Several years ago, my son took an AP U.S. history course in high school; I was helping him with it, in the process learning a lot myself. But I was surprised that my son, who had had all A’s for 10 years, including multiple years of studying so-called social studies, knew so little about history, the world, politics, etc. In fact, they had never gotten past the Civil War times and only once ventured outside of America.
Not long ago America was the world leader in education — but not anymore. Colleges now have to provide remedial courses to almost half of their students while school and college grades are constantly inflated. In 2014, the National Center of Education Statistics found only 15 percent of young adults demonstrated the proficiency to write well-organized essays consisting of clear arguments, and only 6 percent could make informed, critical judgments of written text. But this problem truly begins in the education system. Harvard students can’t name the capital of Canada and American University students don’t know how many senators represent each state. A 2013 study of several thousand undergraduates led by New York University sociologist Richard Arum found that 45 percent of students made no significant improvement in critical thinking and complex reasoning skills, and after four years, this number only dropped to 36 percent. And we want young people to vote …
Unfortunately, suggested reasons and cures from both left and right are misguided. Lack of funds, as the left suggests, cannot be a problem since we spend much more on education now than we used to and outspend many countries that are ahead of us; so throwing more money at schools will not help. Poor students’ problems are quite possibly not the result of them being poor; their troubles are sometimes the result of their parents’ (or quite likely, just one parent) not caring, not encouraging learning, and not checking homework or coming to school conferences – the things that do not cost anything.
On the other hand, unions cannot hinder the learning process by protecting bad teachers as much as the right implies because even good teachers have difficult times using their full potential in a restrictive school environment (and they also need some protection from bad administrators). Therefore, vouchers are not a panacea either since the good private schools usually limit enrollment to good students only (even when there are no special rules, the space is always limited and that by default filters out those who are not interested in good education). Nor will more local control help – most school board members are not experts in education. And what is the difference between Minnesota and Florida in our fast, interconnected world? What sense does it make for a kid moving from Arizona to Minnesota (or even from Minneapolis to Duluth) to adjust to a new schedule, new classes, and new curriculum? Unfortunately, there is currently no consistency in learning a subject, let alone in correlation between the subjects.
So what is the cause?
It all starts with lack of three “musts” for good education: personal responsibility, motivation, and discipline. Nothing is the kids’ fault anymore – there is always someone else to blame; and parents, who are actually supposed to be the main educators and disciplinarians, along with many do-gooders, lead the way in this kind of thinking. It’s bad teachers, too much homework, or discrimination that causes the problems. Students are constantly praised as unique and hardworking even if they have done nothing to deserve it, just to support their self-esteem. But high self-esteem — without real accomplishment that supports it — is actually an impediment to learning: Why learn if you are already so good?
Discipline in schools is not a problem anymore – it barely exists. Teachers are often afraid to punish kids and instead let them do almost anything they want just to make school “fun,” so they come to school. But learning is work, sometimes hard work, and “having fun” in school cannot be the main objective. Of course, even when it comes to punishment, the most severe one is out-of- school suspension, which actually does what those bad students want the most: They don’t go to school.
Anything and everything is done to keep students in school, even those who don’t want to stay. So here comes the lack of motivation: Why study hard if you will be allowed to graduate anyway? Graduation tests have been abandoned (too many kids can’t pass them) and more and more colleges do not require ACT anymore even though all developed countries have high-stakes graduation and college entrance exams; as a result, high school diplomas (and even college diplomas) are devalued.
If we honestly look at most of the countries that are ahead of us in education, especially those in Asia, we can see that students there have motivation and personal responsibilities, and discipline is always strictly maintained, both at school and at homes. We don’t even need to actually travel there to see it – just look at how well Asian students in America are doing and correlate it with the Tiger Mom’s book. Attitude is the driving force for success in everything, including education, not the government’s help.
Schemes and solutions that don’t work
Of course, if one doesn’t want to see real problems, proposed solutions will be making things worse. Technology is being introduced as an answer to all questions, but if one doesn’t know where to go, switching from a horse to a car will not make any difference. Computers, even the best ones, cannot replace people’s thinking abilities, and using more of them will not have any effect. Smart boards will not help if kids don’t pay attention and teachers do not know material themselves.
On the other hand, new teaching schemes keep popping up: block scheduling, reverse (flipped) classroom, and many others. All of them are just superficial attempts to change something since things seem bad enough. But they are, in fact, trying to fix the wrong things, those that are not broken: the traditional education system — when teachers explain, assign homework, and then answer questions of hard-working students who want to learn — has worked for millennia and brought mankind to where it is now.
So let’s get back to basics, to what worked before. Let’s restore discipline and instill responsibility and motivation in students by allowing class retention of those not ready to advance and expelling those not willing to work hard (and who also disrupt learning for those who do). Let’s stop finding excuses and shielding kids from real life — kids are not more sensitive now than they were a hundred years ago unless adults teach them to be that way. Let’s have just one test – the one required to graduate – and let teachers decide when and how to test kids the rest of times. Let’s stop coming up with useless teaching innovations and over-relying on technology.
In other words, let’s go forward to good old times when schools were a place for learning rather than having fun.
Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minnesota.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)