How to Fix the U.S. School System
Where to Begin Fixing the US School System
The fact that the United States school system sucks is nothing new. Practically everyone knows that. It's a system based on rote memorization rather than actual comprehension and learning. It's high time that it change. Sure, this type of memorization can look good on test scores and such, but that's surface level stuff. Dive deeper and you will find scores of students struggling to pass their classes and actually take in what they are learning. The question now, is how to fix that. Rote memorization and regirgitation on tests is the only way to learn after all. It's not like there are other skills and types of knowledge that could be taught and be more useful in real life as one is in the workforce afterall.
Fixing the School System
Of course, those previous two sentences were pure sarcasm. There are many, many different ways in which one can teach students and actually have them learn and retain information. It will involve completely overhauling the school system we have now, but if implemented correctly, it will have a massively positive impact not just on our students, but also the types of people they produce and send out into the workforce. In the end, isn't that what's best for all?
Yes, yes it is. The next question that comes up is how to do it/where to begin? The answer to that is from the ground up. Starting in middle school at the earliest, let the learning be more interactive and actually relevant to students' lives. Even if a less than interesting topic needs to be covered before diving into the main lesson, show students how the boring relates to the main lesson in a way they can relate to. In math, this could be using shopping.
Say Amazon/Forever 21/Walmart/Target/etc... is having a 50% off sale. If a given item is $550, how much would it be after-tax (should it apply in the given state) and once the percent off is applied. Even if students have calculators and apps that can perform this function for them, interest them by setting them up with a scenario such as they are shopping by themselves and their phone died or the internet is acting spotty and they have to do these calculations either by hand or with the use of the calculator on their phone. In this way, even if students don't pay 100% attention, they will pay attention enough to understand the concept's relevancy.
A similar concept could be applied in a literature classroom by giving students a scenario from a classic novel such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Song of Soloman, Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies amongst others and telling them to come up with a modern-day equivalent. This can be done individually, as a group in class or as a group project lasting no more than a day or two. As a result, this would not only allow students to see the concept work in the world around them (no matter how unlikely), but also demonstrate that they understand the concept before moving on to something more complex. More than that, it also allows them to use and grow their critical thinking skills rather than simply having the concept explained to them while only appearing to understand the concept.
Moving on to science class, teachers could pull up a scene from either a science-based or science fiction movie, and after teaching students the basic concepts behind what they are about to watch, have them either explain in class, as a group or as a day or two project/paper what they think the scientific explanation behind the scene is or how it would be done in a theoretical environment. Again, this not only shows students how the concept applies in modern-day aka their lives, but it also allows them to show off their critical thinking skills either as individuals or as a group depending on how the activity is completed.
History class is a little more difficult. How do you bring it to life without offending anyone? Acting out various historical scenes (especially prior to and around the Civil Rights Movement) is out for obvious reasons and having students do papers on whatever time period is currently being taught is beyond overdone and exhausting. The only thing that comes to mind is having the students pretend they are an individual or a family living in that time period and are writing a journal or scrapbook entry. Basically, like they are a person during that time recording their version of history. While this allows students to prove their understanding of the topic, it also allows them to stretch and grow their creative muscles as well, something that could come in handy later in their lives as they enter the workforce.
To bring everything together and allow students a chance to review what they have learned throughout the semester/year and establish that they really understand a particular concept/chapter, teachers could give their students a term/half term paper/project that will be due/presented close to the end of the semester/year and help them along with their classmates review everything they have learned. Whether or not a traditional final is given after could be up to each individual school district/state.
Struggling Students and Different Types of Learning
With that settled, the question now becomes, how to help the students such as myself that need more time and help to understand the material. The easiest thing to do would be to pair them up with either a student in their same grade/class or older at the school who understands the material and have them get together 'x' amount of times every week. During this time, the student who understands the material would help their struggling peers understand the subject until it could be sufficiently explained back or the concept demonstrated in some other way.
As for the ratio of tutor to tutee (person or people being tutored) could range anywhere from one to three depending on how many students need help per class; wouldn't want to overburden the tutor after all. In order to encourage cooperation and success, the incentive can range anywhere from an improved grade on a test/quiz (we all make small mistakes that can hold us back) or even in the class overall. Extra credit/community service hours or some other academic-based reward can also be used. In this way, the better grade the tutee(s) get, the better grade/more credit/service hours etc...the tutor receives and looks, especially on college applications.
Best off all, by having small groups of tutors and tutees, learning styles can then be tailored for them. In smaller groups, it is easier to break things down for students who learn best by interacting with the material, seeing it visually such as explained on a white/electronic board or with physical objects, using physical objects to reason the solution out logically and more. For a teacher in a large class of thirty or more students, it's difficult if not impossible to break topics down in such a way as all students understand. Yes, tests and quizzes can and are routinely used to deduce individual student comprehension, but what happens after should a student such as myself not understand the material before moving on to an even more complex topic?
To answer this, and avoid the essential train for failure type situation where students barely have time to understand one concept before moving on to the next more complicated one, let's go back to before the quiz/test. It's pretty easy to understand why students could and often do prefer to ask questions in small groups rather than in front of the entire class (fewer people to risk looking stupid in front of). With these smaller groups, it's easier to get the type of more individualized attention that is needed to truly comprehend the material being taught before moving on. Best of all, by using students as tutors and academic rewards as incentives to help ensure everyone passes (gets at least a 'C' grade on assignments/quizzes and tests), looks good and everyone wins.
If needed, this can even be continued into college as students attempt to work their way through their general education requirements (something that is not needed in my opinion, but that's a topic for another time), before heading into their major-specific programs. From there, various types of help can be given on an as-needed basis depending on the person's need and type of help they will receive/will be available to them in the workplace once they officially graduate and leave school.
What About Student Picked Study Groups?
While reading the above, you were likely thinking that students already do this on their own by getting together and forming their own study groups with their friends, without teacher/school incentive. The keywords here are 'with their friends'. Sadly, not everyone in school has friends, or at the least the type that cares about school enough to help each other pass. This was my situation from middle school all the way through college believe it or not. I always wanted to form a study group with people so I could pass my classes, but everyone either seemed so busy with their own schedules or simply didn't want to help me, that like many others I'm sure, I struggled completely on my own with no idea where to look for help. Often times, I was so frustrated with the lack of help that I didn't even see the point in trying. The only reason I did was because of the determination my family taught me, something that I know not everyone has.
To those who wonder why drop out rates are so high, this could be part of your answer. Not understanding the material combined with not knowing where to go for help/receiving too little of it, can equal a student dropping out due to not seeing the point. If they aren't getting the help and more complex topics they don't understand are just going to continue being taught, why should they continue to put themselves through that? It's not good for their mental health. Without the right support, failure after failure can take its eventual toll on anyone, no matter how seemingly stable they are.
More than that, should everyone in a study group fail to understand the material, then the activity would simply be an effort in futility as all study/misunderstand the same thing. This could then result in more stresses on one's mental health as they fail the quiz/test thus taking even more of a toll on their mental health.
Imagining the School System is Fixed
While I don't expect these ideas to be used in any way any time soon (or at all, because heaven forbid we actually get smart enough to fix our broken school system), I hope that I have at least made a valid argument explaining why and how the US system could conceivably be improved. All my life, I thought school (especially high school and college), was supposed to be a place where people go to learn the skills they will need in the workforce. These skills could include creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, time management and more. Throughout my years in school, I quickly learned that was not the case.
What might have worked in years past to prepare people for skills they would need in the factory, no longer work to prepare people for skills in the office, or scientific fields. While in school students are taught rote memorization techniques (that is, essentially becoming mindless robots that don't think for themselves), to then simply spit back the information that they "learned" on quizzes and tests without really understanding it.
More than that, the question must be asked, are lessons in classrooms moving too fast in an attempt to cram in as much "important" information as possible? For now, the answer seems to be 'yes' as students struggle to take in and really understand the information they are being force-fed (taught). It's an overwhelming amount that our parents and those before us didn't have to struggle with.
Even though there are ways to help students learn in the currently fast-paced environment that is school, such as student-to-student tutoring with academic incentives to pass for both parties, and incorporate different learning styles such as demonstrating the importance of the lesson in daily life, allowing students to show off how even older novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Song of Solomon and Lord of the Flies can have relevance even today, that doesn't mean that the current curriculum can't be trimmed down to what they really, truly need to know in order to be a well-rounded, functioning member of society. Better yet, with the curriculum trimmed down, and students receiving the type of help they need, there is a better chance of them actually learning skills that can and likely will be useful in whatever career field they choose to pursue.
As the age-old saying goes 'what looks good on paper doesn't always work in real life'. In this case, the 'looking good on paper' part refers to quiz and test scores. Just because they look good doesn't mean they actually are good. Chances are, using the rote memorization techniques in place today, students will quickly forget what they had learned as soon as they no longer need it.