Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cracks in the Road to Success: Yet Another Essay Not About the Zombie Apocalypse

Cracks in the Road to Success

According to a report co-authored by Robert Balfanz, a leading scholar of drop-out rates at Johns Hopkins University, the nation’s high school graduation rate is currently at 78 percent, the highest it’s been since the 1975-1976 academic year when it reached 75 percent. Many officials believe the increase is due to greater competition for jobs within a struggling economy. The national rate jumped from 71.7 percent in 2001 (the year America saw its longest period of economic growth come to an end with the fallout from 9-11 and the collapse of the dot-com bubble) to 78.2 percent in 2010. If the current trend continues, the rate will exceed 90 percent by 2020. But not all of the news is good. The report suggests that these rising numbers could be stalled by the sluggish academic performance and high drop-out rates of disadvantaged students. Students from low-income families are most at risk of dropping out before receiving a diploma. Why are these students lagging behind while others seem to excel? Ironically, the cause behind the lag in at-risk students could be the very reason behind the nation’s current upward trend: the economy.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, financial difficulties are one of the top ten reasons teens drop-out of high school. Students from low-income families are six times more likely to drop out of high school than students from high-income families. These students often quit school in the hopes of gaining employment to help relieve the financial burden only to find themselves stuck in a series of poor paying, dead-end jobs. A lifetime of poor earnings starts an endless cycle that can last for generations. Gina Hernandez, a cashier making minimum wage and mother of two, is a prime example of this. When her father died during her freshmen year of high school and her mother (also a high school drop-out) could no longer support the family on her own, Hernandez quit school to help out. After ten years of lay-offs and dead-end jobs, she is currently working as a cashier at Wal-Mart. She blames her sporadic employment record and stunted job advancement on her lack of education.
A lack of school funding in at-risk areas is another reason behind the trend. Arizona, Nevada, and Utah were the only three states in the country to see drops in graduation rates. School officials attribute this to an $800 million budget cut, most of which has been alleviated by eliminating extracurricular activities. Poorly funded schools have a tendency to stick to generic course curriculums, cutting seemingly superfluous programs while using what little money they have to focus on academics. This emphasis on classwork at the detriment to extracurricular activities may have a devastating effect on student retention. Herbert Marsh, an educational psychologist, found that participation in extracurricular activities, even those “not obviously associated with academic achievement”, led to an increased commitment to school and the Journal of Adolescent Research concurred when they reported in 2003 that extracurricular activity participation was linked to lower rates of dropping out of school. Fewer incentives to stay in school may come at the cost of a higher drop-out rate.
Cutbacks for schools also mean cutbacks in teaching staff. Those teachers lucky enough to avoid the axe are left to deal not only with their own students, but the students of their fallen comrades. Larger classes equate to less attention for problem students. Jennifer Wolfe, a middle school teacher and avid blogger, derided Mitt Romney for defending his stance that smaller class sizes doesn't necessarily equate with better learning in schools by claiming that his proposal would leave her with a bare minimum of 60 seconds with each student, if that. How can we expect students to stay in school when teachers don’t have the time to teach them?
While the current upswing in graduation rates might suggest a brighter future for some of today’s youth, budget cuts and limited face to face interaction between teachers and students in low-income areas will mean a life of slave-wage servitude for the poor and disenfranchised whose numbers are increasing at an alarming rate. Education is often lauded as the road to success. Our nation’s leaders need to take a long, hard look at that road and start investing some money in it before more students fall through the cracks.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Making Connections: The Importance of the Internet

This is the final draft of my first English 101 essay of the semester. I’ve cleaned it up a bit to make it a little more readable than the draft I turned in. Bear in mind that I only had roughly two hours to write this thing with no access to research materials, so don’t be expecting a masterpiece. Alas, I did not receive extra points for catching my instructor’s cold. I still got an A-, so it’s all good. Enjoy.


Making Connections: The Importance of Internet

A couple nights ago, there was a hail storm in my neighborhood. Hail the size of golf balls rained down, breaking car windows, causing damage to homes, and—more importantly—wreaking havoc with the power lines in my neighborhood. My power went out and with it, so too went my internet connection. I hadn’t realized just how much I relied on the world-wide-web until that moment. You see, I was in the middle of researching a topic I was told would be on my exit exam—an essay on health and fitness. I had no research materials at home on that particular subject, and because of the lateness of the hour, I couldn’t just pop on over to the nearest library or bookstore. I couldn’t even complain about it to my Facebook friends! It was then I came to the conclusion that the internet had to be the most important invention of the last one hundred years.

What did the average Joe or Jane do in the early 1900’s when they needed to research a subject? It was libraries back then, wasn’t it? Libraries, bookstores, or encyclopedia were the only resources at their disposal. Libraries close. So do bookstores. Encyclopedia can be expensive to update, not to mention bulky. Today we have various search engines like Google and Bing that help us find sources. Instead of the encyclopedia, we have Wikipedia, a web based encyclopedia that is updated daily. Even the Library of Congress is online now.

It’s easier to work at home now then it was back then as well. Even writers who can work just about anywhere eventually needed to leave their homes to mail off manuscripts and talk to their publishers. Now we have email and Skype. My boss recently moved back to Georgia to be closer to her ailing mother. She “Skypes” the office twice a day and gets fidgety if we don’t email her financial reports at least once a week.

But I think the most important thing people of the past didn’t have that we do today was a certain connectivity to not only their neighbors, but different cultures. Yes, there were telephones and snail mail, but without an internet connection, most people didn’t get the chance to meet anyone outside of their own neck of the woods. I have friends in all parts of the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Japan—to name a few. Where else would I have ever gotten the chance to meet these people or learn about their cultures if it weren’t for my blessed modem?

Some say the internet has caused communities to drift apart, that it has stolen our sense of intimacy with each other, but I disagree. We’re closer than we’ve ever been before being only a few keystrokes away. We have more opportunities and more resources. How can that be a bad thing?

Eventually the power came back on and my connection was back up. I checked on some Facebook friends I knew to be locals to see how they fared with the storm. Then I got back to work.


Special Note to My Coworkers: Yes, I know we don’t have Skype. I needed examples and filler and such. Stop knit-picking.