older students can be encouraged to get involved with community service projects in their free time.   Building a school culture of community is also important.  Students can tend a school vegetable garden, “Adopt a Road,” organize an in-school recycling system, or form a crew of “safety partners” to protect younger children from bullying and walk them to and from school.

Provide a variety of after-school and evening programs for children and adults.  Use existing facilities for recreational activities such as swimming, table tennis, and Midnight Basketball.  Also encourage community groups to meet for anything that interests them, from break-dancing to Bible study.

Convert school libraries into community services wherever a public library is not readily accessible.  Keep them open evenings and Saturdays, expand the range of books available, have librarians or trained assistants on hand, and schedule book readings and discussions for different ages and interests.

Provide medical, dental and social services for children and adults inside the school on a regular basis, even if you have to bring them in from a distance.

Finally, and most important, return school districts to local control.  This means having a community school board that sets student standards, determines the school calendar, selects textbooks, and chooses the types and frequency of testing. With a return to local control the state’s role would be to provide a variety of choices and assistance as needed.

To some readers the changes I am proposing may look like nothing more than a return to a worn-out past.  On the contrary, I am trying to open doors that have been closed by powerful national forces that misunderstand the differences in international test scores and the cultures that produce them.   Wounded pride, more than a concern for America’s place in the global economy, has brought a series of ineffective changes to K-12 education and produced a vast chasm between national policy and the needs of citizens. After some 20 years under a barrage of school “reforms,” we are left with nothing more than failed policies, stagnant test scores, a growing body of opt-out parents, dis-enfranchised and demoralized teachers everywhere, and a serious lack of high school graduates prepared for existing jobs.

Ask yourselves:  “Is this democracy? Is this quality education?”