What to do?

I have often wondered what a person like me can actually do to better society.  We, well, specifically, I, talk a lot about social issues and injustices, but it is very difficult to actually come up with real things that can be done.  How can I, as a normal citizen, affect change in our country?  I, honestly, have no clear answer to this.

You could make the argument that by voting you are affecting change.  But, with today’s political system, that is not very true.  Considering that Michigan tends to elect republican state officials, democratic senators, and mixed house people, how does my vote count?  The political system is broken anyways.  But, that is a topic for another day.

While I am not going to completely give up the idea that I can change the world, or even a small portion of the world, I will set it aside for a moment.  Let me, instead, focus on a few things that I think that institutions could do that might actually make our country better. Since each of these requires a bit of thought, I will put each one in a different post.  Today I will discuss my first idea.

When students at schools are suspended, have them actually spend time doing something educational instead of not allowing them to come to school.  By taking kids who have issues out of the classroom, we are causing more non-linearity in our education system. By this I mean that the kids who are suspended miss days of school, which causes them to fall further and further behind, which leads to them feeling more and more isolated from the educational system, which drives them to act out more, which causes more suspensions, repeating the cycle to the point in which they drop out.

Kicking misbehaving students out the school is an easy way to handle these “problems”, but it probably causes all sorts of ramifications that are not considered, since they are not the school’s problems.  For example, if you have two working parents and the kid is kicked out of school for a few days, how is that handled?  Do the parents take time off of work to stay at home with the kid?  Well, if the parents are relatively low income and don’t have that possibility, then the kid probably stays at home, alone.  That might cause some issues also.

If we remove money from consideration, then it is straightforward to suggest a fix.  When the student misbehaves in school, and is going to be suspended, the student should go into a program in which they get the help that they might need.  This could come in the form of tutoring and/or social services. If the student could get the assistance that they may need in order to be successful, they might not act out nearly as much.  You often hear stories of students who were suspended for trivial things or things that were outside of their normal behavior.  With a program in which the student stays in school, and continues to learn, then the “punishment” may not have long-term effects.

Let me suggest something even more radical.  This place that the student go when they are suspended may offer services that the students may actually desire, and they may want to go visit this place even when they are not being “punished”.  If such a place existed, students might even request to go spend some time there.

I might be completely naive here, but envision a room with books and computers that have just a ton of educational videos from history (Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWII, etc.) to science (biology, zoology, astronomy, geology, etc.), with staff available who could help the students with homework and/or their psychological needs, wouldn’t this be a desirable place to go?

Ok, then money comes around.  Schools that lack resources can not afford such places of wonder.  What can then be done.  This is an extremely hard question and has no real easy answers.  Here are some suggestions that may, once again, be naive, but may not:

1. Since there are not gigantic numbers of students who are suspended every day, it may be possible to pool resources between schools. If one school had resources set aside and other schools bussed their “suspended” students to this other school, then it might dramatically reduce the cost for each of the schools.

2. The suspension could happen at a location that is not school-based. For example, a community center or a library. If, once again, a number of schools pooled resources, and each was responsible for staffing one day a week, for example, the cost would be significantly reduced also. Further, by going to a community center or library, it may be possible to get community volunteers who would be willing to come and tutor students or talk to the student about their experiences outside of school (veterans, retired people, etc.)

3. If the schools partnered with local colleges that have education (or science or math or …) departments, they may be able to get college students to help staff the facilities, supervised by a minimal staff from the school(s). These college students might have an extremely positive influence on the younger students, since they might be viewed as role models. The college students may volunteer or may work for extremely small amounts of money.

The main two points here are to emphasize that education is extremely important and you won’t be “rewarded” for misbehaving by getting out of school, setting up a feedback loop that leads to failure; and that school can be a supporting environment that is there to help kids. While a program like this won’t solve all of the problems, it may reduce the dropout rate of students.


About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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