Student Achievement

Orange County, FL has become the second school district I know of that has decide that giving students a zero on a assignment causes the kids to lose hope of passing so they just quit.  To address this problem, the worst grade you can give them is a 50 instead of a zero.  That way they can recover from one missed assignment.  Huh?!?!  No, you read this right.  The school superintendent was quoted in the SunSentinel as saying that only 43 percent of the students who received a 50 actually recovered to pass the class with a D.  I have several questions.  First, how does this policy teach these kids any responsibility?  For the kids that do their work, how is that fair?  What message does this policy send to the kids?  Be a lazy dumbass and do nothing and you can still pass?  That reinforces the concept of entitlement which we all agree is a problem in society that we need to overcome.  Finally, if one missed assignment causes the kids to fail, why are there not more assignments so missing one is not fatal?  That is what happens with my students (who still get a zero for not doing an assignment).

It would seem that such a policy is not based on an educational goal but more like a political one to improve school perception.  That is as bad an idea as having kids beg for money for uniforms and class trips etc.  Kids do not sell anything they just beg for money.  So are we teaching them that begging and panhandling is an acceptable career?  Seriously what impression does that provide to these young minds?  How does either experience prepare kids for the real world where doing nothing gets you fired, not rewarded, and begging for money vs actually work is also not rewarded.

Once upon a time, education was the purview of the wealthy.  American businesses argued that a basic education was needed to train a workforce for industrial jobs.    The American public education system was created with this in mind- to train the next generation of workers.  With education came great social and economic advancement.  We clearly are deviating from that goal.  Students need a good foundation in math, writing and reading (in English!), civics and science so they understand social responsibility, can communicate, understand how things work the world and can solve complex problems.  They do not need pseudo-science or politicized science, but real science.  Business understands this.  But where is the business community on job training in schools?  It would seem the business community has abdicated their responsibility to local districts who are trying to meet political goals, not economic goals.  Why are we not using all the extensive testing to figure out the strengths of students and encourage them to play to those strengths? Not every kid can go to college, or should, but that does not mean they cannot achieve or be successful.  They may need different training to hone their strengths.

Back in the day my Dad told me that as the education system was developed in his hometown of Detroit, students were given aptitude tests.  I was also.  The kids were divided up based on skills and aptitude.  Students were even sent to different schools as they got older that tailored programs to their interests and skills set.  Kids that the schools system felt had the aptitude to succeed in college had different courses than students that were less academically included but perhaps more mechanical, more artisan, more labor, clerical, etc.  Different kids go training to help them succeed with their skills.  Less academic did not mean less inclined to succeed or be successful. just differently.  And they had a better chance to be successful.  We seem to miss that today.

Today we have parents insisting that everyone be treated the same, and that no kid gets left behind.  But putting kids with different aptitudes, maturity, and academic inclinations in one class is destined to either fail for all, or fail for everyone but the average.  Such a protocol begets policies like Orange (and Broward) County that direct teachers to adjust grades so “Little Johnny” doesn’t feel bad.  Extensive college prep testing and disconnected learning discourage the less academic kids, leading to dropping out, or other behaviors.  Such policies and expectations by parent and political leaders are not helpful for building an educated society.  Instead we need to search further into the root causes.  Are there too few assignments?  Are they too disconnected for students to appreciate?  Should we sort out strengths and treat different students differently to discourage disinterest?  How do we assess their strengths and design programs to help students succeed.   And who takes responsibility for these kids?  And perhaps we should revisit some of the lessons learned from the early years of the industrial development (1930s) to figure out what they did well, and see how policies today frustrate those goals.  Maybe the way forward is rooted in the past.

Happy Graduation to my seniors.  Over 20 of them are graduating and you can see them and their gold hardhats of Facebook.  The good news is most have jobs or grad school offers.  Most of those going to grad school are staying with us, as you would expect with a student body where many have family responsibilities and jobs.  They will do well and they are well prepared for the work world.  Don’t believe me?  Ask their employers.

My students are back from the ASCE Southeast Regional Student Competition.  They received 2 second place awards out of 18 contests.  Not too shabby considering there were only about 30 students that were active in putting this together, all going to school full-time, and many working and supporting families.  And they were competing against 30 other schools, including several far bigger engineering schools like the Universities of Florida, Alabama, and Central Florida and Auburn University. 

So how did they do?  Let’s start with the canoe.  The canoe was indestructible (see photo).  The students rowed well given very little experience.  Far better than some of the other schools despite the wind and currents in the canal.  The canoe was 700 lbs and it still floated.  They finished second on plan reading and professional paper competitions.  The environmental filter worked super well the first trial.  A little plugging on the second but a good job regardless.  The balsa bridge held 700 lbs and the 186 g 2 x 2 x 2 inch cube – 1400 lbs.  They also did surveying, shuffleboard with concrete materials, and several others.  All good efforts, and each year gets better. 

If you have never seen these competitions, you need to.  The students work hard, compete well and have fun.  It is a good means to meet other students and see what they do.  The key is to autopsy the results to help the next students.  Overall a good experience for all of them.  So congratulations!

We get to start the new semester this week.  The economy is looking up in Florida.  Unemployment is down, although the job growth appears to be mostly minimum wage jobs.  So it is useful to look at last semester’s graduates and see how they are doing.  The good news is they are getting jobs.  In fact our seniors mostly have jobs or internships and none of them are minimum wage jobs.  Excellent news, but let’s look at the new graduates and the workplace. 

A lot of our assumptions about the workplace will change in the 21st century.  The workplace at the “office” is less necessary and younger workers are more comfortable working outside the office environment.  They may be more productive than 20th century managers think they will be because of the side benefits that flex hours allow.  Their entry into the workforce places four generations at work at once:  Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y or Millennials.  The latter are the fastest growing segment of the workforce, and are already a larger percent of the workforce than Gen X or Traditionists.  The Traditionalists are retiring and are expected to be under 8 % in 2015.  Gen X and Gen Y will encompass about a third of the workforce going forward.

All of these groups have different perspectives.  Recent studies indicate the following.  Baby Boomers grew up post-WWII in a time of change and reform.  Some believe they are instruments of change.  They are optimistic, hard-working and motivated by position.  Gen X grew up in an era of both parents working, so are resourceful and hardworking, but not as motivated by position.  They are independent, and prefer to work on their own.  And many are contributing to the way government operates throughout the world. They accept technology as a way to involve others.  The use of online means to solicit feedback in government is particularly a Gen X phenomenon.  Public participation, traditionally are arena where limited public involvement actually occurs except with highly unpopular issues.

Gen Y was born in an era when both parents worked, but in their off-time, the parents spent more focus on the kids.  Think of no winners or losers in sports, but at the same time they have had unprecedented access to technology and are often well ahead of their work mates with respect to the use of tools in the workplace.  But, they are resourceful and can easily overcome technology barriers in the workplace. They care about their image and the world around them.  We can use that to implement change.

However, Gen Y is facing a workplace that clearly has winners as well as some skepticism about technology.  While we can expect some difficulties, it is up to the Gen X and Baby Boomers to help Gen Y make the transition. They have fresh viewpoints as they have had to be creative to get ahead.  Just doing things “the same old way,” doesn’t cut it.  I actually find this refreshing and a positive challenge to me because I use these challenges to go back of evaluate what my thinking was (or is).  We need to embrace this perspective and channel their energy and independence to solving today’s problems. 

We need to help them acclimate to the business world, while understanding that their motivations are not the same as Dan Pink notes in his book “Drive.”  We need new ideas and perspectives while welcoming them to the workplace.  That is how we improve productivity, product new ways to work, and develop new tools.  We need all of these in the utility industry as we need better ways to upgrade infrastructure and deliver our services.

There is a lot of talk about the difficulties that Gen Y is having getting jobs.  They often lack experience, but how do you get experience if no one hires you.  It is circular logic and we have all been there. 

We need to give the kids a chance.  I see a lot of potential in our graduates, nearly all of whom are Gen Y.  I see many who are hard working and know how to find answers to their questions.   They are far better prepared than many think.  We get comments all the time about how good our students are.  That is good, because the truth is, especially in the engineering and utility world, the Gen Y workforce does not understand why things were done a certain way in the past, nor why they should remain that way.  I actually find this refreshing and a positive challenge to me because I use these challenges to go back of evaluate what my thinking was (or is).  We need to embrace this perspective and channel their energy and independence to solving today’s problems.  They offer fresh ideas – and don’t necessary understand why.  That’s ok.  Long-term engineering graduates will make contributions to our water, sewer and other infrastructure. 

I worked for a while in rural North Carolina.  I confronted two issues there that are instructive. The first was that many people did not value education because for the most part they expected to do menial labor activities on farms or in construction.  They figured they did not need much education. That was the adults!!  Kids in such situations have little hope of succeeding academically when their parents do not value education, and in some cases may either ridicule their efforts or at least be un-supportive of same.  The second was the idea that the “guys” who could not work anywhere but needed a job should get a job with the “city.”  Wow, I’d like to hope we are past both of these, but the Census statistics clearly show we are not on the education part at least.  Census data indicates that when you look at educational spending, per capita income, graduation rates and unemployment rates, the bottom 10 states are:

North Carolina


South Carolina





West Virginia



All but Nevada (#35) are in the bottom 12 in spending per student and the academic achievement of their students appears to indicate the efforts are inadequate.  For the most part these are largely rural southern states, so my experiences 25 years ago may be no different now. Kids see low wages, higher unemployment and figure what does education get them?, so it perpetuates the myth of their parents. Or maybe it is not a myth afterall?  Interesting these are primarily the states with the highest number of students in poverty, lead my Mississippi’s whopping 71%.  All are over 50%. All among the states with highest rates of food stamp recipients.  So the kids are living the low income expectations.

Where I currently am I periodically interact with inner-city kids. No surprise, there is a similar mindset – the kids see their future as minimum wage jobs that require no skills, or the expectation that the violence of their surroundings will catch up to them (crime, welfare, etc).  None of their expectations require education (although it is surprising how sophisticated their understanding of all of these issues are), so many do not pursue learning with vigor after 10 or 12 years old. Skipping school, suspensions, lower scores and grades are common.  Too many parents do not encourage their kids and the mindset creates deterioration of urban schools. Periodically I have students who are actively trying to escape the stereotypes, but they will confirm that school is not a priority for far too many  inner city kids.  No surprise they learn this from their parents who are often underemployed or lack good employment because they never obtained the education needed to escape the neighborhood. 

In both cases the problem is lack of employment expectations. The kids look around them and figure they have no hope of escaping the minimum wage, limited skill jobs. Unfortunately our job resurgence indicates that these are the jobs we are producing the most on far too many areas.  In the past 2 years, the State of Florida suggests that 90% of the jobs created are minimum wages jobs.  The local casinos are advertising for hundreds of jobs – as waiters, kitchen help, maintenance, etc. most starting at or just above minimum wage rate.  The hospitality industry is full or low wage, limited skill jobs. So is agriculture in rural areas. The problem is the message sent to kids?  Education is not rewarded, so why bother.

So what does this have to do with utilities?  Utilities are everywhere and inn every community. Education affects utilities because as technology grows, we need better job skills from workers.  Gone are the days of hiring people to dig ditches that may not need to read, write or do math.  We are computerizing everything.  As a result all of our jobs, regardless how much labor may be involved, need skills.  Utility field people are the face of the utility.  We need qualified, employees to can represent the utility well, not uneducated, ignorant people who can’t answer questions or who cannot communicate with the public about what they are doing.  The question is how to solve this problem especially in rural areas where education may not be valued. 

First, we need to get into the schools.  Not colleges, but middle schools.  That is where many students appear to be lost.  They get to be 16 and drop out.  Hanging out, not working, gangs, crime, drug cultures, etc all appear to be “easier” than going to school and then working to earn a living.  We need to create value in all of our jobs.  Certainly not all jobs need a college education, but  a high school diploma with basic abilities to read, write, do math and communicate to the public are needed to create value for us. We need to impress on rural communities and inner city kids that we provide desirable jobs and encourage them toward us.  That may mean internships, student efforts in schools, tours, and lots of interaction with teachers.  It takes time, but may be worth our while on many levels.  

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