How to Thrive Even Though the US Education System Failed You

The underachieving US education system isn’t struggling because of one issue, but because of the very nature of this outdated and rigid system and the immense scope of what it’s trying to accomplish. In this article, we’ll discuss 10 reasons the U.S. education system is failing, and how you can rise above a broken system to create a fulfilling, purposeful life.

Stephen P. Heyneman of Vanderbilt University wrote in his paper The International Efficiency of American Education: The Bad and the Not-So-Bad News,"...American schools perform worse than schools in many other countries [...] in science and mathematics. Not only may American schools perform worse, but they [...] use more resources than other school systems. In essence, American schools may not only be poor in quality but less efficient.”

How the U.S. education system got this way

Critics say that the purpose of a traditional school is not to enlighten minds, teach profitable skills and critical thinking, but to teach people how to behave and conform: “Go to school, get a job, get married, work hard for 40 years and retire.”

The U.S. education system was also never set up to evolve. It originated during the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a way to train a workforce on a massive scale. The original arguments for public education were admirable:

  • Civic virtue: becoming a good citizen
  • Meritocracy: allowing the most gifted to rise to the top  
  • Social mobility: education can change one’s position in life  
  • Social stability: education can teach valuable skills  
  • Economic efficiency: allocating the right people to the right jobs

The main premise for the establishment of public education is that students would return far more to the community than the community invests in them.

The theory behind public schools is great. Except today, the system hasn’t kept up with changing times.

Poor training for life

When you look at how passionately people go into the weekend and how Mondays are almost universally dreaded, schools have clearly failed in preparing us for careers that inspire us and make us want to give our best and continually improve.  

AsapSCIENCE believes that school was designed to be boring and repetitive to prepare students for a routine life of assembly line work, not critical thinking, which is necessary for innovation.

School should be a launchpad for success in a way the individual defines success. However, it breeds conformism. Many wonderful minds are forcefully redirected toward more “reasonable” pursuits. 

Learning as punishment

The education system is designed to be strictly authoritarian, which makes it feel like punishment:

  • Sit down (and shut up)
  • Pledge allegiance to the flag
  • No talking or gum chewing
  • Ask permission to use the bathroom
  • Regurgitate information whether you understand it or not
  • No leaving the premises without permission

This is how prisoners are treated! The system does not foster a lifelong love of learning. 

It doesn’t serve every student

Many bright minds are held back by a system burdened with a lack of funding, access to technology, as well as gender and socioeconomic inequality. The system also doesn’t adequately meet the needs of struggling or underprivileged students.

Graduates are often unprepared

Many high school graduates are not proficient in the basics, including writing. If you’re struggling in the language arts, Assignment24 can help with high quality assignments that will boost your grades and, by example, help you develop your writing skills. 

What are the main problems with the American education system?

“The current education system is not dynamic enough to meet the needs of individual learning styles.” ~ Derrell Bradford, 50CAN  

Schools are seen (rightly so) as authoritarian, sexist, racist, and testing-oriented instead of learning-oriented. We’re all familiar with cringe-worthy participation trophies that do not prepare students for real life.  

The American education system does not address the needs of individual students from incredibly diverse backgrounds.

Two forces accelerated the irrelevance of the current education model:

  • The Information Age came quickly. Today, students have an incredible amount of information at their fingertips. Instead of slogging through 1,000-page textbooks (many of which still whitewash history), information is now instantly accessible on any device. However, not all have access to technology.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically ushered-in remote learning as an unexpected evolution of education. Remote learning was great for high-achieving introverted students who were bored at school but proved detrimental to:
  • Students without access to the internet or computers
  • Students with poor social skills (because they didn’t have in-person interactions with peers)
  • Students whose home environment was not conducive to learning

7 Reasons the U.S. education system is failing its students  

Here are seven reasons the U.S. education system is failing its students and why many graduate but few are proficient.

1. Overcrowded classroom/school closures

Overcrowding is a direct consequence of school closures. It reduces students’ ability to pay attention because of classmates' distractions and noise. It also reduces the teachers’ abilities to address the unique needs of each student, monitor classroom activity, and effectively teach the entire class. Nationwide, students in uncrowded classrooms significantly outperform their peers in crowded classrooms. 

2. Poor school funding 

Funding for most K-12 schools comes from state and local funds generated by property, sales, and income taxes. However, funding doesn’t keep up. Budget deficits mean fewer teachers or lower teacher salaries; fewer enrichment programs (art and music are usually the first to be axed); and dwindling resources.

School is a hub of social life and a place to participate in sports or pursue varied interests. If activities are eliminated due to budget cuts, other personal enrichment opportunities may not be available for all students.

3. Lack of innovation in teacher education (outdated teaching methods)

100-year-old teaching methods don’t work for the modern student. Traditional learning involves memorizing information without necessarily understanding its value or application. Teaching by rote memorization does not lead to understanding; but it’s great for testing.

4. Outdated student assessment and standardized testing 

While students need regular assessments, standardized testing comes with challenges:

It Doesn’t Work

Graduation rates are rising, but graduates are not proficient in the basics. In 2019, 15.1 million U.S. students attended high school, a record 85.3% graduated, and only 6% dropped out.

However, the reality of 2019 pre-pandemic proficiency at graduation tells a different story:

  • Reading: Only 37% of seniors scored at or above “proficient” 
  • Math: 24% of seniors scored at or above “proficient” with 40% “below basic.”
  • The gap between “proficient” and “below basic” students grew, putting the least-proficient seniors even further behind their peers
Income gap = score gap

Studies show that low-income students perform lower than affluent students on standardized testing, partly because low-income students can’t afford private tutors.

Student stress

Students are under immense pressure to test well.

  • Standardized testing is tied to important outcomes, including graduating and college acceptance.
  • It heavily emphasizes reading, writing, science, and math and devalues history, the humanities, and the arts. 
  • There is no assessment of emotional intelligence (compassion and empathy) 
  • It fails to accurately assess students who don’t test well but demonstrate proficiency in other ways (someone can be a great writer, but not know how to name sentence structure).
  • It does not account for learning disabilities, challenging home situations, lack of internet/computer access, or language deficiencies.
  • Instead of nurturing a child’s innate love of learning, standardized testing teaches them to be test-takers and in the process, it arguably kills the joy of learning by forcing fact retention.
Teacher stress

Teachers are likewise under immense pressure to ensure their students test well.

  • Standardized tests are tied to school funding; teachers are pressured to demonstrate performance and improvement
  • Teachers must “teach to the test” rather than the curriculum  
  • Preparation and administration of tests require significant teaching time
  • Tests measure achievement without measuring progress
  • Heavy blame on teachers if classroom scores are low, and heavy blame if scores are high because of the time taken away from learning  

Standardized testing fails students because life is not a series of standardized tests. 

Life throws opportunities and monkey wrenches into everyone’s lives. Learning test-taking does not promote innovation, fast action when an opportunity arises, or confidence that a skill can be learned in the field. It does not measure progress, which is intrinsically more motivating than actually achieving a goal.

5. Lack of parental involvement

Modern parents are in a pickle. The old single-income household model is no longer an economic possibility for most families. While the lowest parental participation comes from socio-economically disadvantaged or single-parent families, middle to upper-class parents aren’t as involved today because both parents are career-focused.

Teachers can’t parent kids, though they are often expected to. A student’s home environment directly affects their academic and personal development. Parents may be at work, leaving kids unsupervised. Single parents find it even harder to be involved in school. Career-focused parents may not be able to unplug from their responsibilities, come down to the child’s level, and engage in play-learning.

6. Rising poverty and technological inequality

Low-income/minority school districts are rarely set up to use technology as a learning tool. This was brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic when millions of students were forced to learn remotely.

While technology creates the potential for remote learning, more active student engagement outside of the classroom, and instant access to up-to-date resources, it’s not accessible to all. It also comes with its own challenges, including distraction and easy cheating.

7. Poor student mental health  

Mass shootings have most parents, teachers, and students anxious about school safety. Teachers are expected to spot troubled kids and protect the lives of every student. More guns? Fewer guns? Either way, the problem is poor mental health.

Part of the student mental health crisis is anti-intellectualism (making fun of bright kids) and bullying.

  • Bright kids are bored and socially ostracized
  • Struggling kids aren’t getting help
  • Bullying is widespread
  • There aren’t enough mental health counselors available
  • Mental health carries a stigma that prevents students from seeking help
  • Social media is a powerful driver of student desires and aspirations but at the same time, it fosters low self-esteem

The National Center for Education Statistics states that over 20% of students in grades 6-12 have been bullied. Bullied students exhibit physical, emotional, and behavioral problems that can lead to poor academic performance, poor social experiences, and violence.

How to fix the education system

Improving the education system in America isn’t easy. Some school districts are taking steps in the right direction, but it will take years before most school districts can shift toward a better system, partly because enrollment in public schools is down and alternatives are becoming more popular. Solutions include:

1. Reducing classroom size/increasing school funding

Cash-strapped states aren’t the reason schools are underfunded. It’s priorities. The annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner in New York State was $39,158 in 2020. The annual per pupil spending in New York State (which has the highest per-student spending in the country) was just $25,520.

What would our education system look like if we spent as much on education as we do on incarceration? 

Boosting school funding will happen only when the value of education is seen as a driver of the country’s economic health. 

2. Increase access to technology

Technology is shaping the future of American schools. Bringing schools into the digital age is largely funding-dependent. 

Remote learning has brought to light the challenges kids face when they don’t have access to computers and the internet. Technology for all kids needs to be prioritized during the allocation of school funds.

3. Eliminate standardized testing

More K-12 school districts are finding innovative ways to measure students' proficiency levels by limiting standardized testing. 

Portfolio-based assessments can demonstrate progress, achievement, and real-life application of information. Portfolios can include written assignments, art or graphic work, completed tests, lab reports, honors, awards, or other documents.

A combination of standardized testing and portfolio-based assessments could achieve funding objectives and deliver more accurate student assessments.

4. Encourage more parent involvement

When parents are involved, kids perform better.

In two-income or single-parent families, increasing parent involvement is not easy. Technology can facilitate frequent parent-teacher communication without formal meetings. Parents can also become more involved by setting clear academic expectations and holding their children to those standards by getting kids whelp when they’re struggling (such as tutoring, writing services, and mentoring).

5. Update teaching methods   

Teaching methods that keep up with the digital age can include continuing education for teachers (and certification renewals), and in-classroom technology that personalizes lessons or gives more in-depth teaching on difficult subjects.  

6. Boost community involvement  

A shift in public perception from apathy to an emphasis on education is needed, especially in communities not heavily invested in education. 

One forward-thinking idea is to repurpose closed schools into centers for adult education to enrich adults that may not have previously seen the value of education.  

A combination of parent and community involvement, increased funding, and upgraded teaching methods can help manage the student mental health crisis.

7. Start school later

One approach that will help students is later starting times. Schools need to push back start times to boost learning, attention, and engagement and prevent mental health problems. Sleep deprivation is directly linked to poor mental health, yet kids are expected to be in school as early as 7:25. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to psychological disorders. 

According to AsapSCIENCE, schools that have implemented later start times have seen huge increases in verbal SAT scores (+150 points) and math SAT scores (+90 points). 

“When sleep is abundant, minds flourish,” says Matthew Walker, PhD, Why We Sleep

How to rise above the limitations of the U.S. education system

Knowing the limitations of the U.S. education system can help you fill in the gaps:

1. Up-level your communication skills

Even the most brilliant idea has to be communicated; only then will it be worth anything. 

You don’t need to become a speaker or an author; just learn to communicate clearly and persuasively in speech and writing. Communication skills enhance your personal value, and therefore, your opportunities.

Assignment24 can help. You will leverage the expertise of qualified individuals to ensure correct and well-researched work. These assignments will give you in-depth knowledge of the subject matter as well as examples of clear communication: a win-win for the student.  

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2. Use the internet

Self-educate yourself on your smartphone. Resist the temptation of distractions and follow interesting and successful people, organizations, businesses, and schools whose content enriches you.  

3. Know your passions and find a way to make them pay

If you were told that “you can’t make a living doing that,” then prove them wrong. Don’t be a victim of student assessments or career counselors that didn’t show you what you’re brilliant at and love to do. If there’s a passion, there’s someone making a comfortable living doing it. 

Career counselors may encourage you to seek highly competitive occupations. However, a more low-profile career might better serve your needs, personality, and ambitions.

4. Find a mentor 

Finding even one supportive adult can offer both immediate and long-term benefits. Look to local business owners, a favorite teacher, an athlete, or any achiever you admire. Mentoring:

  • Increases high school graduation and college enrollment rates and decreases high school dropout rates
  • Encourages better attitudes and behaviors in school
  • Enhances self-esteem and confidence
  • Encourages healthier relationships and lifestyle choices
  • Improves interpersonal skills and learning
  • Decreases the likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse

5. Play more

Sir Ken Robinson suggests play (specifically outdoor play) can boost learning. There’s no reason why kids should sit to learn, or why education has to take place indoors on a beautiful day and keep kids incarcerated like high-security prisoners. Kids naturally learn by mimicking, doing, competing, and failing until they figure it out. 

Movement encourages learning. Listen to an audiobook or recorded classroom notes while walking. Physical movement stimulates long-term memory and recall. Engaging in physical activity immediately before learning helps boost alertness and information processing.

6. Follow your path

Academic competition is fierce right from the get-go. Students compete for scholarships, spots on a team, and college acceptance. While there’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, it shouldn’t be a focus, especially if you seek a non-traditional path and competition is zapping your motivation.

While college is a great goal for some, not everyone should go to college, and certainly not just because that’s what society expects. 

Plenty of vocations don’t require a university degree, including the trades. And yet there’s a stigma attached to being “just” a blue-collar auto mechanic as opposed to a college-educated white-collar management consultant. A trade or alternative school could be the better choice depending on your personal interests and ambitions.

College students are immediately saddled with enormous debt. There’s no way around paying college loans, not even bankruptcy. The solution? Work, of course. People who are in debt right out of school are more likely to conform. 

Or, follow a non-traditional path and avoid the debt altogether.

Can we fix the education problems in America?

Sir Robinson continues his Reimagine Education talk by saying,"... we're trying to make the old system work by putting more resources into it to make it more efficient but if the system is designed to do the wrong thing it doesn't matter how efficient it gets, it'll still do the wrong thing. Life thrives on diversity and our big mistake is to try and impose conformity.”

Children are born to learn. We are the most curious species on this planet, and yet we hate school. The shift to making schools serve their students has to happen from the ground up. Not by "them,” but by us: the students, the teachers, the parents, and the community.

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