Educating the Future

“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and he only hold the key to his own secret.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yesterday I was reading through my Facebook newsfeed, skipping the ads and silly complaints when I came across something that my high school physics teacher, Andrew Perrone, posted:

Due largely to my own personal experiences as a teacher, I sometimes think that we should model our educational system on that of the United Kingdom. That is, education should be mandatory through age 16, at which point students may elect to enter “sixth form” — two additional years during which students study for their university-entrance exams or take vocational classes. During these two years, university-bound students focus on just 3 to 5 subjects of particular interest. (Until last year, British students were allowed to leave school at 16 and enter the workforce. That’s changing. Students will soon be required to continue their education through age 18, although that can be in the form of vocational classes or an apprenticeship.)

One of my biggest frustrations at work is trying to teach students that don’t want to be taught. Many students have no interest in physics, lack the skills needed to do well in it, and have no plan to ever use it again. (“Physics” can be replaced with numerous other subjects, as well.) Many of these students therefore put forth little effort, which results in frustration (for both them and me), poor grades, and behavioral problems. It’s an expectation that they all pass the class, so that they may graduate from high school. How wonderful would it be if only the students that wanted to take physics took it?

I recognize that it is my job, and the job of any good teacher, to attempt to instill an interest in one’s subject in students. I certainly try. But why force a 17-year-old to study a subject completely unrelated to the career that he or she is about to choose? A class filled with students that actually want to be there, and that have the prerequisite skills, can do so much more (and have a lot more fun doing it) than one populated with unhappy and distracted kids.

Americans, in general, value a liberal education. Broad exposure to multiple disciplines. Would adoption of the English system be a small step away from the liberal ideal? Eh, maybe. But I think the English believe in a liberal education, as well. And broad exposure through age 16 seems sufficient to me, with the option of further exposure available to those students that seek it out. Although it may be time to debate just how ideal a liberal education really is. A great number of college graduates lack any marketable skills.

I’m also intrigued by the Germanic model, in which the curriculum is “geared toward specific, career-oriented skills sets” (quote from current issue of Time magazine).

What I’m sure of is that the current system of secondary education in the U.S. is in need of reform.

(P.S. I have to end by saying that the school where I’m currently teaching is among the best within the current system. I’m ridiculously lucky to be teaching at this school. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement of the system.)

Emerson and Mr. Perrone hold common insight on the topic of the American educational system. Last year, an Education Week news report was released stating the high school graduation rate was nearing 75%, the highest in 40 years. Sure that sounds great but what about the rest of the 25%? Has the standard academic curriculum discouraged students from getting the diploma?

I admit I hated physics. Mr. Perrone is a cool guy and the concept of physics is interesting don’t get me wrong, but my artistic brain had a very difficult time wrapping vectors and displacement and Newton’s laws around. I admit that was one of two classes (the other being AP AB Calculus) that I feared of failing. I was discouraged and knew every test grade was going to be an 80 or lower. Ok, 80 is passing but when you are a Hispanic borderline upper- and middle-middle class girl in a hyper-competitive rich kid school then 80 is not good enough. I am an international business major who is seeking a career in writing, publishing or investments. Sorry Mr. Perrone, but physics is not in any of those job descriptions.

Another example: A very close friend of mine, whose name I shall not say, dropped out of school his senior year. His story is far more different than mine. He had a difficult time in high school. He had family issues going on at home, ADHD and some social problems in terms of friendships. This did not take full on effect, or rather I did not become aware of it, until senior year. His passion was soccer. However, due to his grades he was not admitted onto the soccer team. To make matters worse, his coach told him he was the best player out there. From there things took a very big toll. He was gone for almost two weeks and became depressed. Quite a few people gave up on him. I did not. Was the kid smart? Yes he was. He was very smart and motivated once he found something that he loved. Psychology was one of them. However, due to the core curriculum and the forced learning, his mind rejected it just as my mind rejected physics. He dropped out in the spring. Do not worry, he received his GED and is seeking a job.

One last example that has a happier ending. A friend of my, Ben, is a bright kid. He loves engineering and computers. He’s a cute gay whiz kid who is very cute. During his senior year, he had some personal problems and his family reached financial problems, creating some stress and minor depression. He had to sacrifice school hours for more work hours at his job at Best Buy. Like my other friend, things were taking a toll in terms of his grades. He would ask me to help print out worksheets and give quick minute study sessions for tests and quizzes. In the last couple of months, he was able to use an alternative solution and received his diploma in 2-3 weeks (a month earlier than we did). His result: he now works for Apple at the genius bar and is applying for the engineering program at UT.

Now whether the U.S should mirror the UK’s educational system is debatable. My suggestions would include getting rid of standardized testing. Teachers now are focusing more on passing those standardized tests rather than the learning itself. Also, there is a skewed result in terms of these tests. My school district, Leander Independent School District (Austin, TX) was relatively wealthy and we were advantageous in terms of technology, preparation and expectations. A school district is say Brownsville, Texas or El Paso, Texas probably won’t have as high of scores due to budgets and the socioeconomic status of its students.

My second suggestion would be the “no retake” policy. This seems harsh but a student will learn best by studying hard the first time and knowing there is no net. I am sorry but kids these days are spoiled. They fail to study the first time and think “oh I can have a retake after”. Universities do NOT do retakes for exams. That does NOT exist in college. You’re lucky if you get a professor who will let you retake a quiz but that’s it. This will help kids realize they need to study and pay attention to the material in order to get the high A. Also, for kids who don’t pass the class, they get held back. I went to a private Catholic school for my primary education and they held back kids who could not pass the grade. Harsh but they gotta learn somehow if they want to succeed in the real world.


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