How to Fix the Education System
by Benjamin Studebaker
By all accounts, the public education systems in western countries are not performing to the level that we are collectively demanding. There are fundamental structural problems with our schools that inhibit good outcomes for students. Western countries have become obsessed with universal student attainment of minimum academic standards measured by test scores and maximisation of enrolment rates at universities. I propose that this is flat out the wrong goal for our education system, that rather than try to teach everyone the same material at the same kinds of schools in the same kinds of ways, our education system should be more personalised to get the most out of each individual’s talent set, and I have a plan for how to do it.
There are several problems that feed into what makes the present system fail:
- Bigotry against Creativity: Exclusive priority to the academic subjects over the creative subjects.
- Subject Indifference: Considering the academic subjects as a whole when evaluating students rather than with more deference to student preference.
- University Stuffing: Demanding that all students go to university when many jobs do not call for it and many students are unsuited to it, at the expense of the skills needed.
- Money before Merit: Determining school placement geographically (and consequently financially) rather than on the basis of ability.
I’d like to briefly consider each of these problems before I move onto my solution aimed at addressing them.
Bigotry against Creativity:
There are many skills necessary in the modern economy beyond the verbal and mathematical. At present, these skills are relegated to subsidiary positions within schools or ignored completely in favour of the traditional academic subjects. This serves only to make the creatively gifted students feel inferior to their academically inclined brethren, and inculcates a classist view of employment in later life, in which many occupations that are totally necessary to any functioning and pleasant society are derided as non-intellectual or suitable for inferior people. This is the wrong way to look at people with alternative skills and the jobs that require them. It perpetuates social stigmas and undermines economic efficiency, as people suited for these jobs continue to struggle in the academic subjects hoping to avoid a social sense of inferiority until they burn out on them entirely. Many of our best creatively minded people end up failing to meet their creative potential because they become convinced that they are failures by an education system that disdains their natural talents.
We expect good students to excel in a diverse range of subjects and punish them in admissions processes if they have an area in which they are lax. This is misguided because many individuals are extremely talented in specific areas but nonetheless get passed over because of deficits in areas that they do not actually intend to pursue in later life academically or via employment. The aspirant writer does not need to be good at calculus, the aspirant engineer does not need to be able to evaluate the content of novels, neither needs to be able to manufacture an object of utility and aesthetic value, and someone working on that latter project needs neither of the former’s skills. Rather than forcing people to work on skills that will be irrelevant to their future employment, our education system should permit people to specialise in the areas in which they find themselves interested if they so choose, allowing them to choose the subjects upon which they will be evaluated and judged going forward. Doing otherwise penalises speciality, which may be far deeper than the conventional exams are prepared to measure, in favour of a broad but shallow knowledge, most of which will, in the long run, prove economically wasteful.
By pushing everyone into universities and colleges, our education system has turned these institutions into just another tool for weeding out students rather than a tool for developing deep specialised knowledge. Particularly in the United States, many universities have become merely an extension of high school, with broad curricula that illustrate a student’s ability to learn a little bit about a lot of things but convey no singular talent or skill. Like it or not, real occupations do require deep specialised knowledge and specific skills and abilities. With universities being dumbed down to accommodate a larger audience most of which is not suited to academic study but is attending for social or cultural reasons (because everyone does, as a dating service, or because it’s where the fun is), the necessary specialisation is being pushed further out into graduate school, and college degrees are taking longer to convey the same information than ever before. It’s breathtakingly inefficient, both for the students who have to pay for the extra years of education and for wider society, which gets fewer years of service out of its workers. In the meantime, students unsuited to university do not learn the skills needed to pursue a creative or technical trade and come out little better off than they were before they went in, but with far greater debts.
Money before Merit:
At present, students are placed into schools based on where they live. As a result, rich parents congregate in school districts, push up the funding for those districts via their tax money, and create good schools. This works well for them, but it leaves students in other geographic areas with comparatively dramatically underfunded schools with less parental involvement. As a result, talented students from poor families fail to reach their potential.
So how do we fix it? Here’s my proposal, the 3 by 3 system:
3 by 3 System
Via this model, students would be organised along two lines–best skill, and aptitude. Students would be selected for these various institutions on the basis of performance in grade school via teacher assessment and testing. All nine school types would receive equal funding from the state via taxes. Funding private schools presently receive voluntarily from wealthy parents would be recouped by the schools through higher tax rates on the wealthy. Students could apply to switch specialisations or tiers if their interests shifted or their aptitude relative to their fellow students changed, respectively. Rather than apply for universities in stressful and test-driven processes, students would naturally graduate up from these schools to more specialist education based on their previous school of enrolment, be that academic universities or art/music/technical schools. This system would encourage:
- The students creatively or technically inclined to meet their potential and feel no shame about their different skills and assets.
- Students who perform especially well in one or two subjects to be treated equally to students with more broad talents or interests.
- Students to be tracked in or out of university on the basis of need and ability rather than thrown together, without a stigma for non-attendance.
- The minimisation of the impact family income has on opportunity–obviously dedicated parents will still be a great help to some students, but the only way to do away with that is to level down and harm high-performance students by deliberately destroying their families or prohibiting their families from helping them to make them equal to the other students.
This is much better than the current systems employed in most western countries, and corrects the flaws of existing meritocratic education systems (like Germany’s) that do not permit switching among schools in cases of shifting talents or abilities and under-fund the remedial institutions, preserving the stigmas associated with them. I hold that this system corrects the flaws listed here and would be a remarkable improvement over what is currently run in the US, the UK, and many other countries. What do you think?
The 3×3 system as I am gathering is making a major assumption in that intellectual fields can be broken into three distinct categories. The problem is, the amount of crossover is expansive. Creative fields often involve a significant amount of math and verbal/social skills. While one could argue the skills would be obtained through practicing the craft, it’s highly inefficient. It’s similar to gaining the ability to throw a football farther. While throwing it over and over may help over time, weight training will have a much faster rate of impact on ability.
This is somewhat easily fixed by having a larger institution with all the classes in the same campus. Thus, a, say, specialiser in music may take a differential calculus class for the logic training.
This also ignores a great deal of further specialization. By this model, biologists and mathematicians and physicists are all in the same school. Psychology would be a mess as it dabbles in biology and the social sciences, causing issues. Not to mention it’s close relative neurology, which is solidly a natural science, but has major social implications.
Artistic fields vary from theatre to music theory to fashion design. These aren’t exactly similar fields. Becoming good at tuba, singing, ceramics, and sewing would take a very, very significant amount of time.
I find perhaps the best and simplest solution is to throw out the whole concept of “core 40” and “required courses” in secondary and post-secondary education, and have a wide range of classes to choose from, both in depth and breadth. This would also have the added benefit of reducing redundancy, as institutions would not have to duplicate each others’ resources needlessly as it would all be one massive collaboration.
I don’t see the connection between music and differential calculus–much great music was composed before calculus was even invented. I acknowledge that there are some fields on the boundary between subjects, but that merely means that these subjects may need to be outfitted with access to some of the resources of neighbouring schools as supplement. I am wary of giving students free reign to play around in all of the subjects because that produces what we have been seeing more recently in American universities–students who are unsure what they would like to do with their lives and who consequently end up spending additional years in university at society’s expense. Educational resources are not infinite and cannot be treated as such.
I agree that there are flaws in the current education system that need adressing, but I can only see the 3×3 system as having equal flaws.
Firstly, in agreement with ihmisen, I don’t think the grouping of subjects can be so complete. There are basic skills such as analytical, verbal and logical that are essential for life, but you can only gain these by having a broad education base in the first place. By sectioning people early on you limit them and imit their development. Although there is the oppurtunity to move and change paths, surely in doing so, it would have been equally beneficial to study a broader range of subjects. It also over-estimates the percentage of teenagers who care about their future enough to keep changing, especially once they have established friendship groups etc.
I also would worry that those put in the Remedial schools would not perform to their potential as it would be all too easy to adopt an attitude of ‘They say this is my best skill but I’m still crap at it’, which helps no-one.
This is very similar to those who do not get the top results in exams and are disheartened by the achievement of their peers. Remedial classes can work in schools because most students will have another class that they enjoy and are good at, but to be told that your highest apitude in something is only ‘remedial’ would be a huge blow to confidence, self-esteem and ambition.
I think the core subjects need to be re-adressed and the exam system altered, but I do not think that 3×3 would be the right way in which to change this. Established attitudes against creative subjects come from an older generation and parents who push children to achieve what they never could. Until these attitudes change, creative and vocational subjects will still be seen as ‘soft’.
I shall try to offer a response that I hope you will find convincing.
I agree that there are certain skills that are necessarily broad, but that these skills more or less are completed by 6th grade level (around age 11/12). Consider for example mathematics. I agree that there are some basic home economics that should be required even in the non-maths schools, but what is presently taught under the current model is comprised of algebra/trig/calculus which is of no use to a verbal/creative profession. I agree that logic is a great and important skill for everyone, but not everyone should approach logic from the mathematical angle–a verbal student would be better served by looking at logic through the perspective of the philosopher than the mathematician, for instance.
I certainly acknowledge that going into a remedial school is a mark of lower academic potential–but that’s the thing, some people do have lower academic potential. Our present system self-deludes both students and parents by trying to push everyone along on the same collegiate path regardless of suitability. This serves only to create resource waste and to create and endless cycle of perceived failure for those of us who do not follow the socially accepted path. Remedial schools can train students to value and enjoy the means by which they are able to contribute to society, to see the importance of all kinds of work so that they do not perceive themselves as failures. A remedial system need not be looked down upon–without different kinds of people, we cannot do the many essential kinds of work that need doing.
The creative subjects must be treated as on par with their verbal and mathematical equivalents in order for the younger generations to have a different view of their importance. The present system inculcates students with a bias against these subjects by presenting them as vocational classes unworthy of the time and energy of honours students and consequently of some lower class of knowledge. Structural change must precede sociological change.
The broadness of your 3×3 makes the remedial tracks required. But for many, whom academic endeavors are at best remedial, perhaps schooling is not the best possible option. If the best one can truly do is remedial verbal/logical/creative, then perhaps a physical track would suit them, to have high physical output. Perhaps a more specialized field is needed even earlier on as some aptitudes are not tapped until interest is drawn out.
I left out a physical track on the grounds that I do not know of many jobs in modern times that require a tremendous amount of physical ability. It would be cruel to send the entirety of the remedial population to schools training them to become say, professional athletes, models, or body-builders, when so few such jobs exist. I expected that the natural physical inclination for sport among some people would supply us with a sufficient number of people for those occupations without special schools, and that even those who would be in the remedial school are better off with some semblance of an academic background so they might be part of wider society and culture in a meaningful way.
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