Requiem for the paperboy and the future of education

Requiem for the paperboy and the future of education

The Emporia Gazette recently ran a column about the newspaper’s decision to end “carrier delivery” in favor of mail delivery. In other words, getting rid of paperboys (and girls).

For many readers, that is hardly news. I can’t remember the last time my newspaper in Topeka was delivered by the iconic kid on a bicycle, rather than an adult in a car or truck. Growing numbers of Kansans get their newspaper only on-line or have dropped their local paper completely. (For more on that, there is a fascinating series of articles published by the Kansas Leadership Center Journal.)

The Gazette story isn’t really about the changing face of journalism, however. The column by the wife of the paper’s editor and publisher is really about what being a newspaper carrier meant to the author’s son and to other young people who have had this experience.

She notes her son earned some money and bought his first “good” bike. “But with the daily grind of the route,” she said, “came so much more.”

Things like reading the news every day, because it was hard to roll and throw 53 papers a day without picking up some of the headlines and stories they contain. “From stories about what was going in Emporia schools, to criminal trials and local events, Will learned to be informed about his community, a habit we hope he never loses.”

It was also about being “accountable to someone (and something) outside of us, his parents” with people depending on getting their paper every day, rain or shine.

The paper route also taught her son how to connect with neighbors and subscribers, to learn how to apologize if a delivery was missed and write thank you notes and “how to have the confidence to speak to and have a conversation with people much older than him.” And how it became a team effort with other neighborhood boys.

Many young people, of course, never had those experiences, and fewer will in the future. Many other jobs for high school and even young students are also disappearing as retail sales also change and older adults reenter or remain in the workforce.

It strikes me that these “paper boy” skills are exactly what so many Kansans say all students need. When the State Board of Education conducted listening tours four years ago, the overwhelming majority of community members, educators and employers said their concerns were not traditional academics, but those skills young people will need to succeed in the workforce, to be part of the community and lead happy healthy lives.

K-12 schools, on other hand, are organized to teach discrete academic subjects. Educators, of course, understand the importance of these other skills and try to encourage them, but usually only indirectly. That means that many students may never get much experience in things that build and teach self-management, responsibility, relationships and civic engagement. For others, the best ways to build these skills is through extracurricular activities, which by definition are “extra;” available only to students with the talent, skills and “extra” family support to participate.

Faced with the reality that these non-academic skills are increasingly in demand, but many students have fewer opportunities to learn them anywhere else, the State Board of Education and many school leaders are trying to change how schools deal with these issues. The Kansans Can school redesign program has four principles:

Student success skills:

Integrated to develop social-emotional learning

Family, business and community partnerships:

Based on mutually beneficial relationships and collaboration

Personalized Learning:

Students have choice over time, place, pace and path

Real World Application:

Project-based learning, internships and civic engagement makes learning relevant

How might “paper boy” skills fit into a redesigned school? First, academic skills will remain crucial. Students of course need to learn how to read and do math, but there will more connection to the real world, like reading about your own community and managing your own finances.

Second, the school won’t “take over” all the roles of family, churches and clubs and afterschool jobs, but it will work more closely with them to provide support and credit – real course credit – for these experiences.

Third, there will be more focus on students deciding for themselves what experiences are most relevant and necessary for their developing personal interests, as students begin to think about possible careers and what they need to be successful in the adult world.

Fourth, school will be much more focused on learning by doing and demonstrating skills rather than reciting knowledge. Students will learn about setting goals, defining a purpose, meeting deadlines, persevering through adversity and working with others as a regular part of the school for all, not extra experiences only for some.

In a redesigned school, you won’t have to be a paper boy to be exposed to local news and learn about earning and managing money; or to interact with both peers and adults; or be expected to be both self-reliant and part of a team; to be given responsibilities beyond passing a test. These opportunities will be provided to all students.

While many Kansas schools are working on each of these ideas, no one had yet figured out how to do it all. That is why Commissioner Watson calls this our “moon shot” – an audacious plan to accomplish what has never been done before. School leaders across Kansas are joining this effort.

There will be fewer paper routes in the future, but more students should get to appreciate the benefits it brought – even if they get their news on a phone.