Posted on January 19, 2016

Education in the U.S.: Part 1


“Education in the U.S.: Part 1” is the introduction to our four-part series emphasizing the broken American education system. Student Life editor Jake Norman and photographer Elena Rodriguez teamed up to cover controversial issues that run rampant in our education system, yet are widely overlooked.

“Pay attention, this could be important one day.” It’s a phrase that we have all heard in our schooling years at one point or another. However, this phrase unfortunately carries a heavy burden of irony alongside it. We are comfortable saying it within the walls of an educational facility, relating it to a problem on the board, but not when concerning the very real problems that exists in our education system today.

It should go without saying that education is imperative to a successful future for not only us individually, but for our society as a whole. But what’s odd is the lack of attention education gets from our country. According to the Gallup poll, only 4% of people believe education is our biggest problem. This falls behind issues such as dissatisfaction with the government (16%), the economy (13%), immigration (8%), unemployment (8%), guns and gun control (7%), healthcare (6%), federal budget deficit (5%), ethics involving moral and religious decline (5%) and crime and violence (5%). This makes it tied for 10th on the average U.S. citizen’s rank of important topics. While you clearly cannot take away from these other issues, the question begs: what is the biggest difference between these issues and education? It mostly rests in how people believe we should deal with them.

People in general tend to agree that our education system needs to be fixed, at least according to a poll by EducationNext, showing that 76% of the general public grade our public schools with a C or worse. The issue is not much different across the aisle as well, with more than 70% of both Republicans and Democrats grading our schools a C or worse. So the question remains, if we agree at this high rate that our education system is messed up, why are we not talking about it as much? It may seem odd, but it could be the level of unanimity that may be harming the issue’s level of attention. The problems surpassing education are typically covered more in the media, and they all are practically split down the parties’ aisles. It is a well-known fact that people are more interested in controversy between people than the unanimity between them. If an argument breaks out over these issues, it will statistically bring in more ratings. And there lies the fundamental problem—there is no argument on education. It needs to be fixed, and almost all of us acknowledge that (just look at the statistics).

Before going further, it is important to look at how our education system is structured, and the history behind it. Our education system today dates back to the mid-19th century. We put a man named Horace Mann in charge of establishing a true education system to abide by. He traveled to Europe and found that the Prussian system of education as the best working model. Prussia’s system was geared toward helping the development of the Industrial Revolution by teaching students the basics of arithmetic, science, language and social studies in order for them be prepared to work in new-founded industries. In turn, this would, help promote and grow the economy. However, this is poses a problem today. We are no longer in the Industrial Revolution, and while our society has naturally progressed past it, our education system never did. This is common knowledge, but rather than attacking the issue of education at its core, we simply build around a rotten and outdated system which leads to little, if any, changes at all.

To put it into perspective, since 1970 we have increased our funding in education by more than 200% (calculated for inflation), but our test scores have not changed.

“Throwing money at it hasn’t been the answer,” says Randy Teel, a current high school foreign language teacher at Central High School in Keller, Texas. “We always seem to have these new approaches, but in reality it is all the same methods recycled. I wouldn’t say the system’s broken, but since I’ve been in school it has been very watered down.”

We have passed legislation such as the infamous “No Child Left Behind” act and it hurt more than it helped in its attempt to bring a standardized goal. This was done by increasing tests, but that has not helped either.

“There is too much testing,” says Penny Greer, a former teacher of 23 years, who says that not only do we test too much, but we are not teaching what we are supposed to. “We are teaching [sic] to the test, not what we know we should be teaching.”

She also notes that the wear and tear on the students is very evident, and there is evidence to back her up. Statistics show that more testing leads to lower scores and more anxiety and stress in students, which hurts their performance in school. Essentially, the only positive thing to come from our education system was our drive for equal opportunity after the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. We’ve also added in more school choices for kids for a better choice in education. While these changes are significant, they are still not enough.

Many people believe the fundamental goal of school and education is to learn your basics in math, reading, writing, social studies and science. But education is meant to be so much more than that. The system was originally designed to prepare students for adult life. But it’s almost a joke now. How many times have you hear someone say, “We will never use this in real life”?

Greer touches on this area with the example of kids learning to draw with pictures, which she claims is not a big deal. However, it becomes a big deal when we never try to get them to move on from it. Greer concludes that essentially, our system is watered-down. Teaching students things that will not be used very often in life is futile. There are several subjects however, that they’ll use over and over again in adult life that are never really taught. This includes basic skills such as filing your taxes. Think about it: in school you will never learn how to buy or finance a car or house, invest, save money, or learn how 401K’s or Roth IRAs work. Teel even goes on to say that he believes we should be teaching kids how to balance their checkbooks and bank accounts—overall preparing them for adult life.

So after looking at just a few of the problems in our system, the question is again, why do we not try to fix it? In the end, a very small percentage of U.S. citizens label education as the most important issue, which is telling of where it may rank on the average U.S. citizen’s list. It is this lack of urgency among the citizens that prevents policy makers from fixing anything. We may at times view our education as covering the basics, but again, it is so much more than that.

It is time to bring attention to this problem. It is time to really pay attention to our education. It is time to bring change to the curriculum, and change how the instructors and students interact in the classroom. We are currently in the 19th century when it comes to education, which brings us to only 17th in the world, and we are not getting any better. And that needs to change.

Photo by: Elena Rodriguez

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