What's Wrong with Education in the US?

I attended a good friend's wedding a few months ago, and was seated next to two high school English teachers. “So what are you reading this summer?” I asked them, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. I don’t consider myself an opportunist, but this seemed like a great chance for a solid book recommendation. It’s pretty much their job to read great books, right? Or maybe not - they looked at me as if I had just licked the wedding cake. After a long pause one of them said, “Reading is the last thing I want to do in the summer.” The friends turned back toward each other as I sipped my Sauvignon Blanc and pondered the effect that education is having on learning. The absence of joy and freedom during school has turned the quest for knowledge into tedium for both teachers and students; education is giving learning a bad name.

There are several theories I came across as to why the process of learning at school can be joyless and lead to low motivation and growth for students. First, it's a fact that the US system of education was built on a culture of control; second, teachers are so beaten down by bureaucracy that they lose their passion for learning and for the subject they had once enjoyed; and finally, people who love learning are more discouraged than ever by the field of education and the prospect of becoming a teacher.

Public schools were mandated during the industrial era and modeled after the assembly lines successful in factories. This framework relies on homogeneity; any deviance from the model leads to a holdup on the assembly line. But kids aren’t cars. The industrial model of school assumes that all kids need the same treatment: add an engine, pop on some doors and at the end you have a functioning car (or a college-and-career-ready student). Unfortunately, no matter how much instruction we offer teachers on differentiation, inquiry, and other methods, most of us were educated within the industrial system, and teachers enter the field assuming that it is the “right” way to educate students. That doesn’t mean it works; if you take a look at Finland, with some of the best schools in the world, it’s clear that it doesn’t have to be this way. In the US, the constant focus is on getting kids ready for the next step so that they are fully functional by the time high school is up. Instead, we should focus on the present, and meet each child at his or her developmentally appropriate point - from offering more play and authentic learning in younger grades to rich extracurricular activities for older students - which can lead to a joyful school experience.

Next, in the attempt to raise student achievement, government has increased oversight and control over exactly what and how students learn in US schools. As a public school educator for over two decades, I’ve watched and experienced the requirements pile on teachers and administrators as creativity is devalued. Recent studies show that federal and state governments, in using test scores as the primary benchmark of success, have been getting it wrong. Teachers who know their students and help to instill a sense of self-worth create a climate of care in the classroom, and are graduating students who are successful in college and in life. We’ve been rewarding the wrong things and punishing the wrong teachers.

Finally, our students see the exhaustion and tedium, and the smartest and most compassionate among them, the ones who would be the best for kids, rarely choose teaching as a profession anymore. In the current climate, I don’t blame them, and am gently steering my own teenagers to look at careers that reward creativity, empathy, and leadership. I want to hire teachers who are lifelong learners and feisty advocates for kids, not people who are waiting to be told what to do. Teacher recruitment and investment in the profession should be at the top of the list for reformers and government officials.

I recently quit my job as a middle school principal. After believing that I could make a difference as a public school educator, in many ways I feel like I’ve peeked behind the curtain looking for magic, but instead found a broken and inequitable system. As I begin a new phase of my career, I invite other educators to join me in challenging the industrial system and collaborating with other innovators and school leaders to fight for equity and autonomy in schools. And although I may never again encounter those same teachers from the wedding, I will also continue to ask teachers what they’re reading - and hope to see a teacher’s eyes light up with the joy of learning, as mine respond in anticipation of a great book recommendation.

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