Everyone seems to agree that the education system sucks, but I have yet to hear of a conclusive proposal for what to do about it. Every “solution” I hear often boils down to “throw more money at it”. Well, that doesn’t work. Schools that spend more per student do not show their students to perform better. In certain cases, better-funded schools perform worse. It’s not like in online poker, where going all-in when you’re losing is a viable strategy.
No, the problem isn’t money, but how it’s used. Like for everyone else, money is a resource. A means to an end. If it’s just blown-on nonsense because the school happens to have enough excess cash to buy some modern art for the principles office, then the school might as well not have had any excess money for all it matters to the students.
Let’s break down the largest problems with the education system and how we might go about solving them:
For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve heard teachers complain about their hours, their pay, how noble they must be for having gone into the profession anyway. While there’s a grain of truth in there, they also conveniently forget to point out the benefits many teachers enjoy.
Namely, the Teacher’s Union.
Now, there is a strong argument for why unions, in general, should be able to exist. The idea is that a group of maligned workers can come together in order to strong-arm their boss or their local representatives into taking action favorable to the workers. Unions have fought some important battles, like overpay, vacation days, and bathroom breaks, and whatnot.
The problem is, I think the Teacher’s Union has gained too much power in some areas. It’s great for the teachers but terrible for the students.
The best example of this is how hard it is to fire a bad teacher. It can take years, even if the students hate the teacher and the teacher doesn’t get the students to good grades. In some states, like New York, the process is nearly impossible. In fact, in most cases, teachers in New York that should be fired are instead put in rooms to sit around and do nothing for hours while being paid full time and collecting mandatory pay raises every six months. In fact, a teacher that was being convicted of sexual assault of a student took four years to be fired because of just how many hoops you have to go through in New York to get rid of a teacher.
But never mind these extreme cases- what about teachers that just aren’t very good? Not terrible, but not great either? Ask any student after graduation to count the number of teachers they remember with any kind of fondness. I bet that they could count them on the one hand. So out of the dozens of teachers that a student will have over the course of his education, why will he only like, at most, five or less of them?
Because teachers don’t have to try. They don’t have to compete with each other for excellence. Neither the students nor their parents nor their coworkers have to like them because teachers can be right pricks and never have to worry about facing repercussions from the system because of it. All that matters is that the students learn enough to pass the standardized tests… and speaking of which…
The largest problem with modern education is the “one size fits all” approach. Every student goes through the same curriculum, taught nearly the same way so that they can all pass the exact same tests. Do you see the problem?
Not every student is exactly the same. Humans are individuals, which their own talents, hobbies, and aspirations. Trying to funnel every student down the same path not only fails to recognize potential outside the parameters of the current system but also impresses the idea that anyone who can’t meet these parameters has little value in the real world.
Here’s an anecdote: I knew a student that was a trouble-maker by every definition of the word. He didn’t listen in class. He took the easiest levels of every class he could, played hooky when he felt like it, smoked and drank underage- the whole nine yards. Yet, outside of school, he was a completely different person. He volunteered to work alongside paramedics. In the army, he listened to orders and served diligently and with discipline. He took the initiative and was responsible in a way he never was inside a classroom. I think about him a lot, and I wonder, “How many students like him are there, whose potential is completely overlooked because they don’t scribble numbers on paper very well?”
Standardized testing also presumes that some government body knows exactly how to teach any given subject and that these tests they create are a good way to measure a student’s understanding of the subject.
A standardized test only proves one thing: That the student knows how to pass a standardized test. Take a sample of students about six months to a year after they have finished high school. Hand them one of these standardized tests, and ask them to answer the questions. Having passed their classes, they should be able to answer the questions, right? I doubt it.
They learned the material they needed to know to pass the test and then promptly forgot it once they stopped needing to know it. How much any student retains depends entirely on the student and their desire to retain any of it.
And it’s not like this doesn’t influence how teachers teach, either. Schools, more often than not, teach students for the test, rather than the test being a measurement of how much the student has learned. It doesn’t help that school budgets are often tied to student performance on these tests, which encourages schools to focus more on getting students to pass these tests rather than actually educating the students for the sake of learning the subjects themselves.
Who cares if the students don’t understand the mitochondria beyond the fact that it’s “the powerhouse of the cell”, whatever that means? They averaged B+ on their exams, so the school gets to suckle on that sweet, sweet taxpayer dollars.
How many students end up leaving high school without a clue as to what they’re going to do with their lives? The answer is- a lot of them. Because of the “one size fits all” mentality, everyone is directed by default to finish high school and then go to college and get a degree. Why? Because it’s “the thing” to do.
The problem is, this is not an appropriate path for everyone. That’s not a bad thing. Not everyone should be pushed to get a college degree, and there are some strong reasons to avoid it. Student debt, a major problem for the younger generation, is a big one.
Colleges are expensive, thanks to bad student loan policies. When the government is guaranteed to pay off student loans, and not the students, colleges and universities can increase their tuition without worrying that banks will stop giving out the loans to students who aren’t financially savvy enough yet to realize the huge mistake they’re making.
Then, after four years, these students emerge from college with a piece of paper declaring their excellence in philosophy or underwater basket weaving, and in a best-case scenario, they can return to the university to teach the next generation of suckers. At worst, there is no job pool for their degree, and they’re now massively in debt. In fact, a majority of graduates with degrees end up working in fields unrelated to their degree.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
The first reason is that there’s a stigma that if you don’t have a fancy piece of paper, you’re not as useful to society.
The second reason is that universities that cost more are perceived to be better, even though Ivy League schools are simply not worth the price of entry.
The bottom line is, it comes down to the fact that many students leave high schools without any kind of direction. They have their interests and hobbies but aren’t often directed as to how they could make them profitable (despite how many times schools tell students to “Follow their Dreams”). A lot of students end up looking to their parents and decide to vaguely follow what they think their parents believe would be a good career path.
Most parents are encouraging, but few actually know how to sit their children down and focus their attention toward an achievable future. High School should be a way for students to get a taste of what paths their lives could take in order to fuel their passions. If a student shows interest in biology, he or she should be shown what someone who pursues such a field actually does every day. If they like programming, they should be shown what’s possible to create through code. If they like art, they should be shown what a Pixar animator does, or a graphic designer, or a 3D artist for Video Games.
In the current system, students are more often than not told what to learn but are only rarely taught why they are learning it in the first place. Math is the perfect example. How many students start to learn algebra and ask, “When am I ever going to use this?!”
And how often are they actually given satisfactory answers?
The most straightforward solution to the low-hanging fruit of these problems is to encourage school choice. Schools (even public ones) should be forced to compete against one another for students. We know this works because in private schools, where the schools have to compete for students and teachers are more easily held accountable, students greatly outperform their public school counterparts.
The idea behind school vouchers is to help facilitate this in public education. Instead of the government giving every school X dollars, the government gives every student X dollars in vouchers to be spent on schools. The students and their parents pay the most desirable school, encouraging competition.
However, these solutions are just band-aids on a system that probably has to be rebuilt from the ground up. We need to do a serious review of why we even have the education system. What is the purpose of the school system? It surely can’t be for students to memorize a bunch of nonsense to vomit back up on a test at the end of the year. However, this subject is vast and complex and probably requires a greater mind than I, armchair-complaining maestro, to fix it.