School Uniforms, No More Summer Vacation, And An Extra Year Of High School

The things no kid wants are sometimes what every kid needs

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By Chicago 2016–103008_1982, CC BY 2.0,

My sons are both married, one with a one year-old child, and the other with a pregnant wife. Both work full time with benefits and are in the process of buying homes of their own. It looks like they’re well on their way to achieving the American Dream, right?

Actually, that’s not their goal.

Both of them intend for their children to attend K-12 school in the Philippines. My oldest son attended K-12 schools here in America and attended college in the Philippines, while my youngest attended his last two years of high school there. And both feel that even with the rampant poverty and pollution and substandard facilities, schools in the Philippines are much better for personal development and growth than schools here in America.

Imagine your kids attending schools where there are much fewer fights, much less drug use, and absolutely ZERO guns. Imagine never ever having to worry about there being an active shooter at your kid’s school. My youngest son likes to tell the story about how he brought a penknife — a penknife — to his school there to show to the other students, and all of a sudden the other kids clustered around him, rebuking and berating him for having brought a weapon to school. “Why did you bring that here? Why do you need a weapon at school?”

Note that it wasn’t the teachers, but the other students who took action.

What I’m getting at is, well, America’s K-12 school system sucks. Our colleges are among the best in the world, but our K-12 school system is shameful. And while I’m politically quite liberal, all of us — liberal and conservative — share the blame for it. We have torn down the authority of the teachers, glorified guns and fashion and drugs, and belittled higher education. For the most part, our kids are spoiled rotten — and not in a good way.

Of course, what works in other countries won’t automatically work here — differences in culture, religion, and demographic makeup mean that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to fix our schools. But here’s three suggestions I think American kids would hate, but would help them greatly in the long run:

School Uniforms

These have been proposed and argued against forever, but they are more beneficial than most Americans seem to think. First off, school uniforms aren’t about taking away one’s freedom of expression, but about engendering a sense of community, of the mindset that “we’re all on the same team so let’s work together.” Yes, one can easily Google a study to fit one’s preexisting opinions on school uniforms, but here’s a few undeniable factors:

1 — School uniforms are by and large cheaper and easier to care for than the fashion du jour found in schools today. For those parents of teenagers out there, consider how much you’re going to spend on whatever your kids claim they must have because “all the other kids have it!” Then think about how easy it would be to buy three relatively inexpensive shirts and slacks (and maybe a tie), often at a discount because of deals worked out between the school district and local businesses.

2 — School uniforms are especially beneficial for children who are in poverty. Well-to-do children are better able than poor children to afford nice, stylish clothes, and this has a definite effect on the school body as a whole by reinforcing the separation of groups by level of income. When school uniforms are required, there is a marked improvement in the attitude among minority students — not because they’re minorities, but because they are no longer objects of scorn for not being able to afford more stylish and fashionable clothing as can the (usually white) wealthier students.

3 — Best of all, school uniforms teach our kids how to dress more professionally for the careers they’ll have after they leave high school. Yes, a lot of kids know how to dress well, but so many kids are almost trapped by what they think they should wear, so that after they graduate, it’s hard for them to realize that what they think looks good or right could well be what’s keeping them from being able to find a job that pays the bills. In this way, school uniforms help teach kids about real life in that at work, one needs to look professional in the eyes of customers and co-workers, and that it’s only after work that one can wear pretty much whatever one wants.

Get rid of summer vacations

Why is this even controversial? Summer vacations were never meant for vacations away from school, but to allow the children to help out with farming and harvesting crops in a younger-and-mostly-agrarian America. The problem is, today, teachers spend the first month of every school year helping their students relearn what they forgot during the summer break. Researchers found:

(1) on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning, (2) declines were sharper for math than for reading, and (3) the extent of loss was larger at higher grade levels. Importantly, they also concluded that income-based reading gaps grew over the summer, given that middle class students tended to show improvement in reading skills while lower-income students tended to experience loss.

This is inexcusable. What’s more, while summer vacations are a lot of fun for the kids, not only are they detrimental to the education of the children, but they are increasingly problematic for households wherein both parents work, or in increasingly-common single-parent households. What’s more, when parents are at work and kids are left alone at home, problems — and sometimes tragedies — happen. Schools keep kids busy not just by helping their minds expand with knowledge, but by keeping their minds and hands busy doing something other than getting into trouble while the parents are at work.

(At least) one extra year of high school

Back when I went to high school, we’d just given up pressing cuneiform into clay tablets and started using newfangled things like paper, pens, and pencils. Okay, I’m not that old, but I strongly remember being amazed when the first handheld calculators went on sale. I was a teenager, and I spent hours just gobsmacked at what that brick-sized Texas Instruments calculator could do, even though it would seem prehistoric by today’s standards.

The world has changed so incredibly much since I first became a teenager. You see, at that time Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were still teenagers themselves. Stephen Hawking hadn’t yet made his mark on the world. We hadn’t yet sent spacecraft past the moon. The internet (and everything it enables) was just science fiction. William Gibson had not yet coined the term “Cyberspace”. There was no marriage equality. Credit cards were an indication that one had a nice bank account. There was no such thing as a “credit score” — “three reliable references are all we need to give you the automobile loan, thank you very much.”

Yet we still had K-12 education, and none of it was wasted time.

Think of all that we have learned since those days, all that we must know now in order to function in our day-to-day lives. Yet we are still expected to shoehorn all that additional required knowledge into the same amount of time that was barely enough fifty years ago? Uh-uh. That’s not happening.

The amount of knowledge we’re required to have has greatly increased, so it stands to reason that the amount of time our kids are sent to school to learn that required knowledge should be increased by the degree necessary to help them function effectively in society the day they leave high school.

For instance, imagine an entire year of classes that fall under the headline of “stuff you really need to know before you move out of your parents’ house”:

  • Insurance. Yes, high school kids are given a cursory overview of what insurance is, but not about how important it is, or how to properly understand what kinds of insurance or needed (or required by law), much less how to discern what insurance is a good deal, and what insurance is a rip-off.
  • Credit scores. That seems like a simple subject to teach, but to do so properly would require several classes not just on paying bills, but also on avoiding credit traps, on avoiding high debt-to-income ratios, and on how much more expensive life is when one has a low credit score.
  • Buying a residence. Of course these kids are not ready to buy a house just out of high school, but so many of them have no clue about what is for many people the most important financial decisions of their lives. They can be taught about the benefits and the pitfalls, and especially about…
  • legal liability. Because most high school kids have no clue that most of our nation’s entire civil legal system revolves around those two words.
  • And bring back Home Economics! How many kids today have no clue about how to wash or iron or mend their clothes or dress for work, or cook a meal without using a microwave, or how to clean their room (much less the bathroom)? This may sound like no big deal to many, but to kids who’ve grown up spoiled, who have no idea what’s required in running a household, this can be hugely beneficial.
  • Aaaaaand then there’s the internet. Yes, I know, a lot of high school kids know the internet better than any of us older people, but a lot of them have little conception of the real-world dangers they can face online. They need to be taught not just about scams and rip-offs and how to spot predators, but also how to properly find the information they need, and what sites can be trusted. For instance, an online search seems easy, but unless one knows how to focus the search on a much narrower target, it can be very frustrating finding what one needs.

I’m sure there’s a host of other subjects that would be equally important, and any meeting of academics deciding what courses should be taught would be in danger of getting lost in the metaphorical weeds. But the fact remains that the amount of knowledge needed to function effectively in the modern day is significantly greater than what it was a half century ago, and so the amount of time given to our children to learn that additional knowledge should be increased accordingly.

There’s an old saying: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” As hopelessly trite as that saying is, it’s still absolutely true. It will be very expensive in terms of time, money, and patience to make the changes necessary to improve our nation’s educational system from its current deplorable state. But the cost of doing nothing is far greater.

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