4 Things Wrong with American Education – A Former Teacher’s Take

Recently, I was tasked with waxing philosophically about the state of education in the United States. Admittedly, I have had some rather embittering experiences being a teacher in the States; thus, my first attempt at composing my feelings was predictably snarky and emotional.

However, such an approach was not really what was required for the task. So, I’ll reach back for the philosopher in my heart and leave behind the sarcastic satirist that also resides there.

So, what is wrong with much American education? I personally see four things in no particular order:

1. A lack of focus on the basics

2. A lack of ownership of their own education within our students

3. The desire for quick fixes that save everyone.

4. The inane push to put everyone and their mother through college.

Now, each of these issues has multiple facets that I’ve seen directly while working for Title 1 school districts. Yes, the poor, inner-city/urban schools. As such a teacher, I’ve been on the ground floor for a lot of foolishness. In fact, I’ve seen several schools and districts at the high school and middle school level and noted a marked difference between the education received in different districts.

Not unrelated, but I’ve also seen a marked difference in how administrators received me as a teacher while dealing with different districts. I’m a bit of a unicorn in that I favor a more traditional type of education and I tried to work that in within the confines of the public school that I taught at.

Admittedly, I likely would have had an easier career if I had taught at a private school with a similar understanding of education. Instead, I took the road of most resistance by teaching at Title 1 schools for reasons such as loan forgiveness and a general desire to help kids see farther than their surroundings might have allowed.

For me, education has always been about broadening horizons. The current education system seems to disagree, but more on that later.

Now, let’s look at problem one: the lack of focus on the basics.

Many people reading this may have seen arguments where people are saying learning times tables is foolish and unnecessary for education (and I’ve occasionally seen this line of thinking applied to other basic schools that we used to push as educators). Students, so goes the idea, need to understand why, not just know the answer. It’s a popular topic in education circles and at base sounds quite sound. If you’ll forgive the wordplay.

We do want our students to receive a stronger understanding of everything we teach and be able to use it in multiple settings, but this misses a few large points:

1. Not everyone is of an academic bent.

Such students don’t really need to know the why or even that interested in it. They need the skill. Times table gives them a specific skill that will come in quite handy whether they are repairing cars or selling books.

2. Having basics understood as facts helps you understand more later.

Should any student decide to dig further, having the basic information down helps them have a base to start from. You don’t want to waste time rehashing something they should basically know is already connected.

3. Students at elementary school age have a different level of understanding and reasoning level.

Kids that young are not able to reason in the same way that adults are. The deep aspects of why would not be helpful to them. This is stuff they still teach in education schools: Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development. Even my Master’s program still talked about this and they could be kind of Critical Theory-ish.

In basic terms, from ages 2-7 is the “preoperational stage” where kids cannot logically reason and tend to display tendencies towards Animism (viewing inanimate stuff or non-human stuff as having the same thoughts and feelings that humans have). They don’t understand and cannot understand the full reality of the world. That stuff comes later.

That’s why it’s an important stage. If you spend this stage hearing that you cannot do something or other terrible stuff, you will take it as truth. You may or may not be able to break out of the thought pattern later, something we see on the internet constantly. However, I digress. The main point is that kids at this stage cannot be given the deeper reasonings behind something, just the facts and reasons that would make sense at that age. 

Next, is the ages 7-11 stage, called the “Concrete Operational Stage,” where we get more ability to empathize and more logical ability. We can do a bit more here and give kids reasons that are more in depth. However, anyone dealing with children this age knows the type of reasons that you give depend on where they are in this stage. Do you give a second grader the same reasoning as a fifth grader or sixth grader? No.

In middle and high school, students reach a place where we can get into those deeper questions, but you’ll notice that by then they should have already had the basics in place and, let me tell you, often that isn’t the case these days.

When tested, many of my own students were reaching their senior year with elementary school reading skills. This is important because I taught high schoolers in the last couple of years of school. As such, I did some remedial stuff in conjunction with my normal curriculum as required by the state. This took time that I would have rather used to doing more interesting things.

This isn’t to say that getting the students to reason and do interesting things in the subject were impossible, but knowing those deficits meant that I had to consider what sort of reading we did and give a lot of previews that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise. As it is, the students were basically capable, but getting further depth was often difficult, and there was more difficulty getting them to engage on deeper levels. Stories aren’t just about what happens, but that’s the English teacher in me speaking.

In any case, this issue shows up in different areas as the student’s progress. What’s more, students are generally capable of doing all the stuff at varying levels. When I was in their shoes, I was quite clever with writing, history, and some other subjects, but my chemistry skill (and interest) was lacking. This lack was largely due to the next issue: ownership of education.

While I was generally good about taking ownership of my education, I had issues, much like students do today. We all know that everyone comes with their own set of challenges when they get to a classroom.

Perhaps their home life is—as the kids say—trash. Keeping focus and continuing to move forward can be incredibly difficult in many instances. As educators, we should be understanding of this and try to meet the kids where they are. That’s all true and, in my estimation, one reason my class tended to work well for most students.

However, the world we live in will never be perfect and not everyone has the same dreams or wants. I loved and still love learning for its own sake and would go to school more if it didn’t cost more money. Every student we have isn’t going to feel the same way for various reasons.

That being the case, we should expect some students to be better about taking ownership of their education and grades. That itself is only a problem in so far it leads to behavior issues that disrupt the learning of others who are more serious.

At base, we are looking at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Students with the former will be able to do well enough to get something out of the classes, the students with only the latter will be dragged kicking and screaming and may still get something out of it.

So, what’s the solution?

Honestly? Trade schools (or trade paths) and giving students a more defined path based on what has become their clear bent at that point in their schooling lives. Furthermore, continuing education should remain a thing in case any of those former students want to refocus themselves and take a different path. Paths for people who changed their mind are paramount to the whole thing.

Trade schools or paths help because they tend to be hands on and lead to an almost definite job after you finish. Lots of students benefit from that. I, on the other hand, was fine going the academic route. I’m not much into such work and generally didn’t need that kind of stuff to keep me focused.

A defined path, whether it’s for trade school or academic routes, gives students a definite focus beyond just graduating. One is an immediate path to being able to take care of yourself mostly and the other is university and further education for different fields than the trade school kids.

You choose the path; you know what is coming next and what you need to prepare for. You’ll still get those who putz around, but I think more would be able to keep their noses to the grindstone and academic classes would be able to do things at a depth maybe not possible when you have to compensate for those with little interest in the proceedings.

Continuing education is great for those who realize that they’d rather a different path than they initially chose (or were forced into). Having this with a way to get them into the workforce after seems ideal.

Next, we have the desire for quick fixes that are prevalent in American education as a matter of course. Those who work in education are familiar with this syndrome:

You get a new principal and they come in talking about how they are going to help us fix those dreadful test scores that he/she likely knows little about. They start hounding the teachers with the lowest scores. Perhaps they talk to the department head to get some more information, but you suspect they are still largely in the dark.

Later, they give a random observation of your class on one of your drier days and assume that it’s an everyday thing. Next, they are having other people come in to give you extra trainings that has some useful things and then more observations to see that you’re using it. Only, they come in ten minutes after you used one of the techniques and have moved onto other things.

They ask you why you didn’t use the techniques. You say that they just missed it but know they generally don’t believe you. Then the cycle begins again. The students maybe don’t make the mark that was set for some extra standardized testing and it’s about how you’re not doing your job.

There’s no appreciation for the fact that you’re working with a deficit for many reasons and the task is quite different. You want to say, “well, you teach it then” but you don’t want to be too insubordinate. They bring in new experts…yadda, yadda, yadda.

This happens continually at lower performing schools. But, these kinds of things don’t address the high turnover of teachers, students’ behavior, the skills they have when they arrive, or the efforts that you are in the midst of trying to fill gaps that your charges arrive to you with.

It also doesn’t acknowledge that changing habits and a school culture generally take time. It’s not all Lean on Me where you can yell at the kids and they start to straighten up. It’s a process that you will probably not see the results of for a couple of years and should be done in conjunction with similar or complimentary changes at all levels.

The problems you see at a high school started well before they were freshman. In fact, many of my more wild students went to the same middle school while the other ones went to a different one that was perhaps more civil. That was the impression that I got, anyway.

The main thing here is that students tend to behave based on the expectations placed on them. There are some that will be wild no matter what, but most will fall in line if they have clear lines to follow. We also have schools where we can send the students who are the toughest cases, hopefully making things a bit simpler for those that stay in the regular school setting.

Beyond that, consistency is key. School should be a safe place for students, but not in an undisciplined, consequence free way. If a student feels too comfortable acting a fool, other students and that particular student will certainly suffer.

In any case, this kind of stuff cannot be jimmy rigged. You need a definite plan and present it in a way where everyone involved can get with the program (the teachers, admins, parents, and students).

Lastly, I’d like to cover reason 4: we are pushing everyone and their mother towards college. Now, this ties into the quick fix issue, the motivation issue, and the focus on the basics issue.

The fact that we push everyone towards college is a quick fix idea for fixing gaps in wealth and educational attainment. But, here’s the thing: not everyone need follow the same narrow path for attainment of such things. A person that learns well enough in high school and starts trade schools leading to having a trade can start to build wealth and credit just fine.

The fact of the matter is that it is often the pattern that one group of adults does the more physical, back-breaking labor and tries to provide a situation where their children can focus on the next phase: getting those high-paying jobs that don’t result in death or injury. There’s nothing wrong with those first jobs and, if the family places an emphasis on getting that education, in a generation or two, they are in much better straights than the ones they were in before.

Instead, we’ve just said everyone needs to go to college even when they don’t and, as a result, many jobs that really don’t need degrees are asking for them.

Is that a direct result? I’m not sure, but I am sure that if you take a typing and dictation course in high school, you could do most secretarial work with no issue. You also don’t need a degree to sell shoes or work as an electrician. There are a great many jobs that may require training of some sort, but not the sort of education that you’ll get at a liberal arts university.

Another issue here is the fact that if you aren’t well-motivated, you’ll drown in most universities. I once taught at a school that boasted a 100% college acceptance rate. The only issue around 1 in 4 would drop out of school and never finish. If you can get accepted, the hope is that you can handle the workload.

Now, I know that sometimes life gets in the way and there are many reasons that someone may not finish. But, considering the motivation of many of the students that I’ve had, I’m sure that is a major factor in the dropout rate. Some surprised me, but many just didn’t care enough. If you could get into college, barring any out of your sphere issues, you should be able to finish it, and not with a lot of haggling for grades.

There’s been an uptick in the need for remedial courses at universities that also points to the fact that basics aren’t being learned at the same rate. If I’m at university, I should have a pretty good grip on writing, arithmetic, etc. Many are arriving at school unprepared, and that puts you behind. Sometimes, getting behind is insurmountable.

So, for the larger point here, college is more useful if you have the motivation and skills needed to do the work (remember that C’s get degrees. You don’t have to be an ‘A’ student). Some people develop such a motivation later in life, some never develop it. For continuing education students, I don’t mind the remedial courses so much, as they took a break.

There is no reason to pressure everyone to go to college or to take an elitist stance over someone who didn’t go to college, even if they are living well. I’ve personally always felt that virtue was a bigger and better goal, so we should keep that kind of thing in mind. Some people need college and some don’t. Some may need to find themselves first, and that’s okay.

As this is already quite long, I’d like to end it here. These are the biggest problems that I see: lack of basics, lack of ownership, quick fix mentalities, and pushing everyone towards the same destination, i.e. college. Without the first two things, schools and students are both lost. Adopting the latter two things shows a lack of understanding of humans and gives no room for people to be who they are.

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