This post has been a long time in coming. It’s one I’ve wanted to make for months, almost a year, really, but just kept putting off because of everything else that was going on. But at last, the time is here, and I’ve got a bit to talk about it.
I’m going to start out with a few obvious disclaimers: I don’t work in education. I came through the US education system, but I don’t work in it. I’ve taught, but on panels and in places like Sunday School classrooms, where attendance is pretty voluntary, and that’s a pretty different experience.
Second, I don’t wish for this post to be taken as “How dare you attack our teachers!” at all. Because it’s not. Most of the best teachers I’ve known have been hard-working individuals who cared a lot more about the job than the paltry paycheck they got in return would have indicated (much of which went right back to paying for things their school couldn’t).
This isn’t to say that there aren’t awful teachers out there, but they’re a symptom of the problems with the US’s education system and only a partial cause rather than the full cause.
I’m also not trying to say that the US’s education system has been flawed from the beginning. It wasn’t. Not initially. But … Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start where this whole thing for me started: With the biggest missed opportunity in decades.
I’m sure a few of you, maybe more, are puzzling over what the quarantine has to do with this. So I’ll open up with a hammer of a statement that’s only going to widen that gap of momentary puzzlement:
I think the United States screwed up by opening the schools this year. I don’t think they should have opened at all. The moment they closed down at the start of this year, the US should have seized it as a moment to do something that’s been long overdue: Completely overhaul the US education system.
I’m sure some of you are shocked by the audacity of that last statement, but even before I get into the reasons behind the long-needed overhaul, here’s why now was the right time to do it.
No matter what, overhauling and modernizing an education system—fully, rather than just tacking on some bits and pieces here and there with spot-welding—is an involved process. I’ve spoken with a teacher in another first-world nation where they’ve done it. Rebuilding a public education system takes time and money. It’s not something that’s done overnight. Students usually end up with a year off as the system is implemented, just because it takes that time to get everything sorted out.
And America had that time forced on it. The Covid-19 pandemic was the “perfect storm” in many ways, but one way in which it was actually “perfect” in a good way was a “perfect excuse.”
We’d already closed down schools. Quarantine! Why not take advantage of that and do something that America has been putting off for decades?
Sands, the reason the US has put off giving its education system an overhaul for so long is because it would be so impactful. It’s a “can’t afford the time to put the car in the shop” sitation. Yes, it would cost money, and yes, it would take time, so the United States has just been putting it off over and over again.
Covid-19 was a ditch. A wreck so bad that the tow-truck showed and took the car to the garage’s lot to sit there until the US could decide what to do.
At that point, the car was already there. Money was being spent. The US had the option of just biting the bullet and saying “All right, you know what? Do it! Just fix it.”
Instead, the politicians panicked. They looked at their pocketbooks (their personal ones) and said “Yeah … this isn’t going to work. Can you slap some duct-tape on that baby and get it back on the road? I don’t care if it’s not road-safe, I just want it out of here.”
And the mechanics did just that.
Now obviously this isn’t a perfect analogy (one reason for why I’ll be getting into in a moment). But I think it serves to illustrate the point well enough. America was handed, on a silver platter, the perfect excuse to modernize it’s education system, to take a year off and build something modern, something built for the world of today.
Instead, we choked. We declared there was no way we could “ride the bus” or “bike to work,” yanked the car out of the shop with a duct-tape patch job, and sent kids back to school as soon as the season arrived.
All so that parents could be at work rather than raising their kids, because the economy. Long-term problems are, after all, the future’s problem. If those problems were tackled now, that would mean less money in the politician’s pockets now. Delay, and it’s the problem of a future politician.
This wasn’t a choice of “School or the American car crashes.” This was literally a case of “Well, we can have a little difficulty now for a better situation later, or the least amount of difficulty now for even more difficulty later. Latter option please.”
But there’s one other reason that this analogy isn’t a perfect one, and that has to do with the vehicle itself. See, America’s education system isn’t a car. Not really. It’s so old and outdated that a more apt comparison would be a horse-drawn buggy that’s been retrofitted repeatedly to have the “features” of a car without actually being a car at all, or ever being built for it.
Now, let me preface this next bit by saying that I have nothing personal against the horse-and-buggy. It was a vital piece of technology that people around the world used for over a century (as an upgrade from the “horse and cart”) to transport goods, get around, etc etc. They functioned and continue to function perfectly well … for that era.
Which is where the problem arises. Try starting a horse-and-buggy shipping business today, for example, competing with eighteen-wheeler trucks and the even more advanced driverless versions already rolling down highways, and you’re quickly going to find that you have no market at all. It’s not that the horse-and-buggy are bad, per se. Just that they’re completely ill-suited to compete and work in today’s modern world.
Am I about to compare this to the US public education system? You bet I am.
Here’s a thinker for you: In what year was the education system and style that the US Education System uses adopted? Take a guess. 1950? Older, perhaps? 1930? 1910?
Try older still. 1848.
That’s right. The education system the US still uses was first established in 1848. Making it over 170 years old. Known as the “factory model,” the US has used this system of education continuously since its inception and adoption.
And yes, it has made modifications. But it hasn’t changed the system in all that time. Starting to see the comparison to the buggy yet?
Yeah, the US education system is the horse-and-buggy. Good for its era … but woefully outmatched in the modern world. But rather than take the time and effort to replace it, the US has adopted a model of “continual modifications.”
Lose the horse, bolt an engine somewhere. Rig up some gears. Does it function? Okay, it does. Sure, it’s not great, and it’s not up to this newfangled automobile, but it’s close, and how far will the car really go?
Airbags? Uh … I’m sure we can stick those somewhere. A horn? Okay, we’ll just stick that there. Headlights? I’m sure we’ve got space here somewhere. Turn signals? Just … stick them wheverever, I’m sure we’ll make it work …
Starting to sound a bit like a lot of the “modern” public school approaches you may see in your community (if you’re in the US)? That’s because that’s what’s happened. The end result is that the US’s public education system is a Frankenstein’s monster, a reanimated method of conveyance that worked well in the century it was established, but repeatedly modified and fitted with upgrades it wasn’t really suited or built for, until the whole thing is an ungainly mess limping along the highway of knowledge.
For a lighter comparison, the US public education system is a bit like this bit from the British show Top Gear where the hosts take cars that are very obviously not motorhome-RVs and attempt to rebuild them into RVs for a weekend of camping. They’re functional, yes, but … Well, if you watch the video, it’s pretty obvious that despite all their work, you’d be better off doing either a much more involved refit or just buying a blasted RV.
Now, obviously in Top Gear it’s played for laughs. But in the US it’s long stopped being a laughing matter. Imagine the above, but with the hosts trying to motorize a horse-drawn buggy and turn it into an RV atop that, and then realize that’s exactly what US students are being put through right now.
And look, it’s not that the system the US built a century ago was bad. It wasn’t. At the time it was the envy of nations everywhere. It was modern. It took young students and gave them the education they needed to work in the factories of the day.
But those factories don’t exist anymore. Or where they do, most of the work is being done by machines, with people supervising. The type of work and life the American school is set up to produce students for simply no longer exists.
It goes further than that, however. The world has changed, but the US education system hasn’t changed with it. In 1910 for example, do you know what the percentage of Americans with High School Diploma’s was?
Nine. Percent. At the time, the only “required” schooling for life was completing the 5th grade. That’s right, in 1910 in America, graduating the 5th grade meant you had all the education you needed to work. A 5th grade education would get you a house and a steady job to support a family.
How times have changed. By 1935, forty percent of Americans had a diploma as society began to advance and the needs of jobs began to change from “simple factory worker” to “advanced factory worker.”
And things kept changing. The number of colleges began to rise as “secondary education” IE education after completing what the US education system considered ‘enough” continued to swell. The standard for jobs became “middle school education,” then “high school education” and now, well … We’re at the point where a job flipping burgers at McDonalds is going to ask if you have a Bachelor’s Degree from one of those once-optional “secondary” education sources.
And through it all? The US Education System has not changed. They’ve made modifications, yes. You see that today with “Well, let’s buy everyone tablets” even though they have no idea how they’re going to use them. Secondary education is now a requirement of even the most basic jobs. And the US’ rank, when it comes to the education of its citizens, continues to slide.
Why? Becase we’re still using a modified horse and buggy cart with the elements of a modern education bolted on over the top. We haven’t changed the thrust or basic design of our system in over a century and a half. We’re still using a system built for a world where a fifth grade education was all you needed, working day in and day out doing a basic factory task now performed by machines.
And it shows. I’ve spoken with educators at secondary education locations and employers alike lamenting that so many students coming out of these schools lack the ability to think critically, self-manage, work out and reason the logic behind something, study different voices and research on things … I could go on. But all of them express concern that they then have to do this training, rather than the schools that they expect to be providing that baseline.
To which I reply “Well, yeah, what do you expect? The school system is delivering what it was built to do.” And it wasn’t made to create the kind of worker needed in the modern world. Regardless of all the airbags we bolt to it, it’s never going to be half as good at it as something that was built with that in mind.
Standards are slipping? You don’t say? Of course they’d slip as time went on. A system built to be pulled by a horse is trying to compete with driverless trucks in what’s become a cross-country shipping service. While yes, you could perhaps make a system that might come close, it’s going to involve a pony-express style system of stables to work, and that’s going to cost thousands of times what the single truck would.
Oh hey, look how inefficiently the US education system is with money. I wonder if that is related?
Sarcasm, obviously, because it is.
Now look, some of you might be thinking “But what are we supposed to do? Stop teaching for a year while we modernize and overhaul the entire system?”
Well … Yes, actually. This is an option. In fact, I learned about this from a friend of mine teaching in the Phillipines where they have been one of many modern nations to do exactly that. Her nation spent the time and money completely overhauling the education system, gave all students a year off to do so, and then when they came back, started all new young students on the new system, phasing the older ones out as they advanced through the years.
It can be done.
Okay, so what am I getting at here? What’s the point of this post? Well, there are several.
- Our politicians messed up when they demanded we reopen schools. All of us did by letting them get away with it. We were already closed. The opportunity was there.
- We also all messed up by letting the US education system get this far.
- It’s going to take a full replacement. Not yet another bandage. A replacement. A whole new system.
- That system needs to be built for the world of today, not the world as it was 170 years ago.
- That system needs to have an acknowledgement that it to will someday be out of date and need to be replaced. We need to plan for this, not pretend it’ll never happen.
- We need to spend money and maybe “ride the bus” for a while to make this happen.
Strictly regimented learning, standardized testing that changes every few months, teaching children what to think instead of how to think, or forcing them to rote memorize, repeat, and forget basic things like math? We need to do away with all of it. Gone are the days when a fifth grade education could get you a house. Long-vanished are the times when no one needed to worry about what some other country was doing and how that might affect the market tomorrow.
We need modern education. I’m still amazed at the number of educated adults I encounter who don’t know what geopolitics is, for example, or don’t understand how treaties, tariffs, and taxes work. Or worse, basic accounting and math.
The current US education system, however, isn’t built in a way that allows it to handle everything it needs to cover. Nor is it capable of doing so in ways that will help children learn to educate themselves. In fact, it’s built to do the opposite, with teachers that stress self-education being the outliers, not the norm.
It’s no wonder the US is facing the problems that it is, from people refusing to vaccinate or wear masks to people who say “Yes” to whatever simple thing that comes along sounding good that they hear. It’s no wonder that when asked, American’s self-identified as being one of the best-educated nations in the world despite actual testing showing that the US is below average.
We think we’re the best while we fall behind because we’re not the best. We haven’t been for a long time. And the storm of other problems the United States faces? Well, they’re amplified in a way by the fact that most of our citizens aren’t properly equipped to have meaningful opinions on them, much less attempt to solve them or work out who might.
That has to change. And soon. Because the other vehicles on the highway? They’re speeding up. The longer we wait to upgrade, the further behind we will get. That’s just slightly more than basic math. Which, according to recent reports, over a third of Americans can’t do.
We need to pull the old buggy off of the road and replace it. It did its job, but the era of buggies is over. We use engines now. And increasingly, electric onces.
And yes, the opportunity was in our grasp and we let it slip past us. Which means in the long run it’s going to cost us even more to make the change.
But it’ll cost us more not too in the long run.
We need to do it for our future, so that our descendants can be adequately prepared for the world ahead, we need to make the change.
We need a system that teaches critical thought. That equips students with tools, not repetition. That gives an education to the level of being able to hold a basic job, not to three-quarters of the way there.
The longer we wait, the more the change is going to hurt. So let’s get it done, and build a better education system for our kids and future generations.
Before it’s too late.
Feature Image from Pexels.
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