How Public Schools Fail Students

08 Oct 2018

This story was originally published on Medium.com. Please check it out over there.

When I was in high school, it seemed like I was one the few people who wasn’t just treading water. Everyone around me was struggling every day. Most of my classmates hated the experience — they were living for graduation. Many high school students find it hard to enjoy the learning; they struggle on tests, and they are not fulfilled.

I think that these students are victims of the education system. It’s not anyone’s fault — the teachers are doing their best, the administration is doing their best, and I believe that the students are doing their best, too. The system simply does not do a great job of allowing students to flourish in their school life. Because they’re not given the opportunity to be fulfilled by school, students “work for the weekend,” and even worse than that, they only feel like they are living their lives if school is out.

How many times have you heard a teacher tell you something that began with, “You know, in the real world…” Of course, you know what they mean. The real world: the adult world, the professional world, the world that you’ll be in once you’ve graduated. The world that will allow you to be fulfilled and feel meaning. “In the real world, no one is going to hold your hand… In the real world, you won’t be able to turn anything in late…” These things aren’t untrue, but the fact that the education system is set up to be nothing more than a prerequisite for the “real world” is unfortunate. It’s a tragedy that it’s not obvious — but you are living in the real world. Right now. You do actually exist in the current actual, factual state of the universe. And if you live your life waiting for the “real world” to come around, you’re going to be pretty disappointed when it never comes. The “real world” is your mindset. What’s “real” is exactly where you invest yourself, and nowhere else.

This might feel wrong to students. They feel no intrinsic motivation to attend high school. I imagine they would think, “I’m only going to high school so I can go to college and get a job,” but that only proves my point that the system is failing them. They feel this way because you have been in this system for their entire lives — and this system is designed to turn toddlers into members of society. That’s why students constantly have the sense that they are only working for something else, only existing for the next step, just waiting for the “real world.” Students could be happy and fulfilled by their experience in high school if they were connected to the learning, experiences, and community that it provides.

This is an example of the systematic errors that plague our education system. They aren’t blaring failures of society, they’re small nuances that make it difficult for students to feel as though what they are doing is important or meaningful.

For this error to be resolved, we would have to completely shift the mindset that commands the public schooling system. Public school should encourage learning for the sake of learning, investigating one’s own interests, being a member of a community, and exploring careers. Instead, it encourages nothing more than preparing for the next level of school. This happens because it is a whole lot easier to manage the system in this way. When a student asks a teacher, “I hate algebra. Why do I have to learn it?” It is much easier for the teacher to say, “Because you will need to use it in college,” than, “Because it is a fundamental mathematical tool that will almost certainly be relevant to your career. What are you interested in? Let’s investigate where algebra becomes relevant.”

Certainly, teachers of the highest caliber operate in this manner. Part of the problem with the education system is that it demands a much higher quantity of teachers than it can satisfyingly reward. High-caliber teachers would be better off becoming college professors, or avoiding education altogether. Public school is therefore left with only the individuals who are either such passionate teachers that they did not care about the pay or mediocre teachers that settled for a job that doesn’t suit them. One of these possibilities is more likely than the other.

In order to create more motivated and fulfilled, students, the public schooling system must begin pursuing the “hard” way.

The problematic mindset that public school instills in students is very damaging to the way students perceive college. Because students believe that they attend high school so they may attend college, so they may get a degree, so they may get a job, they are missing out on the most valuable quality a member of society can have: a desire to learn. The most significant reason to attend university is to build independent learning habits into your mode of work; the experience demands that you develop your own ways to figure things out. When you leave university, you are conditioned to be a curious, independent problem solver. The sort of person that society needs to move forward.

But this doesn’t happen if the student does not carry the desire to learn for the sake of learning. The student must be motivated by his or her own curiosity, not the promise of a high-paying job. If a person’s motivation is external, he or she will not be an effective thinker or problem solver and therefore not as valuable as he or she could be.

I have developed my own habits of independent learning, no thanks to public schooling. There were not many students at my high school that pursued learning for its own sake, and I would imagine that you observed the same thing. This is not because they are weak students or unmotivated people. It is because the system that they are a part of does not encourage such behavior. It only encourages that the students “check the boxes” and move on to the next stage of life. If we want to improve our education system, we must begin pursuing the hard way and ignore the boxes altogether.