In Defense of Education

Last week my oldest child started kindergarten. Her first week was ripe with emotion as her teacher gave us poems about our children growing up, we painted their handprints to document the size of their 5-year-old hands, and I spent my days longing to pick my baby up from school so I could beg her to tell me every last detail about her day while she withheld the information with pleasure. My sweet angel was growing up.

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During this tumultuous week, I was curious why kindergarten was such a big milestone anyway. After all, this is my daughter's fourth year of school. She has been going full-time for a while, much to the judgment of many fellow mothers who would say "preschool doesn't matter" and that kids don't really need to be challenged. This downplaying sentiment exists beyond early childhood education. Our country has an epidemic of devaluing its greatest asset and putting its future at risk because of it.

In the past few years, a slew of articles have been published disputing the value and relevance of tertiary education and whether it is needed. Media reports on the 25-year-old retail worker who has a bachelor's degree in history, owes more than $100,000 in student loans and has no professional job prospects. Commentators are constantly on the Internet with articles ranging from "The Cost of College: student debt at record high," to "Is College Worth It?" to "The high cost of higher education."

Some say we should put more young people to work through apprenticeship-style programs where they learn specific jobs skills. Even those with degrees have begun to question the value of their education. They warn against obtaining a degree that isn't "marketable" or "employable" and advocate for a path toward the services, be it in retail, maintenance, home repair or the like. These are fine occupations, but they are also becoming more scarce and limiting.

And, yes, there are workshops for professionals, such as coding boot camps. These aren't terrible options, but they don't get at the heart of the issue. Education is more than coding, it is more than a piece of paper and more than generating a competitive pedigree. Education is transformative. It transforms at the micro level, propelling preschoolers into inquisitive elementary schoolers and awakening teenagers with an expanded viewpoint. It also transforms at the macro level; at its best creating a more tolerant global society, which acts with empathy and influences positive social change. While it is true that not everyone should go to college, it is also true that not everyone is an entrepreneur who can become a billionaire with no education, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. One size does not fit all; but minimizing the importance of education for the many is a departure from what makes societies great and successful.

It is this misplaced view of education that is leading society astray. Education is not tests. It is not essays. It is knowledge. And it is important.

The Center for Public Education reports "students who attend preschool and half-day kindergarten are more likely to have higher reading skills by the third grade than students who attend full-day kindergarten alone." Fast forward to students fifteen years older and college graduates boast higher employment rates and higher earnings.

What is difficult to understand is that while the benefits of education have never been higher and the demand more clear, America is stalling in its support, advocacy and participation. Yes, some states are adequately funding their educational institutions, but many are not. Here in Arizona, it's a struggle to get government officials excited about education despite its clear advantage and the relationship it has to the economic well being of the state. Why should employers invest in Arizona which invests so little in education across the board? The cuts in funding are harsh and continuing. This lack of funding has influenced the increase in tuition costs that make for splashy headlines. College is getting more expensive and, at the same time, employers complain that recent graduates lack critical thinking skills. These issues need to be resolved. One route is the increased use of technology to make education more efficient and effective. Adaptive and personalized learning enables students to learn much better than a thousand-student lecture hall could ever allow -- and with the possibility of early graduation, and less debt, to boot.

But beyond these solutions is the heart of the matter and that is that education matters. It's a beautiful gift to learn. It's even more beautiful to educate. To awaken someone's inner calling, their horizons magnified and vibrant, their sense of truth understood, this is beauty. And society benefits.

As my two young daughters enter their own preschool and kindergarten classrooms, my hope for them is short-term growth and the beginnings of a lifelong love of learning. This is a step towards success.