Most people would agree that the American school system is flawed, especially right now, but we rarely discuss everything that is wrong and how we can actually fix it. While it might seem cliche, our youth are the future of this society, and by giving them this broken and ineffective education, we are effectively building a broken and ineffective society. But you need to know what’s wrong to fix the problem, right?
Some of those problems are that our schools aren’t preparing kids for the real world or teaching them effectively, which is exacerbated by a lack of resources and funding, support for students and teachers, and teaching a healthy work-life balance. The educational impacts of our schools are also demonstrated through standardized tests such as PISA and the NAEP.
PISA is a test on reading, science, and math administered to 15-year-olds to test common sense and real-world application of concepts they have learned. While standardized testing can be misleading, PISA is a very clear gauge of how well students are being prepared for life as it is commonly linked to economic success on a national and personal level. The United States is ranked relatively low out of the countries polled, sitting at 22nd place out of 79 countries, and had a score of 1,485, which is slightly above average. China, Singapore, and Estonia rank in the top three with scores ranging from 100 to 300 points higher than the US, though most lower-ranked countries are closer in scores. Why does this matter? Well, it shows that American school systems are failing to give their students real-world skills and problem-solving abilities, creating a generation of people who will ultimately be less productive and have less ingenuity than might otherwise be possible.
The NAEP, another global, standardized test given at various ages, demonstrates how learning gaps increase as young people progress through school. In 2015, there was a 25% difference between the percentage of fourth graders and seniors who ranked “proficient” in math, with incremental drops in each grade between the two. This is made even more disturbing by the fact that math is arguably one of the things our country teaches best. In an interview with the executive vice president of the Boston Teachers Union, Erik Berg, he stated that he felt we have effective math programs. “I think our teaching of math, in particular, is a strong point. I think we do a pretty good job of it.” If this is where we are relatively excelling, how much more are other areas of education suffering?
Well, this disconnect has a lot to do with underfunding and a lack of resources, a very pressing problem in BPS particularly. When she was interviewed, Grace Colon, a recent BPS graduate, and current UMass Boston student, was specifically concerned about the lack of extracurriculars caused by this problem. “We go to school in Boston, we go to school in Roxbury. And it’s not the safest place, it’s not. But if we can […] fund more extracurriculars that more kids are willing to be engaged in, then we will have less kids on the streets. That’s just a fact. And it would also provide more opportunities for kids to like college scholarships for kids who can’t afford to take out loans. And [and kids can] have an extracurricular to fall back on, they also have their own little niche communities of back on that makes them feel supported and less alone. So we’re basically depriving a lot of kids from that type of sense of community, sense of support, sense of safety.”
On the other hand, Berg emphasized issues we have with facilities, as most of the buildings in BPS are in various states of disrepair due to age and neglect. “We’ve only built nine new buildings in the last 40 years in the Boston Public Schools, and that’s out of 120 buildings. So if you do the math on that, let’s [round up to] 10. Right, [so] 10 schools in 40 years, if you’re going to replace 120 schools at that rate, [in] 480 years we’d have a whole new school system.” Not only that, but buildings such as Boston Latin Academy, an exam school in Roxbury, have only just received basic necessities such as air conditioners in the last year. That’s pretty distressing.
So, by not providing our students with extracurriculars, proper learning resources and tools, and functioning facilities, we are limiting their learning potential, which is reflected in the dropping testing scores. We need to provide the tools for young people to succeed if we expect them to get anywhere. And discussing success leads us to another critical failure of the American school system; its inability to teach young people a healthy work-life balance.
When Colon, was asked about this she replied, “You’re right, the work-life balance in high school is absolutely ridiculous that I mean, like I kind of feel very disappointed in myself even now, because I went from being a high school student that like really grinded schoolwork and things like that. And now I kind of feel like I don’t have that skill anymore or that mentality anymore. But it’s because of high school that was just an incredibly toxic and ill-fitting mentality to have […] I definitely feel like a burnt-out student from O’Bryant”
Being able to maintain both a healthy personal and work life lowers stress, heightens productivity, and makes for better work overall. Some risks of excessive pressure are a higher susceptibility to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Many of these risks are reflected in our students, with rates of depression and suicidal tendencies on the rise and more and more young people having to be admitted to hospitals. In short, we are setting up our next generation for failure. Schools shouldn’t be a way to produce cogs in a wheel, they should produce thoughtful and participatory members of society.
Some might claim that our school systems are doing well enough, we are ranked relatively high out of countries around the globe and are functioning acceptably. However, just because we might have a slightly better system than some other countries, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to improve. There are very real problems at hand that we need to address and resolve. Being the best of the worst is not an excuse to stop trying; it’s a technicality of accomplishment.
Berg also said, “The American school system is something that we can be proud of, and should be proud of, but is something that has a long ways to go to meet its promise.” And he’s right, we need to keep striving to get better, not stay stagnant.
What is truly a complicated topic is how we can solve these problems. Some solutions are more concrete while others may be abstract, and all of them are bound to have some level of controversy. However, there are some effective methods of bettering the American school systems that need to be implemented. The first is to give more funding and resources to schools. As Colon stated, “[W]ith underfunding, you’re limiting. You’re limiting kids that might not know what they like yet. […] And it also discourages a lot of children too. […] This gives fewer options for kids to do something productive for themselves.” Eleven percent of the United States budget goes to education, but we need to push for more. Our schools are in unacceptable states and many young people are suffering because of it.
Another critical step is to level the educational playing field and give students the tools to learn effectively. This means making already established resources and processes more accessible to those who are disadvantaged based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, and physical and developmental disabilities, as well as creating new pathways for their success. All students should be given an equal chance to learn and grow.
The final practical step we can make toward better school systems is making school a place students want to be and engaging them where they are. Young people are naturally curious and social, two things that schools most definitely are, so why aren’t they excited to attend school every day? This might look different from person to person but could involve more flexible and interconnected education structures like those that have been founded in Finland.
All of this being said, we ultimately need to ask those most impacted, the students, what they need to succeed and tailor our schools in such a way to realistically accommodate them. The same solutions won’t work at every school for every student. There is no doubt, these changes won’t be easy, and they won’t happen overnight, but we need them. Our future is worth working toward.