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The Five Flaws With America's Education System

Updated on October 25, 2012

1. Failure to Engage

As described in another article, students are not engaged in learning. Classes fail to interest them and schools rarely make the transition from kindergarten style learning to desks and pencils without losing a lot of student interest along the way. From history to math to English, schools dumb down important concepts and making learning much less interesting than it actually is.

For a more in depth look, see Failure to Engage: Why Kids Aren't Interested In Learning

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2. Convenience for Adults, Prison for Kids

As parents have less and less time to deal with their children, the onus falls on schools to pick up the slack. Schools have become more of a daycare than an education facility. They are designed to keep kids out of the way while the adults get things done.

While there's no smoking gun, no singular cause, a few issues can be pinpointed easier than others. The first is a cultural attitude that it's the responsibility of the child to conform to the classroom, and not the classroom to adapt to the individual child. When taken to extremes, children might even be misdiagnosed with mental disorders and given potent drugs just because they couldn't sit still. A recent documentary, The War on Kids, describes a disturbing number of incidents where perfectly normal children were given drugs for conditions they didn't have.

The same documentary also lays out the second problem: Schools are becoming far too similar to American prisons. Every day, students are disciplined for bringing nail clippers, pocket knives, and even important medication to school. In one case, a girl was suspended under her school's "Zero-Tolerance" policy for giving her asthma inhaler to a classmate who was having trouble breathing. Apparently assisting someone in need falls under the category of "drug distribution."

The last problem, which in many ways is a symptom of the first two, is that schools ignore children's inherent talents. In many ways, modern education is nothing more than a factory designed to force dozens of different shaped pegs into round holes. At a 2006 TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson said that "the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors." In fact, as Beverly Falk of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST) reported in a 1994 paper, the traditional style of giving facts and data is only useful in schools, and not applicable in the real world.

3. Lack of Cross-Disciplinary Training

Why is it that Calculus and Physics are two separate classes? The skills learned in Calculus are crucial to understanding the derived formulas in physics. Not only that, but, unlike in a vanilla Calculus course, you can actually apply what you learn in real-life scenarios. Another good example is History and language courses. While reading... Ah, correction, Shakespeare should not read, it should be performed. Thus while performing Shakespeare, would it not be helpful for students to learn about England during the Immortal Bard's time? Or to translate Coronado's journal in Spanish class while studying the conquest of the Americas by Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries?

There's no denying that there are difficulties coordinating such classes, but the benefits of understanding the relationships between different fields far outweighs the cost. Interdisciplinary studies in the Arts are important, but no one benefits more than the physical sciences. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Initiative seeks to bring together the four areas laid out in its title. David D. Thornburg lays out the usefulness of interdisciplinary studies in his paper, Why STEM Topics are Interrelated: The Importance of Interdisciplinary Studies in K-12 Education.

Unfortunately, programs such as STEM have had limited success due to a lack of understanding about the advantages and disadvantages of interdisciplinary studies, which leads to poor planning and implementation. Often, schools fall under one of two extremes: Either they attempt to implement an interdisciplinary curriculum in all areas, which fails spectacularly (since not EVERYTHING is inter-related... Ever try applying the Battle of Trafalgar to a pottery class?) or the conventional "multi-disciplinary" approach, which has many courses, but fails to explain how they are inter-linked.

4. Failure to Prepare

From pre-school to college, each level of the education system fails to prepare students for the real world. While the duty to teach basic life skills usually falls on parents, with the world changing so quickly, they are often as clueless as their kids. As such, schools will have the responsibility to teach students how to handle rapidly progressing technology and adapt to sudden shifts in the economy and workforce.

However, the education system has failed to meet this goal so far. Graduating high school students aren't prepared for college, and college students are no more prepared for real life than high school students are for college. In fact, colleges are said to teach students "exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent" academic skills. To make things worse, when the average college student graduates, he will be facing $26,000 in debt. For the final touch on an unfortunate situation, the value of a college degree is steadily falling.

As such, the average college graduate will have spent thousands of dollars and at least four years of his life to earn a degree with little or no use, while simultaneously failing to gain even the most basic of life skills. One has to wonder if the anyone could have designed a system worse suited to preparing students for the real world than this.

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5. Too Much Bureaucracy, Not Enough Resources

The first flaw in the system is a lack of accountability. The biggest complaint among superintendents and principles was an inability to "reward good teachers and fire ineffective ones." Part of the problem is that, despite the fact the the federal government only contributes a small portion of school funding, it dictates how funds should be used, regardless of who actually contributed the money. As an article in the Harvard Educational Review points out, external accountability, like the federal government's current education policy, is difficult to implement, and schools with strong external accountability tend to lack "organizational capacity. The best policy is internal accountability; as such, the government should work to encourage internal accountability, as opposed to enforcing external accountability.

The second flaw, which contributes to the first, is inefficiency. A recent report by The Broad Center pretty much says it all. Bureaucracy gets in the way of good education. Even when resources are allocated, they rarely actually make it from the top of the food chain to the students at the bottom who need them. Teachers don't get the support they need, and many rules and regulations that are good in theory fail in practice. Clearly, we have a leaky system that fails to deliver resources to those who need them.

The third flaw is a lack of life-saving technology. Computers can greatly alleviate the resource problem by giving students and teachers access to cheap, efficient methods of data storage, data analysis, and the ability to research important information. Even the cheapest netbook is miles ahead of a pencil and paper. Not only that, but teachers desperately want new technology. They know it can improve their student's education and make the teacher's life just a little easier. Unfortunately, they are hamstrung by the previous flaw. As such, they are left with all the responsibility of teaching students but with few of the technological tools that would make it all much easier.

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