If you've ever read anything on the internet, you know that the American education system isn't doing so hot. Of course, poorly spelled rants against barely understood aspects of politics and culture aren't the sole provenance of the United States, but global national education statistics do give some weight to the "Stupid American" stereotype. There are, however, several ready-made solutions to our many, many problems. All we have to do is swallow our pride and let other countries teach us how to become more better at schooling. For example ...
Standardized testing has long been the American default for gauging how smart students are, conveniently boiling down the entire mental development of a child down to a bunch of extended Cosmo quizzes. Standardization means equality, meaning that every student, regardless of what their curriculum is or how hungover their teacher may occasionally be, is being held to a universal educational baseline. So if the students fail, that means it's actually the schools who have failed. To reflect that, the U.S. takes the approach of punishing schools that underperform. That'll teach 'em. Except that it won't.
Won't teach them either.
The amount and importance of standardized testing have become so bad that teachers often have to cut actual lessons in order to teach students how to pass those tests. In 2015, President Obama even made a public plea to reduce the amount of time kids spend in school sitting down and coloring in a bunch of bubbles that supposedly prove how smart they are. However, since then, the government hasn't really stopped pushing standardized testing down the school system's throat. In fact, only months after Obama's plea, the Education Department started to threaten to cut federal funding to states who dared to opt out of these tests. But it turns out the tests themselves may not be the problem. The same year Obama made his plea (2015, for those of you who can't remember all the way back to the beginning of this paragraph), Germany enacted its own standardized testing program and steadily raised its schools' scores. They did especially well at closing the achievement gap for the most disadvantaged students, to the tune of a whopping 15 points.
"Wow, that's almost 100 percent!" -American student
Exactly what kind of test was this? Were wizards involved? German wizards? The most efficient of all magi?
In fact, there's nothing special about these standardized tests compared with the ones used in the United States. The only thing Germany did differently was not cutting funding for low-performing schools. In fact, they actually gave more support to these "bad schools" because, amazingly, giving a school more resources as opposed to taking them away actually helps them teach better. They also didn't make the schools' scores publicly available, which makes it harder for parents to herd their smart kids to good schools and create little elite alcoves of education. Simply by not punishing and embarrassing underperforming schools, Germany turned standardized testing into a system that bridged the gap in education inequality, raising its global schooling rank by leaps and bounds. Furthermore, Germany was one of only three countries to raise its national math scores in the last 15 years, catapulting them to the top 20 in the world for math proficiency. In that same year, the U.S. slid down to 49th. That's several hands of fingers worse than Germany.
Once upon a time, you either had to be a genius or rich to go to college. Having a college degree put you in an elite group of the workforce, immediately singling you out among other applicants and giving you a leg up on the competition. However, nowadays college degrees are fairly common. The result of that is that we're getting pretty low on skilled and knowledgeable tradesmen, because society has made teenagers believe that, if they can get into college, those kinds of jobs are beneath them. Yet what they don't realize is that in the land of a dozen marketing majors for every marketing job, the one guy who learned to be a plumber is king.
Lisa F. Young/iStock
"Yes, king. Now kiss my scepter like I commanded."
Vocational training dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. It relies on the notion that actual work experience is as valuable as sitting in a classroom and being told about it. Know how to cobble a shoe as well as the person teaching you? Congratulations, you're now a cobbler. Today, for many, that kind of education seems too un-academic, i.e. a bit stupid. But even the snootiest English lit major recognizes that there's nothing stupid about having a well-paid and important job. Countries like Finland and Germany, who pour lots of resources into vocational education, have some of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world. This might explain why about 60 percent of young people in Germany choose vocational education, as they're all but guaranteed a job for life when they graduate -- which they do, about 90 percent of the time (compared with the approximate 55 percent of U.S. college students who successfully graduate). They even get paid while they train. An apprentice auto mechanic makes about $1,000 a month, or about a third of what they'll make when they graduate. Due to their overwhelming success, in Finland these programs have become more competitive than academic ones, with over 50 percent of the country's youth applying to them. That means there's a Finnish Yale of HVAC technicians.
"That's just my fallback, though. My first choice is Welding Stanford."
Meanwhile, U.S. college grads are beating each other with messenger bags for a shot at an unpaid internship. So if learning a trade is good for graduation rates and for the economy, why is the U.S. going backward with this? Why are vocational education enrollment and programs steadily being dropped like they're a freshman's theater credit? Mostly because, starting about a generation ago, parents decided their special angels were too good to get their hands dirty. In a recent poll, only half of parents surveyed said they would encourage their child to get a vocational education, and three-quarters admitted they thought vocational education was beneath them. The schools aren't helping in this matter, either. Almost a quarter of students are told they are too clever for vocational education, instilling the notion that becoming an investment banker is somehow a better use of their time and intelligence than learning how to fix airplanes.
Why waste your potential repairing air-conditioners when you're just four years away from a degree in puppet arts?
Consequently, because of this mismatched supply and demand, a lot of "too clever" college kids now have to start their careers pursuing the type of menial jobs vocational programs wouldn't touch with an artisanal 10-foot pole. Every year, McDonald's has to turn away thousands of applicants with college degrees who are desperate to flip burgers. Meanwhile, the kid who went to trade school now owns and runs the repair shop that fixes the deep-fryers, and she just bought a house.
Americans don't like learning new languages. Why should they? Everyone else in the world speaks English, mostly due to the fact that they were getting tired of English-speakers shouting and pointing at them. But there are actually several upsides to learning how to speak more than just American, not just so you can convincingly order a bottle of French wine without embarrassing yourself. In fact, learning a second language just might make you better at learning overall.
Plus there are a few phrases that simply defy translation.
Only 18 percent of Americans speak a language other than English. This is largely due to the fact that there isn't a nationwide requirement to learn a foreign language, and many states allow you to fudge it. In California you can choose between a foreign language or any type of art, because those two things are apparently interchangeable, and in Oklahoma you can substitute learning a language with a computer class in case you ever visit The Technocratic Republic of Silicon Valley and need to speak Nerd. Compare that with Europe, where students aren't merely required to learn a foreign language, but are thrown on that train early and often. Most European countries require picking a second language by middle school, and some even require learning two foreign languages, because that's how you exist in a global community. Belgium (which has three official languages and is ranked high on the global education index) offers language courses to 3-year-olds. Then they get another one language stuffed down their mouths by the age of 13. They can pick up a few more in high school, but those aren't mandatory. It's a big industry secret, but whenever you enter something into Google Translate, you're really just instant-messaging with a Belgian person.
Perhaps that's the reason why this is the only phrase Google won't translate.
Sure, learning different languages can be a necessity in Europe, where you can take a wrong turn and wind up in a different country. But even in America, teaching students how to speak foreign words seems to be paying off in the brain department. Every additional year of foreign language study is correlated with an increase in SAT scores, and a study of Texas elementary schools found that test scores were significantly higher across the board in schools with bilingual programs. Despite this, the U.S. is only doubling down on its citizens' general refusal to speak anything but English. Only 15 percent of elementary schools and 58 percent of middle schools even offer foreign-language instruction anymore, which is a significant decrease from just 20 years ago. Those Belgian babies are kicking our asses, man.
Recess has always been an important tool in getting students to stay focused by giving the good kids a hit of fresh air and exercise on the playground and the bad kids a smoke break behind the bleachers. But in several parts of the country, schools are cutting their recesses back. The thinking here is that removing "wasted" leisure time and replacing it with more time for study will increase productivity, but in actuality it does the exact opposite.
This may seem like cutting-edge child psychology, but sometimes kids build up a bit of energy sitting still all day.
A 2005 study reported that recess time has dwindled to 22 minutes per day in America -- and that's just the average. It's much lower in poor schools, with some public schools in Chicago having had no recess at all for the last three decades. Since the No Child Left Behind program, every minute of school time has to be proven to be of value. And the government quickly deemed recess worthless -- not a necessary break for kids in between having to absorb more knowledge in a single day than the average adult picks up in an entire year. Even worse, because of NCLB, one in five principals has reported having to cut recess time specifically to make room for standardized testing -- which as we previously discussed is the real waste of time.
So how does recess actually help children with their learning? Not only do teachers report that students pay more attention and behave better after a recess, but statistics actually back them up. In Finland, which is well-known for having one of the best educational systems in the world, students get 15 minutes of recess every hour. In Japan, another country with a much-applauded school system, students get hourly breaks plus a longer recess. Additionally, in countries that believe in the value of recess, students are often encouraged to go all out physically and with a minimum of adult supervision in order to take their minds completely off school for a few minutes. One Tokyo school puts children on the roof to ride on unicycles, and in another, students spend recess cleaning up the school.
Presumably sweeping up all the unicycle parts and tooth fragments from kids falling off the roof.
A Finnish student reported one of his recesses like this: "They sent us into the woods with a map and compass, and we had to find our way out." See, U.S. Department of Education? You can use recess as a threat. We know you love that.
By this point, it should be clear that one of the biggest problems with national education is elitism. We like to look down at schools who cut recess, don't offer language classes, focus on vocational training, or underperform on standardized tests, labeling them as "bad" schools. But often, it's not really the schools' fault, but the fact that they barely get enough money to keep the lights on, let alone invest some of that government green back into teaching anyone anything. Fortunately, there's a simple solution to fix this entrenched problem and make our youngest generation one of the best educated in the world. American schools just need to renounce traditional capitalism and become tiny communist utopias.
"How did these get here? This school doesn't have a shop class."
It should be pretty clear now that less money equals shittier schools, but aside from being punished by the government for bad standardized test grades, why would one school get less money than another? Two words: property taxes. Most school budgets are funded by the taxes on the property in the area, which leads to some headachingly obvious problems -- namely, that kids who live in neighborhoods where closets count as extra bedrooms get way worse schools than kids who live in neighborhoods where extra bedrooms count as servant quarters. In some places, like Chicago, inequality is so severe that a school in the wealthy suburbs can spend three times as much per student as one in the inner city. It's like the plot of an '80s movie about a rivalry with the rich kids' summer camp on the other side of the lake, only less wacky and more irreparably devastating.
This kind of survival-of-the-richest might work on Wall Street, but in schools it's as lethal to education as all that asbestos we're still pulling out of the classrooms. It would be great if there were a way to make sure every school received the same amount of money, but surely such a system would be crazy, right? Yeah, crazy like a Canadian!
Pictured: A Canadian, going crazy.
In several Canadian provinces -- the best-performing ones, incidentally -- schools are funded at the province level, which means schools get funded by the relative wealth of a 10th of the country and not just the 10 blocks surrounding the school. While we did hint at the dastardly commie nature of this system, it still doesn't mean that every school receives the same amount of funding. Instead, they take the more classic Marxist approach of "to each according to their needs," using complicated formulas to determine how much money should go to which schools in order to do the greatest good. In other words, they use money as an aid instead of a reward. The American education system operates on the exact opposite principle.
Different countries have different educational needs, of course, and this admittedly might not be a perfect system for the U.S. That said, it has to be better than determining the quality of a child's education based on how big the pools in the neighborhood are.
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