November 7, 2012
Thoughts on the Current State of Public Education
Public education is one of the most important institutions in the United States, essential for the present and the future. America has a long and proud tradition of educating its citizens to prepare them for the world and will hopefully instill within them a love of learning and problem-solving that will stick with them throughout their lifetimes. More than any other institution, education has the power to equip each generation with the necessary skills to tackle the political, economic, social, and environmental problems that plague the country and worsen each day.
That said, America’s education system is held back by some debilitating flaws which have caused us not only to fall behind in the international rankings in recent years, but could also prove problematic for the future generations upon which we are depending as the next innovators and problem-solvers to help shape a better future for everyone. Pundits and analysts of all sorts have tried to come up with causes for the failings of our school system, often using complicated facts and statistics to try to understand the seeds that cause larger problems. I am not an expert and can offer no such facts, but as a student of the public school system for the past 12 years of my life, I feel like I have a unique sort of insider knowledge on the subject. In my view, the main flaws that are preventing the public education system from reaching its full potential are the emphasis on standardized testing, shortcomings in the current teaching system, and the lack of flexibility in post-high school options.
Ever since the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, public schools have placed a high emphasis on annual standardized testing, a practice which does more harm than good. On a big picture level, the standardized testing model forces teachers into rigid curriculums, and instead of really teaching their students they are simply preparing them for the standardized tests at the end of the year. In this way, the students become machines whose sole purpose is to complete a test, and the teachers are their programmers. As someone who has taken STAR tests for the last ten years of my life, I can attest that the fill-in-the-bubble STAR tests are absolutely bland and soul-sucking, and offer no room for creativity or thinking outside of the box. This mechanization of education kills creativity, which is a problem for a future in which complex problems need to be solved in untraditional ways. Everybody learns differently; the three main types of learning are auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. If teachers focused on material that stimulated each of these different styles of learning, then all students would be more fulfilled and have a more well-rounded education. Filling in endless columns of bubbles is not only a poor way of measuring intelligence, it is pushing everyone towards homogeneity. Within our current system of standardized testing, every student becomes “just another brick in the wall.”
The problem of standardized testing bleeds into the realm of teaching as well. Because testing compels teachers to cram their students’ heads full of as much information as possible, the students are being told what to learn, instead of how to learn. Ultimately, this is detrimental for all parties involved. The teaching system needs major overhauls, in methods as well as motivations. If standardized testing was abolished, teachers would have more freedom to try out more innovative and experimental teaching methods that could help foster curiosity in students, rather than having endless information shoved down their throats. However, the question remains— if teachers were allowed this newfound freedom, would they take advantage of it or let it go to waste? Well, it depends. It is already a well-known fact that teachers are simply not paid enough. If teacher salaries were increased, this could potentially lead to more incentive to work hard and teach hard. Of course, the problem persists that state education budgets aren’t what they used to be, but if good economists were put on the job then they could almost certainly work on a solution. On principle, regardless of where the money comes from, teachers simply need better pay and more incentives to teach with the care and passion that hopefully compelled them to teach in the first place. There will always be good teachers and bad teachers; those who are in it for the love of learning and sharing that love, and those who are in it for the good hours and summers off. But with increased incentives and a closer eye from the administration, the overall quality of teaching could go up exponentially.
Perhaps most important of all, public high schools need to offer students the resources to pursue alternative and more practical career paths which don’t involve higher education. The newfound push for everyone to attend college is a nice idea but it is simply impossible. Realistically, not everyone is equipped to attend college, nor should they be. Everyone is different and has different skills and passions, and it is silly to think that everyone will end up going to college. However, those who do not wish to attend college are left out in the cold. Now, even most low-paying menial jobs require a college degree, and it is getting harder and harder to get by without a degree as competition increases, and this problem begins at the high school level. From day one, the design of the high school education system immutably funnels every single student into a pathway that leads to college. If high schools began to offer alternative programs for students who do not plan on attending college, these students would immediately become better prepared for whatever workforce they want to get involved in. Obviously, trade and technical schools do exist, but they are so specialized that they may be intimidating for students who do not know exactly what they want to do. If every high school offered multiple programs for different educational paths, working with local companies or groups within the community to gain work experience and make connections, non-college-bound students would be much better prepared for life after high school.
Education is the key to the future. But the current state of public education has some big problems which simply must be addressed. The focus on standardized testing must be eliminated and replaced by more varied and hands-on teaching methods and varied lesson styles. Teachers need higher pay and more motivation to teach. High schools need to provide more options for students who do not wish to attend college by, among other things, working with local businesses to prepare students for the workforce and develop specialized skills. These are far from the only problems that afflict the public school system, but solving these problems would provide a stable foundation, able to be added to and built upon for years to come. If all goes well, future generations of students will be in better learning environments where every part of their brain is stimulated, where teachers are passionate about teaching, and meaningful post-high school choices don’t necessarily involve higher education. When all of that happens, the future will be in good hands.