Exigency Essay: Education

I would very much appreciate all criticism and suggestions on this essay. Is it a viable plan?

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In every society that has ever existed, kids play. What? War. Cops and robbers. Explorer. I played all of those. What do they have in common? Kids pretend to have jobs; pretend to be adults. They do this because, on a fundamental level, everyone wants to matter. Kids see the people that are important in society and try to emulate them, but we cram children into classrooms for hours a day on the promise that they will eventually be able to do something that matters. We ask millions of students to accept a promise that this endless grind is the path to success. However, many of these kids slip through the system, and teachers do not have the time or energy to invest in the growth of every child.

Even for those that manage to finish, the outlook is bleak. For recent U.S. high school graduates (after twelve full years of their lives in the classroom), the unemployment rate stood in 2011 at a towering 22.5%. For students who finish another four years in college, the unemployment rate remained at a still-high 9.3%. In both categories, the underemployment rate is far worse. I do not mean to suggest that getting a job is the only purpose of education; it is certainly not. However, a school system that, after twelve years, produces neither a well-rounded citizen nor a productive worker is not functioning. Our public education system fails on both counts.

The problem is universally recognized, but most people respond with the common battle cry for reform of “more accountability!” or “better teachers!” or some other similar change. These solutions promote minor surface changes to the system, as they seek only to improve the existing core infrastructure. Surface changes are wise and useful in many cases where the core is worth preserving. In those cases, the debate is on those changes which will make the system work as intended. This characterizes our current discussion perfectly. Never is the purpose of our current conception of public schooling brought into the discussion. Our youth sequestration policies seem obviously good and noble to most, with the less-than-desired test scores and “global competitiveness” being seen as the only problems. I see it differently.
The problem with this system is at its foundations. The core assumption behind the entire public school system is that children are incapable of doing real, challenging, and important work before they are “educated.” This notion leads to the separation of children until roughly 20 years old for full time schooling. I question this assumption.

Here is why I question it. So far in my pre-college-graduation career, I have held two internships and a research position. The two internships were during the summer in late high school and early college, and the undergraduate research position was during my sophomore year of college. My internships spanned a range of fields, including scientific research, computer programming in support of an engineering project, and work organizing file systems for an HR department in the military. In my HR department work, there was not a single assignment that I could not have done in elementary or middle school. It simply consisted of organizing file cabinets and then moving around virtual personnel files. No complex technical or communication skills were necessary. In the other two engineering positions, only about half of my work required technical skills. The other half consisted of practice with equipment and experiment design, such as running tests and preparing samples. On-the-job training taught the skills for this type of engineering and HR work. I doubt that these experiences grossly misrepresented the real work world.

Combining this experience with my prior knowledge, I see an enormous body of eager potential workers and a large volume of work that can be done by them. Despite this, there remains a huge population of disconnected children and another huge population of underemployed graduates. It doesn’t have to be this way. I instead envision a system where children of all ages are integrated into society. I know that children are capable of doing, and learning from, useful work long before the end of high school and college. I believe that a system which enables exploratory learning and productive work can be implemented.

A high level view of the system I imagine: Students participate in the completion of the mentor’s assignments and projects. For engineers (the profession for which I designed this system), this work can include grant writing, creative problem solving, mathematical analysis, computer programming, and other business tasks including project management and giving presentations. The student, an unpaid intern working a few hours per day, will work on a very small portion of these projects, getting feedback, and refining his portion until its quality is high. This type of purposeful feedback will allow the student to much more quickly improve than the repetition typical in school. The student will also be able to grow their creative capabilities. As the internship would be unpaid, the student would be free to take as much time as desired brainstorming solutions and dreaming up new products without the pressure of a profit demand. That describes the “work” component, which allows the student to both explore possibilities and do meaningful work which serves a more important purpose than simply receiving an A.

There is also a structural component with two parts. First, there would also be a need to teach some basics, including the mathematical and programming techniques, to the student. To solve this, the mentor would occasionally need to teach the student. This would not, however, take the form of a lecture. Instead, primarily to save the mentor’s time, the mentor would point the student to relevant ideas. The student would then learn to take the initiative to teach himself the concept. The mentor would, of course, need to be available for questions. The second structural part is a problem that arises when trying to scale up the number of these student interns. If each intern reported directly to an actual engineer, the capacity of the system would be quickly met because the time and effort constraints on each engineer would become too great. Instead, a middle school intern should report to a high school intern with a few months of experience. The high school intern could report to a college intern with a bit more experience, and the college intern would report to the engineer. This sort of layered internship, with each level teaching and tasking the level below, serves two functions. First, it does not overly tax the professional engineers, allowing them to remain highly productivity. This is especially true since college interns would need much less assistance than lower levels, and a college intern’s time is much less valuable. Second, the interns would each solidify their own knowledge and gain experience mentoring and learn to handle their own responsibilities earlier. With this layered internship (instead of all interns reporting to an engineer), each mentee gets more personal attention and assistance.

This summer, I am interning at an 18 person engineering company. I intend to work for them this winter and next summer as well. I will spend this summer identifying the exact points where my work could be done by a talented early high school student. Towards the end of the summer after it is clear that they want me to return, I will then write up a proposal for the hiring of such a suitable student under me. To the company, I will not couch the proposal in terms of social good. I will speak of it as an experiment designed for the potential benefit of the company. I will describe it as a no-direct-cost way to increase our productivity and train a potential employee early. I will then approach Blacksburg High School with my proposal. To the high school officials, I will term it as a unique and experimental learning opportunity that will provide an excellent supplement to classroom learning. The statement to both the company and school will be true.

Once hired, the student will work under me. The student will assist me in performing tests and brainstorming solutions to problem, and I will teach the basics of engineering problem solving. The student will assist me in grant-writing, and I will help develop their writing skills. In all cases, we will together edit work until it is of suitable quality to be included in the final product. When it is, we will include it. This will help the student to improve his abilities while at the same time gaining valuable experience and solving real problems. I believe that the student will care because they are doing purposeful work with direct feedback and visible improvement.

From this experience, I will record best practices and things to avoid. I will try to expand the program within my company to two people. This will be the second critical point (with the first being the initial approval of my experiment). The difficulty here will be involving and training another mentor for the second student. I have not yet worked out how I will involve and train the other mentor, but my eventual plan for the training of new mentors is to involve the mentees in the process and techniques of mentoring. After a suitable amount of time, I will then train the mentee to take in a mentee himself. This method allows a hands-off and self-sustaining system of mentoring to take hold within an organization.

This route appears to be a realistic possibility utilizing my strengths. Another possible route, changing the existing infrastructure of the school system, would involve convincing too many people that my proposal could work before trying it. Convincing others is not my area of strength, so I will avoid it where possible while developing the skill. I believe that I can convince the few people necessary in the company because they all have compatible desires of successful projects and profit. There are two reasons that it would be useful to the company. First, the personal reward for the mentor would likely make up for the loss of their time, making the financial losses small on the company side. Second, since the student intern would be an employee of the company, their work could be used and ideas could be implemented. The potential financial gains here would likely overcome the small time losses for the mentor. Moreover, I will have the chance this summer to demonstrate my work ethic and ability to get results. These factors will make it far easier to convince those board members. Once I get initial approval, I can use program success to support requests for further expansion.

I do also need to concern myself with how I present my proposal to the schools and parents. The schools may be easier to convince as my proposal requires no investment of money or time from them. There is already a process at Blacksburg High School that allows a student to enroll in an external course. While this process is subject to several restrictions and is likely intended for enrollment in certain college courses, it is a promising place to start in an attempt to gain approval with the school. Through this method, the student may be able to participate during school hours for credit. However, if the attempt to gain approval with the school proves unsuccessful, the mentoring system I have described could continue as a summer and afterschool program only, which would likely only prove a slight limitation. To the parents, I will sell my proposal as a unique internship experience that will give the student an enormous boost in college admissions and the job search. Additionally, all parties involved will likely worry about liability and legality issues. These issues I have not yet resolved, but I am researching child labor and hazardous occupation laws.

The system gives students a reason to study and improve their skills, an outlet for their creative energies, and personal attention. Those facets should solve many of the problems with our public school system, while decreasing school costs and, hopefully, increasing business profitability. Moreover, it is a system that could be implemented on a wide scale by simply involving more businesses. With just a few of this type of intern at many participating businesses, the program could improve the educational experience of thousands and thousands of children. I must now prove that it works.

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