Where's your education plan, candidates?

Op-ed: The presidential candidates owe it to the country to make their education priorities clear.

For all the debates and rallies, airtime and column-inches that have been devoted to the presidential election, one critical issue has been nearly absent from the debate: our children. Not Ivanka and Chelsea; they have had plenty of visibility. We are talking about the 50 million students who attend our nation's public schools. Aside from some passing mentions of Common Core, next to nothing has been said about what the presidential candidates think is working and not working with our country's education system and what, if anything, they would change, both inside and outside the classroom.

The absence of a conversation about children and learning is perplexing given the strong focus on jobs and the economy, because the workforce of tomorrow is being educated today — and warning signs about trouble ahead abound. Three in five of our nation's children — and four in five minority students — are not proficient in reading by the fourth grade, which puts them at high risk for not graduating from high school. Our elementary schools devote, on average, less than two and a half hours per week to educating students about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Less than one in three high school seniors was ready for college-level science classes in 2011. Business leaders complain often that young workers are not ready to contribute.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton owe it to the country to make their education priorities clear and to share their recommendations on learning within and without the traditional school day. We won't be able to grow our economy if we don't have workers ready to contribute, not just with strong basic skills but also with advanced skills that allow them to create and innovate. After all, the next generation will have to advance clean energy, solve water shortages, replace aging public transportation systems, build virtual worlds, cure cancer and more — and a key obligation of government is to ready them to meet the challenges we know lie ahead, as well as the ones we don't even know are coming.

To meet those challenges, we will need students from all communities to be well educated, creative, critical thinkers. We will only get there if we involve community- and faith-based organizations, businesses, colleges and universities, libraries and other partners in their education. After-school and summer learning programs already do that very well.

So we hope, as this election campaign hits full gear, to see rigorous debates — at the federal, state and local levels — about how best to prepare the next generation. That conversation must begin with recognition that learning doesn't only happen during the school day, and that the after-school and summer hours are essential for engaging and teaching our youth. After all, students spend less than 20 percent of their waking hours in the classroom each year.

At present, we are badly underinvesting in after-school and summer learning programs that can complement what students learn in school, while engaging them in hands-on learning that's still fun — from building robots to growing fruits and vegetables and selling what they grew, to taking oral histories from seniors in their communities, to studying endangered species, to writing musicals, to learning computer coding and successful business practices. These programs keep youth off the streets, give them opportunities to stay active, provide snacks and meals to those who would otherwise go hungry, and make parents secure in the knowledge that, while they are at work, their children are safe, supervised and learning.

But there aren't nearly enough summer learning and after-school programs, and that's one reason our education system is struggling. Most school districts serve fewer than 10 percent of their students during the summer. One in five students is unsupervised after the school day ends, and for every child in an after-school program, there are two more whose parents say they would participate if a program were available. Most often, it isn't.

A huge and growing body of research already shows that summer learning and after-school programs offer myriad benefits. They are great equalizers, serving many students from low-income, African American and Hispanic families, providing STEM opportunities to minorities and girls, and transforming the summer learning slide that plagues so many students into a summer learning boost.

Our country needs leaders with a real commitment to keeping young people healthy, safe and engaged year-round — leaders with bold plans to strengthen our education system and make the best possible use of children's out-of-school time. The conversation among candidates about how best to educate and prepare our youth must start now.

Sarah Pitcock (spitcock@summerlearning.org) is CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. Jodi Grant (jgrant@afterschoolalliance.org) is executive director of the Afterschool Alliance.

Aside from some passing mentions of Common Core, next to nothing has been said about what the presidential candidates think is working and not working with our country's education system and what, if anything, they would change, both inside and outside the classroom.

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