It’s Sunday morning, and MSNBC is having its third Education Nation event, a bit of a town hall with education experts and political folks talking about education in this country.  This year, for the first time, they are including a student town hall, that I’m really looking forward to seeing.  I want adults to hear what the kids think about schools, rather than adults treating kids like widgets coming off of an assembly line. (So far, they are asking the kids in the audience to answer questions via clicker, and the moderator seems to talk down to them a bit, which I find beyond annoying.)

Not surprisingly, the students are asking high-level, insightful questions, and are much smarter than the moderator or, frankly, the speakers, seem to have assumed in advance.

I have a high school senior and a high school freshman.  Education is a large part of my family life, and my business life as well.  But the heart of our education problems start with a misunderstanding of what education really is.

I see education as part of our national infrastructure.  It’s long term research and development of our citizenry.  The payoff comes long after its delivered, and is very individual, yet it has a net impact on all of us.

But how do we know if Education is working or not?  Kids who may struggle learning how to read, or don’t really learn their math facts cold pay for those deficits later on, often a few years down the line.  There aren’t immediate, quarterly results that are meaningful, yet each test and quiz should be used not as a metric to rank students and pigeon hole them, but as diagnostic of what a student understands and where the student struggles, which I feel rarely happens at school or at home.

Just because we all went to school does not make us education experts.  Every parent, and every employer in this country has a stake in the outcome of education- the future workforce depends on a good education.  We want schools to educate all our kids, but we have a hard time making schools (or government) responsive to the ever changing needs of kids.

On a very simplistic issue, the chairs in the classrooms around here are a one size fits all torture-fest meant for veal, not growing children.  Sitting in those chairs for 10 minutes during back to school night alone make you realize why kids would be twitchy after hour upon hour of sitting in those desks, trying to pay attention when you are just uncomfortable.  Can’t we start improving education by starting with the very basics- making the classroom a safe and comfortable place, both physically and emotionally, for a child to be? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us kids need to have food, clothing and shelter before they can start worrying about the other aspects of their lives, like self- improvement and actualization.  Sometimes, starting small is even as important as arguing about curriculum reform.

The other problem is clearly the way schools are evaluated for quality.  The test scores in our district look ok at first glance, but if you dig into the numbers, we’re doing a great job moving kids from proficient into advanced levels of understanding- meaning the kids who are performing on grade level are doing better- and moving up- gaining ground.  While the kids who are at basic or below basic also improve, but maybe not as fast as we would like.

Part of that is kids aren’t widgets you can “fix” in one year.  Part of it is we have kids who are english as second language learners, who are struggling to catch up to grade level when they are placed in grade level classrooms in their second language- I would argue if you placed me in a high school class in France, taking a schedule taught only in french, my grades would stink too, even in classes where I understood the information presented- like in math- because the nuance of understanding would be lost on me because of lack of full fluency in the foreign language.  Those children are going to need several years to improve.

Likewise, students with special education needs also need to be taught and nurtured.  Kids with math and reading learning disabilities need to be held to high standards, but it may also take longer for them to reach grade level, or they may continue to under-perform their peers throughout their educational career.  It doesn’t mean that these kids aren’t being educated and aren’t learning, but their standardized test scores may never match that of the majority of students.

I would say I’m impressed by our schools- not only from test scores- but because almost every teacher we’ve come across really cares about kids and is invested in their learning and success.  There are always exceptions- kids who hate school, teachers who are burnt out- but I honestly think that’s true in any business, and any group- not everyone is there and engaged every single day.  But the fact that schools are dealing with kids from different homes, backgrounds, privileges and have to meet all their needs every day is amazing- especially given the results they are getting.

We need schools to be a cornerstone of our communities.  Parents need not to accuse schools, but find ways to help- both in school and at home, by encouraging students to do everything from getting a good night’s sleep, eating ok and learning great study skills.  Politicians need to back off putting schools in the cross hairs and start making sure they have adequate resources o make sure their infrastructure is as strong as we need it to be- not only with technology, but we need teachers who feel confident and secure enough in the job that they will be evaluated fairly, so they can get on with the job we ask of them- to help raise new, smart and curious citizens we want to be in charge of the Country in just a few years.

We’ve got to find ways to help, not criticize.  What are you willing to do?