A new model of public education

Let’s take education out of the nineteenth century

This is the last in a three-part series on education reform in America.

Why do students have a summer vacation? Why are students taught, for the most part, in rows of desks in square, box-like classrooms? Why are mathematics and language given a higher priority than humanities and arts? So many of today’s practices in public education are outdated, based on what we thought we knew and the way things were many years ago. Summer vacation was created so that sons could help their fathers harvest crops. Students sit in rows and are lectured to because, countless years ago, it was believed that lecturing was the most effective method of teaching. Why hasn’t education caught up to the times?

Traditionally, learning was a highly independent process. Students were told not to talk to their peers. Rows allowed the teacher to ensure that he had a class’s full attention while he talked at them. Math and science are priorities in public education systems around the world because the modern public education system was born during the Industrial Revolution. At that time, math and science were the useful areas which would get students a job upon graduation.

We no longer live in the Industrial Revolution. We no longer need children to help their family harvest crops over the summer. Research has shown students retain only five percent of what they learn in lecture, making it one of the least efficient ways of teaching. Over the summer, students forget so much information that teachers are forced to spend valuable time reviewing old material. The fact that our model of public education has not undergone significant change in 200 years is a major factor in the decline of American education. It is time to turn that around. There are three areas that we must examine: the school year, what is taught, and how it is taught.

The United States’ school year currently stretches from about September to June. During this time, there are week-long vacations in December, February, and April. Changing this schedule must be a priority, and America must implement a school year that actually goes all year. Instead of one summer vacation and three weeks off, offer students a week off every other month.

The benefits will be numerous. First, students will be in school more often, giving them time to both learn material in-depth and to be creative in doing things they enjoy. It will eliminate, for the most part, any significant time lost on reviewing forgotten material.

Of course, there are problems, mainly economic, with a year-round school year that must be addressed. Tourism will decline. Locations that are popular for visits and vacations during the summer months will suffer financial losses. In addition, a significant amount of money will be required to compensate teachers for the longer amounts of time they’ll be working.

In the short term, these losses will be painful, but the long term benefits are undeniable. Our schools will be producing students who are more prepared to face the world, to compete nationally and internationally, and to make a difference in their country and world. With the creativity and potential that can be fostered with the extra class time, new industries will spring up, providing new jobs for thousands and allowing federal and state governments to recoup through taxes some of the money lost on increased teachers’ wages.

Tourism sites will not have a respite, but they will continue to function and continue to make billions. Consider the choice before us: Disney World can roll in money, or your children can have the best education in the world.

What should be taught in these new, full-time schools? The curriculum as we know it needs to essentially be dumped. Sir Ken Robinson, who served on the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, argues that school systems are crushing the creativity out of students; I agree with him. Memorize these facts for science and history. Write research papers on novels that are only well-known because teachers buy them in bulk and force students to read them. Do these math problems. That’s what most public education systems endorse and prioritize.

Our public high schools do not have balanced curricula. The student who excels at math has a much easier time finding classes that cater to his/her needs than the student who wants to be an artist, a fantasy writer, or even an actor. In fact, except for perhaps a single class entitled “Drama,” many schools resign drama to an after-school program. Yet it would never even be conceivable to offer a single math course during the year and tell any interested students who excelled in it to take it up in their own free time.

As I have mentioned before, the world as we know it is rapidly changing, and our schools cannot continue catering only to the needs of certain children. There is no reason why a student who loves one subject should be discouraged because “they could never get a job doing that.” Moreover, the current system is, economically, unsustainable. Already, the signs of “degree inflation” have begun to show. Jobs that once required only high school diplomas now seek bachelor’s degrees. Jobs that wanted a BA now want a Master’s. The human population grows exponentially, so before long everyone will have a degree and no one will have a job. Creativity will be what makes people valuable. Rather than channeling everyone into the mold of an engineer or another profession in the sciences, schools must seek to develop each child’s unique abilities and permit them to become more than just another number in a field they find only marginally enjoyable.

Specialized schools, sometimes referred to as magnet schools, can deal with this issue. It is unrealistic to expect every public high school to give an in-depth education in every conceivable area to every student. The goal must be to avoid “reverse discrimination” by forcing students who enjoy math and science to do drama or art to the same depth. The solution is to create regionalized schools which would each have a different focus. After grade 8 or 9, students, with input from teachers and parents, would select a regional high school to attend. Based on their interests and proficiency, they could attend a school for math and science, a school for government and politics, a school for writing or a school for art and drama. These schools would provide a basic education in all areas of the curriculum, but would focus on and emphasize the material that attendees are interested in. The end result will undoubtedly be higher rates of job satisfaction, greater productivity, greater diversity, and the recognition that academic intelligence isn’t the only definition of the word “smart.”

The final very important aspect of reform is the way in which material is taught, along with the underlying themes tying all the schools together. The methods of teaching would obviously vary from school to school based on specialty, but certain practices can be broadly implemented. Students should be engaged in their learning; rather than being talked at, they have hands-on projects with real applications. This should be coupled with giving back to the community and developing good citizenship.

New schools must be built to cater to the needs of the 21st century. In acknowledgement of a digital age, regardless of speciality, schools should have computer labs. In addition, “Government” needs to become a required class, so that every American has an understanding of how their government and country operates and what the Constitution provides. To be able to spread their knowledge, students need to be taught effective communication skills, both written and oral.

We face a new frontier in America, one far more fundamental than going to the moon or splitting the atom. We need to properly educate our children before it is too late. To do this, we need sweeping reforms throughout America, stretching from national standards to an overhaul of the old curricula and models of public education. It is time to stop using a system of education that was cutting-edge two hundred years ago.