The Biggest Failure of the US Education System

The other night, I was walking through my neighborhood in Brooklyn when I overheard some teenagers talking outside a grocery store. One of them said to the others: “X equals Y. When do you use that shit in the future? Tell me when.”

I couldn’t agree more, kid.

Our education system suffers from a massive lack of practicality. Students are not taught practical skills and they are rarely ever shown how they can translate what they learn in school into anything of relevance or “real world” value.

Let’s take algebra and most high school-level math as an example. Only a small subset of the population will ever need to use it. And, yet everyone is forced to study algebra and gets graded on their performance. These grades may impact their future college and job prospects.

We are failing students when we continue to score people’s intelligence and abilities based on completely nonsensical metrics like how well they can solve an algebraic equation or regurgitate a motif in a Shakespeare play. Often, the only ability a standardized test is good at measuring is one’s ability to take a test. Ouch.

We now know that there are many different types of intelligence and the way we grade in school is completely passé. Grades are an egregiously poor indicator of how smart a person is or how well they will do later in life after school.

Yeah, that’s right. I said egregious. Stick it up your ass, SATs.

In my current field — content marketing — where I never have to use any algebra or trigonometry whatsoever, I focus on creating content with the purpose of engaging an audience of potential customers. We center all of a brand’s communication around the needs and wants of its target audience. If educators figured out a way to provide their students with educational content tailored and customized to the needs of their students, way more students would be thriving. By creating engaging and student-focused content, the education system could provide a lot more value to students.

Of course, this means a lot more work for teachers and administrators, so it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. To be fair to them, a lot more depends on politicians and we all know they are so great at getting shit done. Hah. Good luck with that.

Instead of an outdated, one-size-fits-all education model where we’re all taught the same subjects and graded the same way, we should be focused on teaching each student according to their unique abilities and interests, helping to steer them toward success. To borrow from a source of ancient wisdom with modern-day relevance, King Solomon wrote: “Teach a child according to their way.”

(And to all you Grammar Nazis out there, it’s perfectly acceptable to use “their” instead of his/her when trying to keep your language gender-neutral.)

The absolute biggest failure of the US education system (and probably all education systems) is this: We force kids to spend more time, energy, and focus on what they’re not good at instead of helping students double-down on their strengths so they can hone and develop their talents. Rather than nurturing a student’s passion or natural aptitude for a certain subject, we squelch it and make students do more of what they suck at and hate doing. Schools do this because they’re preparing students to pass more exams in order to meet quotas instead of preparing kids for life or a future career.

On a personal note, there was no need to make me sit through hours and hours of remedial algebra focusing time and attention on something I’ll never use again or be great at when that time could have been spent developing my talents and translating them into practical skills. “Math lab,” as they called it, was a complete waste of my time, my teacher’s time, and your tax dollars.

Now, I know what some of you critics will say:

“We need to expose people to a broad educational curriculum before they can discover where their interests lie.”

Sure, but there’s a way to accomplish that without making it into an exercise in futility. Let’s be honest. By the time you’re in high school, and for some, it’s much sooner, you already have a pretty good idea of what general areas (math, reading, writing etc.) you’re strong in and what general areas you’re weak in. We can expose people to different disciplines without killing their curiosity and thirst for learning, punishing them when a subject is not their “thing” with bad grades, remedial classes, and erroneous judgments about their intelligence or work ethic.

Others will argue that everything we learn in school is valuable and serves a practical purpose, even if indirectly. For example, reading literature can develop critical thinking skills and algebra can improve logical reasoning.

All true, but a lot of other things can also develop those skills AND provide real-world, post-graduation value. Furthermore, if you want to argue that many of the subjects taught in school are valuable and necessary, then I would ask why you don’t deem many things that are not taught in school, such as time management, leadership skills, and how to manage money effectively valuable and necessary enough to be part of the curriculum. With so many people in debt in this country, educating people about money should be a top priority of educators. Sadly, it’s not.

Still, some will say all knowledge is good and helps to develop us as people. Without taking a position one way or the other, I’d counter that if school is supposed to shape you as a person, then don’t give out grades. Failing a class doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a human being.

In the higher grades (and maybe the lower too), we have the concept of electives. Electives are classes that are often a hell of a lot more interesting than the general requirements. They are taken on a volunteer basis, usually by students who are interested in the topics. The problem is that much of what we teach should really be offered as electives and much of what students actually need to learn is not taught in school at all.

Worse, if a student is failing in a subject, they will make the student spend extra time on that subject and prevent them from taking electives in areas where they might excel. So instead of letting students take a course that would enable them to pursue an interest and possibly find a career path, they force students to spend more time and attention on something they’ll never need.

Scoring by the metric of lifetime value, the education system deserves a big, fat F.

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