Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Can we model success?

Back in October, I agreed to participate in Junior Achievement, through the Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President, Chip Morrison, was looking for 15 volunteers to participate with 7th graders, at Lewiston Middle School. Morrison has been an advocate of JA programming, seeing it as a means of bringing area businesspeople and other community leaders in contact with students.

Junior Achievement is the world’s largest organization dedicated to educating students about work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy, through experiential, hands-on programs. They do this by utilizing volunteers from each local community where they have a presence. Since its inception in 1919, JA has presented to 87 million students.

The curriculum that our local group presented was called Economics for Success. I was very impressed by the materials that I received from JA, which helped me guide a group of 20 7th graders through six weeks of activities exploring personal finance, students’ education and career options based on their skills, interests, and values. It provided a clear demonstration of the economic benefits of staying in school. Additionally, we looked at the importance of budgeting, the advantages of cash and credit, which included an excellent activity that teaches the cost of credit, as well as the final activity that dealt with identifying and minimizing risks and how insurances helps mitigate risk.

While I thought the JA materials and the curriculum were topnotch, I concluded my volunteer assignment with mixed feelings.

I met my students in early January, but with storms, school vacations and other conflicting school-based activities, I’m just finishing up today, more than halfway through March. This made creating continuity difficult. Additionally, while not ignorant of public school students (I actually spent time a decade ago, as a substitute instructor), I was still taken aback by how passive many of the students were. Most also seemed to lack confidence and self-esteem. It’s very difficult to engage them, no matter how passionate you are and how well you present the excellent, hands-on activities that JA provides. I’m sure educators, psychologists and others can provide some answers as to why this is.

Another discovery I made, during week four, when I facilitated our activity on budgeting, was how three quarters of the students didn’t even know how to perform basic calculations, using hand-held calculators. While I realize that this anecdotal at best, and doesn't indicate anything approaching an in-depth analysis of this particular classroom, I did find it somewhat disturbing.

Each student received an occupation card, which described a particular occupation and listed a monthly salary, both the gross and the net. Based on these monthly salaries, students had to create a monthly budget, with predetermined percentages being directed to housing, food, clothing, etc. For most of the students, I had to tell them what to punch into their calculators. Several students told me they didn’t have enough income for their budgeted items, which indicated that they had incorrectly computed their percentages.

I think it is important for business leaders and other community members to spend time in the classroom. It gives students a chance to have professional behavior modeled by someone other than teachers, who I believe are being asked to do more all the time. At the same time, there aren’t enough hours in the school day to prepare students for the battery of tests that are required, and still prepare them for the economic realities of a world that is becoming increasingly complex.

Despite the efforts of groups like JA, studies continue to indicate that the current paradigm utilized in U.S. public schools is leaving too many students ill-prepared for economic success in the future.

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