Once upon a time, enthusiasts designed a formal education system to meet the economic demands of the industrial revolution. Fast forward to today and, with the current global economic climate, it seems apparent that the now established education system is unable to meet the needs of our hyper-connected society - a society that is in a constant state of evolution. Let’s examine 10 problems that prevent the US education system from regaining its former preeminence.
1. Parents are not involved enough. Of all the things out of the control of teachers, this one is perhaps the most frustrating. Time spent in the classroom is simply not enough for teachers to instruct every student, to teach them what they need to know. There must, inevitably, be some interaction outside school hours. Of course, students at a socio-economic disadvantage often struggle in school, particularly if parents lack higher levels of education. But students from middle and upper class families aren’t off the hook, either. The demands of careers and an over-dependence on schools put higher-class kids at risk too when it comes to the lack of parental involvement in academics.
2. Schools are closing left and right. It’s been a rough year for public schools. Many have found themselves on the chopping block. Parents, students and communities as a whole feel targeted, even if school board members are quick to cite unbiased numbers. There is no concrete way to declare a winner in these cases, either.
Sometimes, a school closing is simply inevitable but communities should first look for other solutions. Instead of shutting down underutilized public schools - icons of the community - districts should consider other neighborhood uses, such as a community center or adult education classes. Closing public schools should not be a short-sighted procedure. The decision should focus on the only investment that really matters: a quality public education for all our nation’s children.
3. Our schools are overcrowded. The smaller the class, the better the individual student experience. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14 percent of U.S. schools exceed capacity. At a time where children need more attention than ever to succeed, overcrowded classrooms are making it even tougher to learn and tougher still for teachers to be effective.
4. Technology comes with its downsides. I am an advocate for technology in the classroom. I think that ignoring the educational opportunities that technology has afforded us puts kids at a disadvantage. With that being said, screen culture overall has made the jobs of teachers much more difficult. Education has become synonymous with entertainment in many ways. Parents are quick to download educational games as soon as kids have the dexterity to operate a touch screen, and with the best of intentions. The quick-hit way that children are learning academics before and during their K-12 careers makes it even more difficult for teachers to keep up in the classroom setting, particularly since each student’s knowledge base and technological savvy varies.
5. There is a lack of diversity in gifted education. The “talented and gifted” label is one bestowed upon the brightest and most advanced students. Beginning in early elementary grades, TAG programs separate student peers for the sake of individualized learning initiatives. Though the ideology is sound, the practice of it is often a monotone, unattractive look at contemporary American public schools. District schools need to find ways to better recognize different types of learning talent and look beyond the typical “gifted” student model. The national push to make talented and gifted programs better mirror the contemporary and ever-evolving student body is a step in the right direction. Real change happens on a smaller scale though - in individual districts, schools and TAG programs. That progress must start with understanding of the makeup of a particular student body and include innovative ways to include all students in TAG learning initiatives.
6. School spending is stagnant, even in our improving economy. As the U.S. economy continues to improve, according to news headlines, one area is still feeling the squeeze from the recession years: K-12 public school spending. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 34 states are contributing less funding on a per student basis than they did prior to the recession years. Since states are responsible for 44 percent of total education funding in the U.S., these dismal numbers mean a continued crack down on school budgets despite an improving economy. If we cannot find the funding for our public schools, how can we expect things like the achievement gap to close or high school graduation rates to rise? It was understandable that budgets had to be slashed when the bottom dropped out of the economy. Now we are in a more stable place, though, it is time to get back to funding what matters most: the education of our K-12 students.
7. There is a lack of teacher education innovation. It stands to reason that if students are changing, teachers must change too. More specifically, it is time to modify teacher education to reflect the demands of the modern K - 12 classrooms. There are policy and practice changes taking place all over the world - many driven by teachers - that address the cultural shifts in the classroom. Public education in America needs teachers who are better trained to meet the needs of specific student populations, understand the necessary role of distance learning, and are willing to speak up to facilitate classroom change. Without these teachers, effective reform to meet global demand is not possible.
8. 80 percent of students are graduating high school...yet less than half of these students are ready for what’s next. The U.S. Education Department reports that the high school graduation rate is at an all-time high at 80 percent. Four out of five students are successful in studies completion and graduate within four years. While these statistics sound like a reason for a standing ovation, they are overshadowed by the crisis that is sweeping the United States. While 80 percent of high school seniors receive a diploma, less than half of those are able to proficiently read or complete math problems.
The problem is that students are being passed on to the next grade when they should be held back, and then they are unable to complete grade-level work and keep up with their classmates.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest standardized test administered in the United States, reports that fewer than 40 percent of graduating seniors have mastered reading and math and are poorly equipped for college and real world life. These students who are passed to the next grade are at a serious disadvantage and have an increased chance of falling behind and dropping out of college.
9. Some students are lost to the school-to-prison pipeline. Sadly, over half of black young men who attend urban high schools do not earn a diploma. Of these dropouts, too, nearly 60 percent will go to prison at some point. Perhaps there is no real connection between these two statistics, or the eerily similar ones associated with young Latino men. Are these young people bad apples, destined to fail academically and then to live a life of crime? If some of the theories of genetic predisposition are true, perhaps these young men never stood a chance at success and have simply accepted their lots in life. But what if those answers, all of them, are just cop-outs? What if scoffing at a connection between a strong education and a life lived on the straight and narrow is an easy way to bypass the real issues in K-12 learning? Students who are at risk of dropping out of high school or turning to crime need more than a good report card. They need alternative suggestions on living a life that rises above their current circumstances. For a young person to truly have a shot at an honest life, he or she has to believe in the value of an education and its impact on good citizenship. That belief system has to come from direct conversations about making smart choices with trusted adults and peers.
10. There is a nationwide college-gender gap, and surprisingly, we are not focusing on it. If you have been following education hot button issues for any length of time, you’ve likely read about the nationwide push to better encourage girls in areas like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The thought is that by showing young women that these topics are just as appropriate for them as their male peers, more women will find lasting careers in these traditionally male-dominated fields. I’m all for more women in the STEM workplace but with all this focus in one area, are educators neglecting an even larger gender gap issue? I wonder how much of this trend is based on practicality and how much is based on a lingering social convention that women need to “prove” themselves when it comes to the workforce. Do women simply need a degree to land a job in any field? If so, the opposite is certainly not true for men - at least not yet. Will the young men in our classrooms today have a worse quality of life if they do not attend college - or will it be about the same?
Some of these reasons are well-known and long-standing issues. However, others--such as the emergence of a screen culture--are new and even somewhat unexpected challenges. However, the nature of each issue does not matter. All of them are standing in the way of us becoming globally competitive.
Can you think of any additional reasons why the U.S. education system is failing?
The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.