Public Education Reforms: What America Needs to Do

Summer vacation. Lectures. Math, Science, English, and History as discrete subjects. All things of the past. Today, more and more schools are shifting into the realm of project-based learning, interdisciplinary instruction, and, to the sound of millions of children wailing, longer school days and years. Let’s look at the facts: According to the OECD’s (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) Program for International Student Assessment in 2003, American “15 year olds ranked 24th of 38 in mathematics, 19th of 38 in science, 12th of 38 in reading, and 26th of 38 in problem solving. In the 2006 assessment, the U.S. ranked 35th out of 57 in mathematics and 29th out of 57 in science.”

These are not impressive statistics, as the U.S. falls into the bottom 50th percentile in all but one category. In addition, the U.S. has a lower high school graduation rate than most developed countries.

How do we change this? Notice that I said “we.” As members of society, it is our obligation to ensure that each child is given the best possible education that the government is capable of providing. Equality of opportunity is imperative to the success of a capitalist society like the United States. Certain reforms are necessary if America is once again to become a leader in education. And becoming a leader in education should be a top priority to America’s leaders. A poorly educated society leads to a poorly elected government which produces poorly thought-out laws. A lack of education means a lack of research in science, which inhibits improvements in everything from national security to medicine.

Without teaching students innovative ways of thinking or encouraging creativity, how is our generation to overcome the great obstacles of our time? Global warming, energy production, and a growing population are all issues that will eventually demand creative and moral solutions.

To cover all of public education would take far more than my allotted words; therefore, I will focus on high school, a critical time for success in a student’s life. Many adults recall that in high school, they sat in a class and took notes while the teacher talked at them. They then read the textbook, took the tests, and called it a day. Research has shown that this is a highly inefficient method of teaching.

Over the summer, I attended a three-day workshop on 21st century teaching practices. One of the participants commented that some of the material was the same as that covered in a PhD course on education. The workshop presented studies showing that lectures give a 5 percent retention rate of information, while reading gives 10 percent on average. On the other hand, group discussions offer 50 percent, practice by doing 75 percent, and teaching others 90 percent. Thus, I argue that movement away from the lecture model is the best path for America.

We have already traveled some of this distance. Obviously, instruction styles from teacher to teacher vary, but on average, at least in my experience, there is far less lecture and much more participatory learning than a generation ago. Yet there are those that remain stubborn, stuck in the old ineffective ways of yesterday. This is why it is so important that teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance.

This brings up one of the most important points I have: teachers cannot be permitted to lower standards and cutoffs to inflate the number of passing students in a class. Debasement of standards is one of the greatest threats to American students. Far too often, when test scores are low, teachers drop the test. If someone is failing, they are allowed “extra credit” to boost their grades.

The only thing students learn from this technique is that anytime an obstacle arises, society will kindly remove it for them. This is wrong! The only way for people to grow is to learn from their mistakes. Teachers who don’t allow students to fail are not allowing those students to grow. The importance of holding students accountable for their own performance is only rivaled by the importance of holding teachers accountable for theirs.

In a similar manner, state standardized tests must be abolished in favor of national standardized tests. When students scoring in the top 5 percent of one state’s test fall in the bottom 50 percent of another, something is clearly wrong.

Curriculums in high schools today are the source of a perpetual battle. Why is math given more emphasis than history? If reading is required, then why isn’t an arts class? Or a foreign language? The issue here is that different subjects are important to different people. While I would bemoan a class on Shakespeare that others would love, I would rejoice in a theoretical mathematics course that others would despise. Currently, there is no perfect curriculum that fits every student, but I believe there can be. The solution is the magnet school.

Today, most students move from a middle or junior high school to a high school or vocational school, where they struggle through classes they don’t want to take and will never use. At the same time, they may find a class they are interested in, but are unable to explore the topic further due to restrictions in scheduling, graduation requirements, or the school’s inability to offer more advanced courses. It is my belief that magnet schools would correct this problem.

Instead of each town funding its own high school, towns and cities in regions created by the state to minimize costs would together fund regional magnet schools. When a student reaches the end of 8th grade, they would be able to choose, with the help of teachers, parents, and guidance counselors, which school would be best for furthering their education. For example, a student would be able to choose between a school of math and science, a school of arts, a school of vocations, or even a general school similar to today’s high school if they remain uncertain about where their strengths lie. Each magnet school would still educate its pupils in all of the major subjects, but an emphasis would be given to the “theme,” with an effort being made to relate any required subjects to that theme.

The magnet school system resolves many of the problems facing our current education system. It clarifies the important sections of different curriculums, gives students more choice in the classes they take, and would likely result in lower dropout rates because every class could be tailored to the students who wanted to be in it.

The changes our schools require will be politically difficult, financially costly, and often tumultuous. Yet in the long-run, it will return America to the right track. President Obama has recently suggested moving to a year-round school year and increasing the length of the school day, which is a step in the right direction. Such a change must be done carefully, as businesses that prosper during the summer months would suffer, but if the government can pull it off, so many would benefit. Even ignoring the educational gains, year-round school would provide a source of constancy to all students, which is especially important for those without a stable home environment.

Already though, there are signs of positive changes. Because of the emphasis on involvement and service, students today are much more involved in their high schools and communities than they used to be, enabling them to learn about responsible citizenship and time management.

Free public education is the foundation of all the other American rights. Without an educated populace, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness become just distant, fantastic concepts, never attainable by the average American. This is why the American government must do everything in its power to repair our education system. And since in a democracy we are the government, I suggest you stop reading this article and write to your representative. Now.