The American Education System: an Analysis and Critique

It’s an accepted fact that the American public school system is broken.  Only a little more than half of the students who enter the system in Kindergarten will graduate on time 13 years later.  When they finally graduate, their diploma is almost worthless.  Some of these (possibly 70%) will go on to college (also referred to as University; the terms are used interchangeably in this document), and of these, many will begin their college career in remedial classes because they are not prepared to do the work that a university expects them to do.  They will be required to take classes in mathematics and other core subjects such as English Composition.  Some of those who enroll in college will never get past this barrier.

This condition arises because our public schools urge students to go on to college, whether they are suited for such a course or not.  This is generally the best course that a high school can recommend, because the school has few other options for its students.  The counselor will recommend college, or possibly a community college, because there are no good jobs for high school graduates.  They have few marketable skills.  The only jobs open to them are menial in nature, unskilled, jobs such as are found in the fast food industry or as unskilled labor in construction or similar industries.  And yet, a lifetime of television advertising entices them to get a good job, make a lot of money, buy luxury goods and get a credit card so that these items can be paid for.  They’ll need good credit because that new car they’re urged to buy costs a lot of money.  The jobs the high school graduate can qualify for are poorly paid as well as being menial.

The public school system has failed them.  They have failed themselves.  And together they have failed society.

There are a number of people who are seeking solutions to this problem.  That unemployed “graduate” might go into the armed forces (who will first have to provide an education as well as the physical conditioning that the high school grad doesn’t have) but many of them are unemployed or underemployed for at least a year after they leave high school.  Because they are unemployed and life is passing them by, they become a problem for society.  They may engage in antisocial behavior (gang activity, graffiti) or take drugs or drink excessive amounts of alcohol.  This behavior is concentrated in the minority Hispanic and Black population because these are the ones who are most likely to fail to gain an education in the public schools.  Such minority students can learn; many do.  But not all of them.

Nothing less than a restructuring of the American public school system will solve the public school problem.  Such a restructuring will not be completed in less than 10 years and it may take much longer.  In part this is because we have a system, however poor and inefficient it is.  Parents, voters, legislators, and administrators are familiar with the current system; it’s the one that brought them to where they are now.  So they conclude that with a little bit of tinkering the system can be made to work.  We, as a society, have been trying that little bit of tinkering for many years.  It’s an item on the agenda of every new president and every governor and legislators at every level.  There are new directives every year, and frequently these directives are not accompanied by the funds to carry them out.  And the situation gets worse every year.

This restructuring may cost money, but probably not as much as you might expect.  It will, however, cost school districts that local control that they cherish.  Local control is inefficient and ultimately unfair.  Most districts are underfunded.

Those districts which have a tax base that can support high pay for teachers get the best teachers.   A teacher who does not measure up will be dismissed; there is sure to be a waiting list of eager, well-qualified teachers to replace the dismissed one.  Teachers can work in relatively pleasant surroundings in suburban schools or in less pleasant inner city schools.  They can have sufficient funding to support the education program or they can be forced by necessity to purchase paper or other supplies from their own pocket.

The best performing districts, those which have the highest percentage of graduation when compared to enrollment, are generally the ones with the best funding.  But it does not have to be this way.  I would argue that this comes about because schools with the extra funding are able to succeed not because of the educational system but despite it.  The reality is that we must somehow provide a quality education to all students in all our schools, not just in the few.  That quality education must specifically address the needs of Black and Hispanic students, because they are the ones least served by the current system.

Restructuring needs to begin with the needs of the student.  The current system assumes that all students have the same needs and does not attempt to tailor the student’s education plan to individual circumstances.  This one-size-fits-all approach works fairly well in elementary grades, although even here some students require special programs.  The standard class does not provide a challenge for a few students, so they may receive more demanding classes.  This is the student considered particularly gifted and/or talented.

Other students are at the other end of the spectrum.  They require extraordinary support because they cannot benefit from a standard education.  The student may be physically unable to attend regular classes or absorb the material being taught.  He/she may be dyslexic or be diagnosed as AD/HD (Attention Deficit , in that he cannot concentrate as well as his peers, and Hyperactivity Disorder, in that he cannot control his physical activity).  He may suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Down’s Syndrome or simply not develop as fast as others for whatever reason.  Such students require more adult assistance and may, even with such assistance, not progress very far.

The remainder of the students are expected to progress through the mechanism of a “standard” education.  They do this without extra support or special classes.  Most of them succeed through the elementary grades.  Elementary education should provide the student with general skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic, keyboard skills and computer literacy, and elementary knowledge of the structure and functioning of American society.  They should have some idea of what science is and how science works and of the role of technology in a modern society.  Students who need extra help should be provided that help, but it must be recognized that some students simply cannot perform with their peers.  No amount of legislation can alter this.  Students who are identified as being unable to function in a standard school should not be left in the schools, even in some supportive setting.   Decisions as to when such dismissal is appropriate should not be arrived at without a lot of thought and only after every attempt has been made to help the student become able to continue with his peers.  But after it has become obvious that the student has had all that the education system can offer him, it is counterproductive to allow him to remain in school.  Keeping him in an educational setting is social engineering at this point; it is not education.

Students should be tested at the end of the elementary grades to determine their ability to continue in the standard educational “track”.   If they have not mastered the elements of an elementary education then they cannot be expected to function in the more demanding atmosphere of middle school.   This testing must be mandatory and the student must demonstrate mastery in order to continue on the standard school track.  Failure here puts the student into a different track, one which leads to a career in some field other than those taught by universities.  Such a career should not be viewed as menial or low-paid or uninteresting.  Consider that there is no requirement for a degree to work in the field of movie production.  Carpenters, electricians, dolly men, camera operators, costumers, model makers, and computer operators are all part of the modern movie business.  Medical technologists operate x-ray and scan systems, and veterinary assistants help the vet care for arnimals; robotic systems installers and mechanics work in industry; heavy equipment operators build roads and airfields.  Aircraft technicians are well paid and work in interesting, challenging fields such as airframe maintenance or engine maintenance or avionics maintenance and repair.  There are also policeman and fireman that are the basis of ambition for many young students, but there are also ambulance attendants/drivers, bus drivers and truck drivers, farm technologists such as combine operators and maintenance people, welders and wind or solar power technicians…and all of these offer careers that are superior to in every respect to fast food jobs.

Testing is being conducted at various points along the academic path, but such testing is primarily used to determine whether the school is doing what it is supposed to.  There are no consequences to the student for failing these tests.

There will be other posts in this series discussing what schools fail to do, and why, and some suggested solutions.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: