In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama stated, "In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education." Having been an educator for more than 30 years, I believe the president makes a very insightful point.
As the head of a school that specializes in finding multi-sensory ways to educate students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences, and as an executive board member with the International Dyslexia Association, I have a unique perspective on teaching methods and attitudes that will work to improve the education provided to American students.
The use of multi-sensory education could benefit all American students. Multi-sensory education gives students the skills to process information and develop strategies and critical thinking, rather than simply relying on memorization alone, which does not allow students to engage their brains, and apply the knowledge they are learning in the classroom to everyday situations and challenges.
We need to move away from strictly teaching content and move toward teaching strategies on how to find information. In a world where most information is instantly available online, the mass memorization of facts is no longer required. In order for our students to be competitive in a global economy, we need to teach them thinking and logic skills to help them use information already available to them.
The United States should adopt a longer school year, which is standard in many European countries. The latest brain-based research indicates that because the brain is a muscle, it needs to be used or else it will atrophy. American students are subject to "summer learning loss," which occurs when students are not reinforcing material learned in school while they are on summer vacation.
The latest research on the brain also shows the brain requires time to relax, absorb and process information for it to register in long-term memory. Therefore, parents and school systems need to emphasize education in the classroom and move away from massive amounts of homework and extra-curricular activities. With the rise of technology, schedules packed with sports and extra-curricular activities, and significant amounts of homework each night, there is little time for free play or even comprehension of daily activities.
Additional research indicates that our bodies are not ready to learn or process information until hours after the school day typically starts; therefore, school should start later in the morning and end later in the afternoon, which would allow for optimum learning (although society would be reluctant to make this change because of our culture's emphasis on sports).
Improving the quality of education at the university level could have a huge impact on elementary, middle and high school education in this country. The quality of the education our teachers receive needs to improve so that the teachers teaching our children can improve.
We must spend more time teaching reading, math and science in the lower grades and expose our students to these subjects, which play such a pivotal role in today's technical world. We should set benchmarks for students to achieve in the lower grades as a way to make certain that students are learning and retaining critical knowledge that will serve as the building blocks of their entire education.
Parents, teachers and administrators need to realize that not all students are "A" and "B" students. Some students are only capable of a "C". A "C" is an average grade, and we should not be disappointed with students who are average — a mindset that puts undue pressure to be an "A" or "B" student on those who are not capable of that level of performance. We need to accept each student for who he or she is and what he or she is capable of.
We also need to emphasize job and vocational training. Over the past few decades, there has been a shift away from vocational and job training for students. This is a major problem with American education, as many students who graduate from high school are not a fit for four-year colleges. By placing value and removing stigmas associated with vocational education, students will excel and are likely to find a program and career path that fosters their natural strengths and interests.
President Obama was right to make education a focus of his State of the Union speech. Now it's up to all of us to put in place the measures that will help our children compete on a global scale.
Ben Shifrin is head of the Jemicy School in Owings Mills. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.