Our education system is broken

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.

IMG_1334.JPGThis rant may eventually turn into a podcast segment, but I haven't had time for that and I can't wait any longer. The news has been all the buzz lately: Only 54% of Richmond Community Schools students graduated in 2006, putting us in the bottom 7% of Indiana high schools. There's the commentary on the school system's reaction, great thoughts on what to do and how the community can be more involved. And I'm sure some good things will come out of all of the discussion that is being generated.

But the bottom line for me is that that our system of education in the US is almost entirely broken, ill-conceived in the first place, and that calls to make incremental improvements to a broken system feel largely like a waste of time.

Old minds think "how do we stop these bad things from happening?" New minds think "how do we make things the way we want them to be?" If education in the city of Richmond, the state of Indiana, and the U.S. is to be improved or fixed, it will be with new minds, not new programs put in place by old minds.


A hundred and fifty years ago, when the United States was still a largely agrarian society, there was no reason to keep young people off the job market past the age of eight or ten, and it was not uncommon for children to leave school at that age. Only a small minority went on to college to study for the professions. With increasing urbanization and industrialization, however, this began to change. By the end of the nineteenth century, eight years of schooling were becoming the rule rather than the exception. As urbanization and industrialization continued to accelerate through the 1920s and 1930s, twelve years of schooling became the rule. After World War Two, dropping out of school before the end of twelve years began to be strongly discouraged, and it was put about that an additional four years of college should no longer be considered something only for the elite.

It seems like urbanization and industrialization would have the opposite effect - that the system would be trying to put kids ON the job market. But imagine what would happen today if educators suddenly decided that a high-school education was no longer needed. There would suddenly be tens of millions of kids out there competing for jobs that don't exist. The unemployment rate would go through the roof.

It would be catastrophic. It's not only essential to keep fourteen-to-eighteen-year-olds off the job market, it's also essential to keep them at home as non-wage-earning consumers. This age group pulls an enormous amount of money - hundreds of billions of dollars per year -- out of their parents` pockets to be spent on books, clothes, games, novelties, music, and similar things that are designed specifically for them and no one else. Many enormous industries depend on teenage consumers. If these teenagers were suddenly expected to be wage earners and no longer at liberty to pull billions of dollars from their parents` pockets, these youth-oriented industries would vanish overnight, pitching more millions out onto the job market.

We all know that most of the modern education system forces students to spend many years of their lives learning things they instantly forget once they've passed the tests. People don't remember things they have no use for. So why do we force our kids to go through this exercise? Because we have to give them something to do during the years they're being kept off the job market. And it has to look good, like it really matters.

What do people think about the failure of schools? They think the schools are incompetent and underfunded, and that kids are lazy. What stories do we tell ourselves about what the schools would do if they had more money? They could get better teachers and pay teachers more, and more money would inspire teachers to do a better job. The lazy kids? More money would be spent buying new gadgets and better books and prettier wallpaper, and the kids wouldn't be as lazy as before. And so these new and improved schools would turn out new and improved graduates.

But what happens when these new and improved graduates arrive in the workforce and start competing for jobs that the rest of us are trying to hold onto? The answer shows us why schools do such a poor job of preparing graduates for the workplace (or graduating students at all): they're doing what we actually want them to do.

People imagine that we want to see our children enter the workplace with really useful business skills, but if they actually did so, they'd immediately begin competing for jobs with their older siblings and their parents, which would be catastrophic. And if graduates came out of school with advanced skills, who would bag the groceries? Who would do the sweeping up? Who would do the filing?

Instead, we produce workers who have no choice but to enter our economic system, presorted into various grades. High-school graduates are generally destined for blue-collar jobs. They may be intelligent and talented as college graduates, but they haven't demonstrated this by surviving a further four years of studies (that are generally no more useful in life than the previous twelve years). Nonetheless, a college degree wins admittance to white-collar jobs that are generally off-limits to high school graduates.

What blue-collar and white-collar workers actually retain of their schooling doesn't much matter, in either their working lives or their private lives. Very, very few of them will every be called upon to divide one fractional number by another, parse a sentence, dissect a frog, critique a poem, prove a theorem, discuss the economic policies of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, define the difference between Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets, describe how a bill passes Congress, or explain why the oceans bulge on opposite sides of the world under the influence of tidal forces. Thus, if they graduate without being to do these things, it really doesn't matter in the slightest. Postgraduate work is obviously different. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, scholars and so on actually have to use in real life what they learn in graduate school, so for this small percentage of the population schooling actually does something besides keep them off the job market.

The deception here is that schools exist to serve the needs of people, not the needs of our children. They exist to serve the needs of our economy. The schools turn out graduates who can't live without jobs but who have no job skills, and this suits our economic needs perfect. What we're seeing at work in our schools isn't a system defect, it's a system requirement, and they meet that requirement with close to one hundred percent efficiency.

In grades K through three, most children master the skills that citizens need in order to get along in our culture - reading writing and arithmetic. These are skills that, even at age seven and eight, children actually use and enjoy using. Millions of years of natural selection have produced human creatures who are born with a ravenous desire to learn anything and everything their parents know and who are capable of feats of learning whose boundaries are literally beyond imagination. Toddlers growing up in a household in which four languages are spoken will learn those four languages flawlessly and effortless in a matter of months. Kids will learn anything they want to learn, anything they have a use for. To make them learn things they don't have a use for, you have to send them to school. That's why we need schools - to force kids to learn things they have no use for, which in fact they do not learn.

Our schools have been failing for many decades. What do you call a system that's built on the presumption that people in this system will be better than people have ever been? Everyone in this new and improved system is going to be kind and generous and considerate and selfless and obedient and compassionate and peaceable, and THEN we'll beat those low graduation rates? What kind of system is that? Utopian.

Old minds think "how do we stop these bad things from happening?" New minds think "how do we make things the way we want them to be?" If education in the city of Richmond, the state of Indiana, and the U.S. is to be fixed, it will be with new minds who want to create a mode of education that truly serves the kids we are educating, not us and our economic systems.

(Many of the concepts and phrases in the above rant are quotes or paraphrases from Daniel Quinn's book My Ishmael, and I have merely transcribed them here in a format relevant to the local news. Still, I take responsibility for any interpretations or mutations made.)

6 thoughts on “Our education system is broken

  1. Chris,

    I appreciate your sense of frustration on this topic, and agree with you that the system is broken. As someone who participated in public, private, and homeschooled curricula in the course of my K-12 years, I feel that the public system leaves much to be desired and that private options are not that far ahead. Your argument is a systemic one and so perhaps we're not at odds, but I feel compelled to make a defense of the power of real educational experiences. Our schools are not good at producing real education, but you seem to deny even its possibility.

    I would throw entire knowledge sets out of the window as useless in school, precisely because we don't remember what we don't need or want to learn, as you note above. But there is so much of use in teaching and coaching students in how to learn, in how to acquire and analyze information. And there is a whole other universe of merit in mentoring and helping students to grow and develop strength of character and depth of person. I think it would be a grave mistake to throw our population into what is often the grind of working life as soon as they've completed third grade. As a society we've achieved / exploited a level of affluence that allows a significant portion of early life to be carved out for personal development, growth, and education. I guess I would argue for new minds working on new schemes for actually achieving those goals, rather than giving up on those possibilities all together. If that is what you meant by creating a mode of education that truly serves the kids we are educating, then we are of a mind on this issue.

    Have you read Grace Llewellyn's Teenage Liberation Handbook? It is an excellent manual for wresting one's own education from the hands of the powers that be and making it serve true and good purposes. Having experienced this kind of self-directed, self-sustaining education, with the benefit of significant family and community resources aiding me in the task, I've always struggled with how such an education could be made available in a more systematic way for more people. Maybe it requires a transformed society in which families and communities are able to contribute continual time and energy to the individual needs, curiosities, and talents of each developing person in their midst? I'd like to live in such a society, but I fear that it too is utopian. How might we marry the best of a self-directed homeschooled education with the promise of providing education to all, regardless of the intellectual or material resources that each family might directly contribute to the process?

  2. i really appreciate your thoughts on education - i think your perspective is unique and helpful. and certainly, as Newell points out (and i'm sure you agree) there are many useful things to learn in public school. i think quite often they aren't the things schools are planning to teach.... i also think there are many dangerous and damaging things taught (or at least reinforced) in public school, again, often unintentional or at least unofficial. these things include racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, consumerism, poor self-esteem
    i also wanted to mention how useful technical training can be in both secondary and post-seconday education, similar to the white-collar careers you pointed out.

  3. I'm 28, and think the system is incredibly out of date. It's a system from the 40's or 50's. The world has gotten more and more specialized, yet the schooling I got was as broad and as abstract as you could get.

    Elementary school was fine. It builds a great foundation. Middle school adds to that.

    But then highschool is just this disaster, of memorization, testing, stress and useless abstract theory. It doesn't teach you to think. It churns out robots. There's this huge opportunity cost of wasted time, wasted classes.

    Highschool should be very, very specialized. Throw out all this theory and junk. Why not have an ebay/entrepreneurship class when you're 17? Why not master your personal finances at 16, 17, 18? Why not make it enjoyable and fun?

    The "test" to graduate isn't some piece of paper that you bubble in and send to your state capital. The test is....your finances are looking good. You're applying what you know. Your social skills are better, your public speaking skills are better...and you're optimistic about the future.

    Turning out graduates, so they can forget everything they learned, and then struggle to get a minimum wage job? That's an embarrassment.

  4. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the school system is broken. I do disagree, however, with your saying that schools are just meant to keep children like me off of the workforce. I beleive that schools are meant to teach us, they just need to be revamped, modernized, and havesome major funding. We are just taught to the tests, not for actual careers, which is foolish. To have to go to four or more years of college just to rise above your previous level of life is unnecessary. If we were taught more aplicable skills instead of being given useless busy work and had well trained, effective teachers instead of the first guy that signs up, then maybe students would have a chance to better themselves. I am 13, so I am personally affected. I have a terrible teacher, I'm only taught to the test and to reveiw work, I'm given useless, mindless busy work instead of actual intellectual knowledge. I have to go out of my way to actually learn something about science, or math, or social studies, or langauge arts, or anything. Its the governments fault for letting the school system die, and it may be to late to resuscitate it. It is so diffucult to actually learn something interesting or useful, and the school is more of an impediment than an aid. I used to be in the talented and gifted programs, and other such things, but they dissapeared. I am no longer taught anything of use, and it is infuriating. I'm going to get proactive about this major issue that is being ignored aand send some e-mails.

    Nigel 13 CA

  5. I agree 100% with your view on our current education system. I am currently doing research for my collge English class and the subject is "Single-sex education." It's like removing a veil off your face. I highly, highly recommend doing research on this old/new subject. You can visit the website: http://www.singlesexschools.org You can also read the book: "Why Gender Matters," which you'll see on that website. Also, find and read the book by Michael Gurian, "Boys and Girls Learn Differently!" ISBN:0-7879-5343-I Once you read and learn and research single-sex education (or gender-segregated education) you'll be amazed! Happy Reading!

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