Five days a week, for nine months a year, students from ages 5 to 18 all over the country spend seven hours a day in a classroom where they learn basic skills that are meant to prepare them for higher education and eventually the working world. In a broader sense, this is meant to develop an educated populace whose members have certain fundamental competencies. Importantly, this education takes place during a child’s formative years, and thus has the potential, to a large extent, to either foster or spoil his or her love of learning for the rest of his or her life.
Unfortunately, education in the United States has become more or less fixated on an international competition in which America ranks outside the top 10 in terms of academic aptitude. In fact, according to CNN, in an international survey examination called the PISA test that incorporated math, science and reading, the United States placed 25th, while Canada was seventh and Japan second.
These results point to major inadequacies at the core of the American educational system. Meanwhile, the government seems determined to catalyze a dramatic resurgence of American K-12 educational prowess. However, we remain far from achieving this goal, and the frantic effort to get to the top has created many problems of its own.
Today’s education system is underfunded, unenthusiastic and uncreative on a managerial level and has been desecrated by a saturation of standardized testing. Election after election, one hears politicians talk about how they are going to fix the system and increase the quality of K-12 education, yet real change is quite rare.
Part of the reason for this is that many of the deepest-rooted problems with the education system, such as those mentioned above with the exception of lack of funding, are administrative and organizational in nature; they cannot be ameliorated by simply throwing money their way. However, most politicians fail to understand this and we are thus inundated with the same rhetoric year after year. Real solutions are needed to help today’s youth reach their highest potential. But the first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one.
One of the most problematic aspects of public education lies in standardized testing; American students are among the most over-tested in the world, yet as the PISA test clearly exemplifies, this method does not achieve the desired results.
The troubles with over-testing began during the second Bush administration with Laura Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and escalated with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top. The very name “Race to the Top” is an example of the fundamental problem with the way that politicians look at education.
Instead of a desire to deliver a well-rounded education in which all learning styles are valued and learning is made enjoyable, politicians are more concerned with saving face and making America look better on the global stage. This has far-reaching consequences, the most regrettable of which is the stifling of creativity in favor of rote memorization.
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse with the implementation of the Common Core curriculum. Signed into law in 2010, the Common Core standards of education are levels of proficiency in reading and math that the government requires every student to meet. Failure to do so can have grave repercussions for students and teachers alike.
In what could only be described as an act of desperation, the federal government has enacted punitive measures to ensure that these testing criteria are met. From third to eighth grade, there are annual tests that public schools in all 50 states are required to administer. Schools with high test failure rates may be shut down, and firing principals and administrators has become a common practice.
Teachers are not safe from the government’s wrath either: with the threat of unemployment looming over their heads, they are forced to all but sacrifice their integrity and “teach to the test.” In this way, education has become less about about cultivating students’ intellect and more about elevating test scores and boosting teachers’ ratings.
More troubling are the government’s shameless attempts to incentivize education. Much like rewarding a petulant child with candy for good behavior, the government has begun doling out monetary funds to schools whose test scores meet — or better, exceed — Common Core guidelines. But this practice of rewarding schools for their test scores only reinforces them to push their students harder for the sake of higher scores.
The Common Core standards are evidence of a good idea that has been badly executed: what should have been a revolutionary method of improving public schools has become a cruel game of cat and mouse — with the government pulling the strings.
The most disturbing part about this whole debacle is that there are companies, such as Pearson and College Board, making millions of dollars from the way the system is set up. They view the education system as an “emerging market” and have little regard for the quality of the education students are getting because they are in business to make money. These companies have profited immensely from their arbitrary quantification of students’ intellect. And in doing so, they have catalyzed the steady burn out of students from public education.
Additionally, the educational standards in many states are very narrow, often testing only reading and math. This is extremely detrimental to students who excel in subjects like music, the arts and foreign languages; it has created a stigma around the humanities and enforces the notion that one is only “smart” if they are good at math and science. Yet in every exam room, there will be an artist struggling with algebra, a singer who is bored to death by physics and a chef who cannot unscramble paragraphs.
The system makes them feel like their skills and proficiencies are not valued by society, while in reality not everyone can be a mathematician or an engineer. C.S. Lewis said that “art and philosophy have no survival value; rather, they give value to survival.” Culture, art and music have always been as fundamental to what makes us human as physical engineering feats and mathematical theorems, and should be no less emphasized in education.
In the system as it exists today, students have essentially become cogs in a big factory — one that often churns out little more than test scores, grades and disillusionment. If students perform well in the environment they are forced into, they succeed and tend to have higher self-confidence, which is reinforced through their stellar test scores. But those whose interests or learning styles are not valued by Common Core are prone to anxiety, low self-esteem and a lack of motivation to succeed.
Such a toxic learning environment creates a vicious cycle: those who are labeled “smart” by the system are motivated to work hard and keep their grades up, while those labeled as “dumb” begin to hate school and feel that they will earn low scores no matter what they do.
It is no wonder, then, that parents have a hard time getting their kids to do their homework. The homework is not tailored to interest the students; it is tailored to force-feed them information that will help them do well on a test — one that has little correlation with how they will do later in life. Such homework or tests will rarely, if ever, teach students real, important life skills such as teamwork, creativity and adaptability.
It is safe to assert that most students do not particularly enjoy studying — that’s undeniable. But when so many don’t even enjoy learning anymore, it is indicative of a bigger problem. Students ought to be able to study what they want to study. Anyone can bubble in a scantron with facts they memorized in class, but does that show that they actually learned something?
Instead of implementing an overly generalized, government-designed curriculum, we should take a more individualistic approach to public education.
One way to do this would be for states to construct interdisciplinary “cluster” curriculums for their students. Each one should offer varying concentrations in the sciences, arts and humanities. People generally like to feel in control of what happens to them, so allowing students to choose what they want to study might instill in them both a sense of purpose and a drive to learn.
It would also make for an easier transition to high school — and later, college — when students suddenly have the autonomy to choose their own courses after years of being told what to study.
Education is liberation; it’s the key that unlocks the mind. Every student is unique and has something to offer — some are performers, others budding computer programmers — and it’s imperative that they are able to nurture their particular talents and interests. As Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
We simply cannot support an educational system in which a student is made to feel intellectually inferior because he or she is not good at math or reading. We must oppose a system in which a teacher’s job rating depends, quite literally, on the performance of everyone but his or her own. Under such a rigid curriculum that requires teaching to the test, students will slowly but surely become devoid of the creativity that enables them to explore new ideas and develop their own.
The truth is that today’s students are the future, and they need to know that what they are learning matters. It is time to make “schooling” synonymous with “education” once again.