Op-ed: Why the American education system is failing us

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The antiquated American education system must be overhauled.

Jack Trapp, contributor

Think back to your elementary school days. What were your lessons like? What were you taught? If you grew up in the United States, you’ll most likely recall the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by classes in the three R’s: reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. Your classroom probably had a globe or a world map pinned on the wall which your teacher would point to during geography lessons. Doubtless, this sounds familiar to you. In fact, it would also sound familiar to your grandparents and to their grandparents as well! 

Since the first public school opened in 1635 in what would become the United States, students have learned the same “basics” of education, with minimal changes over the centuries. For years, that system made sense, because information was scarce. If Americans wanted to learn about China, the Panama Canal or long division, school was the place to do so. However, with the creation of the internet, the information age began and instantly antiquated the education system. With a smartphone, students from Bangkok to Billings can read thousands of pages about China, the Panama Canal or long division, without stepping foot in school at all. Google’s search function bridged the information gap between individuals and institutions. Schools, however, failed to understand this fundamental change and continue to emphasize information retention, much to the students’ detriment. 

Curriculums focus on memorization, forcing students to remember as much information as possible. Names, dates and places must be regurgitated for history tests, and conjugation tables must be memorized for language exams. Indeed, above all else, academic success requires accurate memorization. Instead of real-world skills, the education system focuses on furthering academic achievement. We use tests to measure students’ ability, and schools have curated their curriculums to prepare pupils for these tests. Kids are taught to succeed in the classroom, with little thought given to the outside world. Memorization is not a life skill, but testing is. Unsurprisingly, academic performance does not accurately predict career success. 

High school is often the last step in most people’s education, yet the American high school curriculum assumes the opposite. Industry-specific skills have been disregarded in favor of college preparatory classes. Only 34 percent of American adults hold a college degree, meaning that, even with college attendance at an all time high, the majority of high school graduates enter the workforce without any technical preparation or relevant coursework. Rather than understanding how credit lines work, they can recite the periodic table impressive, maybe, but useless for anyone who’s not a chemist.

The problem is as follows: The “basics” of education are outdated and irrelevant in today’s technology-powered world, and the high school education system neglects the majority of students who deserve adequate preparation for their near future. 

The system is deeply flawed, but it is not beyond repair. With some major adjustments, we can stop sending our graduates into the working world with so few useful skills to rely on. We don’t live in the world of our ancestors, so we shouldn’t be taught like them. Students should learn to navigate free and readily available information, not memorize it. 

In grammar school, the emphasis shouldn’t be on the three R’s, but rather on the four C’s: Critical thinking, Collaboration, Creativity and Communication. Critical thinking enables students to form opinions based on different bits of information and encourages them to use skepticism when facts are presented. Collaboration is essential given that every student will work with other people for the rest of their lives, so they should learn to do so effectively. Creativity teaches students to approach problems with different perspectives. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, students must learn to properly communicate through various styles and platforms. They must learn to properly use SMS texts, email, voice and video chats to avoid being misunderstood. The four C’s enable students to create and communicate their ideas competently skills that are extremely useful, yet unfortunately rare among us. 

The high school system should continue this emphasis on personal development while introducing specific technical skills. High school students should be taught to handle personal credit cards, to cook healthy meals from scratch and other life skills. Forget the periodic table or the first 20 digits of pi and learn to make educated judgments from the fodder of misinformation and irrelevancies in the information age. Certain programs have already adopted this philosophy, such the Austin Public School System, where students can choose to follow one of three separate paths: College prep, fine arts or industrial instruction. The flexibility gives students autonomy over their education, with the program earning praise nationwide.

The conventional school system requires a complete overhaul in order for its systemic inadequacies to be solved. We must rethink how we approach education, as we can no longer allow antiquated practices to govern our children’s learning. Every student in the United States deserves a comprehensive and modern education, and this will not happen if we sit by and perpetuate the existing state of affairs.

Jack Trapp is a second-year International Business major. He can be reached at [email protected]