America’s education system is broken. Or at least that’s what everyone says. It’s not competitive enough, our test scores aren’t high enough, there aren’t enough resources, or teachers, or extra-curricular activities, we need more art and music, more physical education, more recess, better math scores, IB and AP classes, more teachers, smaller classrooms, more student-lead instruction, more everything. No one can seem to decide what we should do with our “broken” system. Can’t we just leave education alone? The more we try to fix the problem the worse it gets. Every budget band-aid, every testing protocol, and every little thing we do to try to prop-up and patch-together our failing system only adds to the problem. Like a teengage girl trying to cover up a particularly nasty pimple, the layers of concealer, foundation, and powder at first seem to be doing the trick. But the more you layer on, the more you blend, and the longer you wait the less convincing your work is. It cakes, dries out, and cracks revealing the problem underneath and leaving you looking worse than if you had just let you skin function naturally.
Although sort of gross, i think that this analogy is actually a pretty accurate one. The more we poke and prod, the more tests we administer, and the more ever-changing benchmarks that we must hit as both students and teachers, the more complicated and convoluted we make our school system. Of course our schools need structure and this structure will need to evolve and change as technology and society keep moving forward. However, i think that we need to focus less on comparisons and more on the individual. We compare our nation to other nations, our districts, school, classes, teachers, and even individual students. There is no space in school that is not already filled with competitive tension and apprehension. This is due less to bad teachers, and hard assignments than it is to the ever-present fear of not succeeding. There is tremendous and often insurmountable pressure placed on children from the moment they place their little feet in preschool. Students are expected to read younger, use complex thought processes, and do more complex math. This “race to the top” (see what i did there?) takes away the focus from education and learning and moves it to getting that 4.5 GPA (a technically impossible feat although it’s becoming more and more common place everyday) and creating the perfect resume. Is this what we really want education (and by extension our lives) to be about? Being better than others? Becoming untouchabley talented so that no one can even hope to come close to our achievements?
I hate that mentality. And i don’t use the word hate lightly. Is our goal as people and as a society to have individual success or collaborative success? There’s a disgusting attitude towards group-work, collaboration, and teamwork in schools and in society. We all participate in group-work, but when was the last time you heard somebody excited to start a group-project in school? Everyone hates group-work and collaboration, it’s a fact of life, but why? Why is collaboration seen as a bad thing in our society? In society’s eyes the only form of true success is individual success. Your success is due to YOUR work, YOUR time, YOUR energy, YOUR self-starting attitude. If you do a quick google image search for success almost every image depicts one person, a solitary victory. These images speak volumes about the way our society values collaboration and teamwork. It shouldn’t take away from your successes to admit that you had help or that you collaborated with others. Collaboration is one of our best attributes as a species. Collaboration is what got humans and our society where it is today: global and human efforts to raise the standard of living, to increase technological availability, to create innovative new products and ideas. Without collaboration our society and world would be a pale imitation of what we have accomplished together. Why can we not see that it is our ability to collaborate that makes us so successful? New perspectives, ideas, and ways of working can only come from outside sources. You cannot and should not have to take on the world alone.
Do i have an answer for how to reform or restructure our school system so that it is the “best”? No. But i honestly don’t think that anybody does. Even Finland doesn’t have a perfect education system. I can tell you what i know is necessary and vital to learn in order to be a capable, successful, happy adult. You need to learn social skills: learning how to communicate with others respectfully, and how to disagree respectfully. You need to learn how to be creative and imagine: without art, music, and physical activity life is boring and monotonous. You need to learn how to express yourself: either through written or spoken word, communication and self-expression are valuable tools for creating strong personal and business relationships as well as getting to know yourself and becoming happy with who you are. You need to learn how to critically think and analyze and synthesize information: being able to think for yourself is what makes each of us so unique and influential in our own right, if you can think critically you can make decisions for yourself and participate actively and thoughtfully in everything from day-day decisions to national elections. Finally you need to learn how to collaborate and work with others. I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again, collaboration is one of the tools that makes us so successful as individuals and as a species. Without collaboration we are nothing, and our bad attitude towards asking for help and advice is detrimental to our happiness and success.
So how do we “fix” education? How do we reform and restyle our schools so that our students are passing tests with flying colors and ranking high nationally and internationally? We don’t. You don’t “fix” education, there is no perfect style of school or classroom that will work for each of the millions of students in the United States. What we need to focus on is creating students and individuals who can think and work for themselves, who aren’t afraid to ask for help and can use the resources available to them to succeed in their goals. Creating blanket systems for testing and learning is counterproductive and does nothing but add stress to the already complicated lives of teachers and students.
As far as i’m concerned the federal government should be providing one thing for our nation’s schools: funding. I do not know enough about the economics of education to tell you how that money should be distributed, but I do know that schools and classrooms are highly individualized even within the same city. It is ridiculous and presumptuous of ourselves to assume that what works for students in New York will work for students in Florida or California. The lifestyle and demands of the average American shift dramatically when moving through the nation. In order to provide that funding the government would probably have to administer some sort of national test in order to create benchmarks and averages, but one test a year is more than enough. The test would measure core skills sets such as critical thinking and communication. Apart from this single test, how a school chooses to test or teach it’s students should be up to that school and its staff. On a national level, school would teach skills like critical thinking, social interaction, communication, and creativity. At an individual level, schools would teach English, Math, Carpentry, Mechanics, History, etc. Elementary school would provide students with core content knowledge like basic history, math, English, political, science, and technology knowledge. When it comes to secondary education students should be allowed to make a choice. Most students never return to the content-specific knowledge they acquired in middle and high school unless it is something they are particularly passionate about, but they do continue to use their critical thinking and social skills every day of their lives no matter what profession or lifestyle they choose.This approach would create a diverse system of schools that cater to a variety of need and styles of learning. Students and parents could choose the school that best matches their child’s interests, learning style, and capabilities. This system would dramatically change how we view education, students, and the definition of student success. Instead of testing day in and day out and completing courses that have no relevance to their lives, students (and their parents) should be allowed to decide what sort of content and specific skill sets they would like to learn.
Education is a complicated process. Those who have never set foot in an education class or taught so much as a pottery class should have no say in what education and learning could and should be in our nation. How can someone with no practical experience as an educator and no recent experience as a student possibly understand the detriments that arise from our current system? The only reason education is the way it is today is because we as a nation and as individuals have decided that this is the “right” way to educate, and that this particular style will lead to “success” in our modern world. If you want to live in a world that values collaboration, critical thinking, and considers more than your GPA it is up to you as citizens and students to choose not to play the game of education. I refuse to let myself be defined and categorized by people who know nothing of me other than a late assignment, a single five paragraph essay, or my score on the SAT. I will not let my successes become diminished simply because i asked for help or collaborated with a classmate or friend. If you feel like school was a waste of your time, if you feel useless and stupid because you failed one test (or like some of my friends, because they got a B instead of an A), if you don’t want to trudge through a 9-5 life just so you can wave your business card in someone’s face, if you want more from life than our nations unrealistic, individualistic, and detrimental definition of success, then stop playing the game. You do not have to accept the system we are currently in. Vote for and make change. Decide to live your life for more than your grades and future profession. If it were up to me we would live in world and nation where education is about more than factual knowledge and success is defined by more than our salary and position.
Unfortunately it’s not up to me, it’s up to us.