Note: My experiences are from a U.S. education system. Although education systems differ around the world, I believe many of the concepts I discuss are applicable universally.
A student for the majority of my life, I understand the pressures associated with grades. In middle school, the pressure came from your parents. In high school, the pressure shifts to something that seems more important: getting into college. But, irrespective of the particular school, when you finally get in, the pressure persists: get accepted into your major, an internship opportunity, graduate school, etc. Over time, the concept of a “grade” evolves past a measure of academic progress. Students begin associating the number with their inherent ability in certain subjects. It becomes part of their identity.
There are many arguments that our current grading system is flawed. For one, a scalar, primarily based around a limited number of exam scores, is not an accurate measurement of one’s ability to learn and eventually be successful. Additionally, every teacher, class, and school uses different curriculums and methods for grading, making an already silly value even more arbitrary. The fact that grades are associated with one’s inherent skill or interest in a subject means our education system is currently flawed.
Standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT, are currently principal methods in measuring the relative success of students around the country. However, these scalar-result tests can never fully capture the ability or potential of a student to succeed in their interests. They are flawed in their approach. Students who have access to resources that prepare them for the types of questions asked in these standardized tests perform better than those who don’t. As a result, these scores have mostly become a measurement not of knowledge, intelligence or ability to learn, but of one’s privilege, and their history of access to educational resources.
I believe that the fundamental issue with modern education is its inability to address the most important skill in one’s life: the ability to learn. Rather than focusing on the all-too-shallow ratings for the dizzying array of hamjam subjects school throws at you, the education system should instead present itself as an exploratory tool for finding one’s interests and strengthening the ability to learn new things. The primary goal of education should be to help foster passion and self-learning skills, not to tell students that they are bad or good at something, quite arbitrarily.
For the remainder of this essay, I will explore the fundamental issues with our education and grading system, and propose a better alternative. Among the significant problems our world faces, I firmly believe that education is one of the most important with the greatest potential for far-reaching benefits. Since education is the bedrock for a productive economy, a well-informed political system, smarter consumer choices and even fulfillment with one’s career and life as a whole, it is crucial that we find a better way to assess and develop the skills of students, in order to maximize the output of our societies.
At first glance it seems that the the U.S. education system is pretty good. Public schools are free for everyone, we have some standarized curriculum and our universities are ranked among the top in the world. So why is our academic performance falling behind other countries, prompting critics to declare an education crisis?
In 2001, President George W. Bush passed the No Child Left Behind Act to address the growing education problem. Among other provisions, the act established “progress objectives” to ensure every student was learning the curriculum. However, the education system retained many of its inadequacies. I believe that the approach to education in the U.S. is fundamentally flawed and outdated.
My complaints about the education system so far have been mostly rhetoric. Some evidence supporting my critiques include:
- In a survey, only 23% of employers said that students were prepared to use their learning in real-world applications.
- Another survey found that 51% of 2014 graduates did not use their degree in their occupation.
- A study found that many students were unable to critically analyze without being “swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.”
- A profile of U.S. jobs found that only 22% of employees use math more advanced that basic operations and fractions.
To summarize, most of what is being taught in college is not useful while important skills are being overlooked. Students are pressured from a young age to get into college, only for most of the actual studying to be wasted. And prices for colleges rack up to tens of thousands dollar each year, putting many students in irrecoverable debt for a degree that may not even be useful.
The experience of students in the real world represents the cumulative gains of education throughout their entire lives, including grade school, college and even graduate school for some, which amounts to little for many.
Starting from the top, elementary school curriculum consists of basic skills from a variety of different disciplines, with a single teacher for a group of students through the entire school day. This is probably where the education system in the U.S. is the least flawed. The absence of “classes” or “periods” allows education to progress in a fluid manner while also presenting fundamental ideas to young students which can help cultivate interests while allowing for exploration. Recess is evenly spaced throughout class time which allows for mental processing and exercise, which only benefits learning.
(Even with all the accomplishments of elementary school, I will acknowledge the educational discrepancies across schools though, and I’ll explore solutions further below)
Middle school is where the educational system starts to falter. Using a period system, each student has 7 classes a day, with 4 being “core” curricula like basic math or writing and 3 being up to individual choice. This seems like a good idea on paper. Why not maximize the amount of learning in a day? The issue with the 7 class schedule lies with the density of class time. With 7 different subjects thrown one after another and only 5 minutes inbetween to travel from one class to another, the schedule is terrible for learning comprehension and no subject can be given the attention it deserves. There isn’t even recess for exercise!
Additionally, the separation of classes into distinct modules encourages an emphasis on the content of a course rather than the process for learning. This results in a very selective learning (i.e. memorization) of the curriculum and fails to develop strong learning habits for the future (which is useful in every discipline). These problems are only exacerbated in the transition from middle school to high school.
I have already provided a lot of criticism for middle school, but it was only when I started high school that many of these problems became awfully apparent. The 7 class schedule is continued in high school, with an even greater number of graduation-required classes. Each class is centered solely around themselves and despite the so-called elective classes there is very little room to explore compelling topics in other disciplines. Content in curriculum is again prioritized over meta-learning skills, and high-pressure building up toward college applications crushes any blossoming passions or appreciation of learning.
The emphasis in college applications on extra-curriculars is also not entirely beneficial, as it loses sight of helping prepare students for the future. As a small side note, our education system needs to prepare students for real world problems, such as doing taxes (which shouldn’t even be an issue) or paying rent.
Even ignoring the academic defects, high school still failes tremendously in its social environment. It’s apparent that there’s an issue with high school considering that the primary focus of most popular films is the social system, whether it be bullying or just about popularity, rather than its primary purpose of education. Students are entering the early stages of adolescence while being forced into a toxic environment of judgement and isolation when they should be fostering their interest in a discipline of their choosing. Clubs allow for healthy social interactions over shared interests, but the 7 period schedule again heavily restricts these sorts of activities.
The large emphasis on social “ranking” also encourages social media usage, which propogates back to social focus, resulting in increased feelings of loneliness. This diverts attention and large amounts of time away from productive tasks, starting a trend that continues throughout students lives. For these reasons, high school is arguably the primary cause of rapidly rising depression rates among youth, although that’s an entirely different discussion for another time.
My high school, which is considered “good” by many, failed in all of the aspects listed above. And still there are those in worse situations, with high schools having real violence or completely uncaring teachers. The failures of the education system from middle school all the way through college are the heart of many problems in modern society, and we need to take a different approach.
What we need to fix
A brighter, smarter future