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Local view: The many challenges of education must be faced

Would anybody dispute that education today faces challenges? Think about buildings and facilities, teachers, standards, curriculum, costs and other issues.

As a disclaimer, I am an interested layperson and a product of both public (through high school) and private (college) education. I felt my education was excellent, and I share herewith some thoughts, questions and observations based on that.

What are taxpayers, parents and students getting?

There certainly is a debate about buildings and facilities: new versus old and small versus large (or neighborhood ease of access versus economies of size and scale). How about accommodations for athletics, art, theater and music, and special education? And how essential and cost-efficient are our schools?

How are results measured? How do we evaluate and fairly compensate teachers for their myriad responsibilities? They’re pedagogue, mentor and muse. Moreover, the distinction between parent and teacher is fading as the latter has assumed (not necessarily by choice) more of the former’s role, albeit without the benefit of traditional discipline.

Our one-size-fits-all standards seem to place all students on a level playing field — yet the playing field is not level. Students come with different gifts and talents. Some are academically oriented while others have different skill sets. We seem destined to send every child to college; without college we deem them second-class citizens doomed to remain uneducated, unskilled and forever mired in poverty.

I had the good fortune of being a good student; on the other hand, my mechanical/technical inabilities, perhaps even disabilities, have forced me to hire skilled workers to bail me out.

How aware are we of job opportunities for drivers, welders, technicians and artisans? Such positions can pay well without the traditional college route. Are we getting this message out?

Then, too, there’s the message that liberal arts is obsolete. But since when do critical thinking and analysis skills become outmoded?

Do students and parents understand the role of attitude in the educational process? Drive, determination and work ethic are important in both the classroom and the work world. Is this recognized? I think not.

When I was going away to college (my parents’ choice, as they felt there was more to the world than “Minnesota Nice”), my mother told me I would learn much more out of the classroom than I ever would in the classroom: time management, watching others fall behind and fail, learning to do my own laundry, etc. Real-world chores, homework, school activities and summer jobs (I had to earn all my own spending money and pay a third of my nonessential costs like a car) provide ample opportunity for learning lessons of responsibility.

What about rich folks versus poor folks? There are good and bad folks in both groups. What truly distinguishes them? Attitude is what one makes of his or her circumstances. How do the poor climb out from under? Some do. What research has been done on this? Why do so many rich folks screw up despite their head start in life?

“Affluenza,” perhaps?

Traditional education provides the essentials, but parents and students should not assume education is solely a classroom setting. Knowledge can be acquired, but wisdom and true life skills come from the enlightenment of everyday experiences. Incidentally, I proudly proclaim my hobby to be “collecting experiences.”

How important is classroom size? I recall my elementary school days in the 1950s when 32 to 36 students per class was standard. Now it’s too large?

Are we expecting/demanding too much of our educational systems without being directly involved? Parents play a vital role in imparting proper discipline and respect in their children. Teachers play the critical role of being the educational intermediary. Administrators need to thread the needle to effectively mold and measure results. Taxpayers need to recognize the educational system from which all society benefits. Only then can we achieve an educated and enlightened populace — our future best hope.

Tom Wheeler is a longtime Duluth-area businessman, civic leader, philanthropist and regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.