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The looming storm ahead

In 2009, I found myself wandering the streets of New York City caught up in the winds of uncertainty that were sweeping the country. Economic doom had darkened the national mood as companies everywhere had begun to unload employees. I was in desperate need of a job after three years of law school, but as luck would have it, I picked the worst conceivable time to enter the work force.

In April of 2010, I got a call from a friend I met in college. Five years before, he opened a charter school in one of Colorado’s lowest performing school districts that served a community of children who were primarily lower-income and Latino. The mission at his school was simple; to get these kids to college.

I had nothing to lose, so I took a job at the school with a law degree but no experience in education and no idea what I was walking into. That’s when I discovered that teaching kids how to read, write and multiply is only half the battle when you consider the complexity of today’s generation.

An overwhelming number of today’s students come from households that lack structure and discipline, while others get preoccupied with the world of celebrity nonsense they discover on their smartphones. Discipline is an explosive subject where educators, parents, and the public often clash, so many schools dance around behavior problems in order to avoid parent complaints, costly law suits and negative press. Accordingly, the giant pharmaceutical industry has stepped in to provide an easy fix in the form of Ritalin or Adderal, and has struck gold in the process.

In high school, my own academic performance hit rock bottom on several occasions due to an inability to focus in class. At the time, the drug Ritalin had taken off as a solution for what the medical establishment had coined the Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Millions of dollars stood to be made as a giant new market opened up, comprised of youth like me who went to class with girls, parties and car stereos on their minds as opposed to U.S. history.

After a short visit to a psychiatric expert, I was approved for a prescription of Ritalin which I tried for a week before a loss of appetite and a zombie-like effect led me to stop. Several years later, I’m noticing that various forms of ADD have become the standard diagnosis for any disruptive kid. Yet ironically, this same kid will go home and spend hours in a trance-like focus sitting in front of an Xbox or Pixar movie.

Numerous strides have been made in education over the past 50 years as innovative methods of teaching have combined with a new generation of instructional tools. Many schools have defied the odds and are achieving results in some of the nation’s most difficult neighborhoods. Yet despite this success, a deeper look into the statistics will reveal a looming storm on the road ahead that educators in the U.S. must race to prevent.

Consider this…

The percentage of college and high school grads has steadily increased in the U.S., with a vast majority of the population (85.2%) holding diplomas, and nearly a quarter (22%) holding a Bachelor’s degree. However, the stats reveal an achievement gap where certain communities are being left behind. Specifically speaking, only 57% of Latinos have a diploma, with a mere 11.4% holding a college degree.

Now cross this with the fact that Latinos are the largest growing ethnic group in the U.S., and one will begin to see the problem. The achievement gap is growing wider at a time when the workforce is undergoing a major transformation toward high-skilled labor. The service industry of yesterday is being obliterated by an emerging force of smarter, stronger, and cost-effective machines, which means that engineers and IT wizards will now be needed to program and repair these machines.

Banking jobs will disappear as we start cashing checks and making transactions through our smart phones. Warehouse positions will be lost to robotic inventions, while a host of cashier jobs will evaporate with the emergence of automated tellers (think Colorado grocery stores like Safeway and King Soopers). An increasing number of sales jobs will vanish as more of us opt to buy our goods on-line. And what’s not lost to automation will likely get outsourced to other countries if current trends are any indication.

With that said, there has never been a more important time for people out there searching for a cause (like I was in 2009) to join the race to reinvent education in the U.S. For tomorrow’s forecast predicts a long period of stormy skies that we must act to avoid. Otherwise…take cover now.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.