The Real Life Skills? - writercize #77

In a previous post called Question It All, I challenged readers to think critically about the news they read rather than digesting it directly.  I very much appreciate listening to news radio, catching up on current events in the newspaper and magazines and watching TV news (all when I have a moment of time to spare, that is) but I try to take everything with a grain of salt.  I expect reporting to be objective and unbiased, and I expect that facts have been checked, but I don't necessarily trust that it is.  When there's a scoop and ratings to consider, sometimes objectivity and fact-checking are placed on hold to get the story out.  

I'm especially wary when it comes to reports on statistics and studies.  It may be due to my Communications course on statistics in college, but I could pretty easily create a study to support any hypothesis I like.

Last week, Newsweek released it's list of the top 500 public schools, based on academic success factors such as college-bound seniors, SAT scores and AP course offerings.  I would be proud to send my children to a school that is on the list and feel pretty good that the academic consideration is well-covered.  I think the matrix is a good indicator of the academic component of the high schools, but I do think it falls short of the term "best schools."  In my view, a "best" school offers much more than academics; it offers education on life.  I thought about it for a few days and wrote an opinion piece on Technorati that was published earlier today.  A copy of that analysis is below.

writing exercise:  If you were creating a matrix to determine which schools best prepare their students for life after student-hood, what factors would you look at and why?

Click "read more" for the writercizer sample response.  (Article first published as How Should We Really Calculate The Best High Schools? on Technorati.)
writercizer response:
Last week Newsweek released their list of the Top 500 High Schools in America. The list looks exclusively at public high schools and uses a matrix calculating on-time graduation rates, college-bound seniors, AP classes and exams and SAT test scores to rank and determine the cream of the studious crop.

It is true that a high school diploma and a college degree are helpful in transforming students into successful adults - every job application asks for educational background and college networking is an important tool for getting that resume to the top of the HR pile, but attitude and the ability to make well-informed decisions will ultimately separate the success stories from the rest. 

Kids need to know more than how to take a test, write a paper, get a passing grade. They need to know how to analyze problems and be fully informed and aware of how their decisions will affect themselves, their family, and the world at large.  They need to know how to cultivate relationships and how to exercise restraint, how to decipher not only what is right and wrong, but see the shades of gray along the way.

Personally, I'd like to see a list of high schools that give their students the tools not only to move on to higher education, but help them grow into responsible adults. 

I am a huge supporter of a college education, but I also recognize that for an economy to be successful, we need a good mix of people, including manual laborers who do not need an advanced degree, but do need to know life skills. All too often, these life skills are missing altogether from education.

Here are the components of my proposed matrix assessing a high school's ability to confer life skills :

-Sex Education: If there is anything that will change a students life forever, it is acting irresponsibly about sex. Imagine being 17 and finding out you are pregnant, or HIV-positive. Life will forever be different. 

Sex education should be an earnest conversation that does not ignore the existence of sex or present sex as a choice between abstinence and sex. The discussion should be about abstinence, safe sex and alternatives to intercourse. 

Kids need to know about the responsibility they take on when choosing to have sex. They need to know about disease, contraception, pregnancy and parenting, abortion, adoption, and the physical and emotional components of each so that when the hormones take over and the lights are low, they are armed with the ability to make a good decision.

-Job Application: Every student who attends high school should be able to write a resume, search for job openings, compose a cover letter, and sit through a job interview. Period. 

-Personal Finance: We are seeing a major backlash in the United States right now after a long period of overspending. The minute a person turns 18, they are bombarded with credit card offers, many willing to give a student a line of credit that far exceeds the spending they are capable of paying for. Students need to know how to balance a checkbook, the real cost of a house or car loan, how to save for retirement and how to make financial decisions they can live with. They should know how much it will cost to rent an apartment, including utilities and the initial payment. 

-Ethics: Simply stated, students should know how to stand up for their peers. As news reports and YouTube videos of bullying increases, students should know how to recognize when a peer is acting aggressively or feeling isolated and reach out or report it to an authority figure. A teenager who knows how to stand up will turn into an adult who can raise their voice when something isn't right. Perhaps we could have saved Wall Street and the housing market with a little less focus on profit and a little more focus on ethics and helping the "little guy," the average person working hard every day to make a mortgage payment, trusting those who lent them the money.

-Global Perspective: By global perspective, I don't mean that a student should know where every country is located and the capital of each nation, although that would be nice. I mean students should understand that the world is larger than their community. They should be well-equipped to understand that in life they will come across people from different countries and cultures with different religious beliefs and world views and know how to communicate and find common ground with anyone.

Global perspective means respecting the earth and environment and making good decisions to conserve water and electricity and keep the earth clean. It means knowing that resources are limited and the world's population is growing.

Global perspective also extends to the economy; students should know how a company's decision to move a factory affects not only the people who lose their employment, but how it affects those who will gain employment. They should understand how an earthquake in Japan can affect the food they eat and products they buy in California, how wars in the Middle East affect the price of the gas they buy in Texas. The interconnectedness of it all.

-Charity: People who give back to their communities help others and help themselves in the process. I would like to see more public high schools recognizing what many private high schools already know - charity provokes an attitude of humanity, humility, gratitude and responsibility in those who give their time and resources. There is no company or community that wouldn't do well with employees that exhibit these properties.

If I were looking to hire someone, I might be impressed by the Harvard graduate, but I'd look to hire the person who knows how to work with others and make smart decisions, regardless of the name brand of their degree. The components listed above can be taught at the high school level, even the middle school level, but as we move towards rating schools on SAT scores, we are forgetting the measures of success that truly matter in life.  Kids armed with real-world knowledge and confidence in their analytical thinking will know success.


  1. What a wonderfully considered article - you would put yourself high on the list of potential job seekers with your attitude and well researched writing. Life skills figure hoigh on your list, and so they should even for a laborer.

  2. that was an excellent commentary.
    i only wish parents took more responsibility for some of those areas.

  3. well thought out and written. As a former high school teacher, I can say I think some of those things are covered in HS, but that's different than them being considered part of what makes a HS "best"--which you do a good job of explaining.

    Miss you!

  4. Peter, thanks so much for your kind words!

    Tara, yes, also very true. I think (I hope!) that many parents are doing what they should do as well along these lines, but I also think that during those pre-teen and teen years, some information is better digested through an adult who is not a parent. Get them from all sides, right?

    Olaina, thanks for the compliment. Missing you too! I think there are probably several high schools that would do well when presented with a list such as this, and I don't think it would be terribly difficult to quantify such a list. Exactly why I'd like to see it instead of (in addition to?) the standard SAT/ACT/AP method of determining the "best." I also think there are many that are not covering a wide enough spectrum of information, especially when it comes to sex ed and personal finance!

  5. Such a wonderful and informative article. Not only are you a gifted writer of fiction, but non-fiction as well!


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