The Problem with Public Education

Wow I’ve been away from here for a long time. But things have been crazy for me. Not that they’ll be getting any simpler in the future (more on that in a second), but going forward I want to make posting on here a much bigger priority than it has been in the past.

Starting next year, in addition to teaching full time, I’m going to be working on a doctorate in science education. After all, who needs sleep anyway? The reason I decided to go back to school was because I, like many people, think the American public education system isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be—what it could be. And, like many people, I see that the current measures proposed to fix it simply won’t work.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m somewhat ambivalent to Common Core, the newest education reform initiative to be unrolled in the States. I think spiritually it’s actually a good idea. Unfortunately, as is often the case when large bureaucracies are involved, many of its fatal flaws are in its execution.

But that’s not even the worst part. Common Core will fail, or at least it won’t accomplish what those who proposed it want it to. And the reason is simple: Common Core is an attempt to fix our education system without addressing any of the things that are actually wrong with it. It’s like trying to treat a cold with a tourniquet.

But I only had a runny nose (Getty images)

Let me start this by saying that I believe in the public education system. If I didn’t then I wouldn’t be a part of it. I wouldn’t be going back to school in the hopes that I can make my voice heard and change it for the better. However, it is clear to anyone watching that we need to do things very differently if we want to get the kind of results we desperately need. And we do need to fix this problem. Toying around with education is gambling with our future and, as anyone who follows the news knows, the need for creative and intelligent thinkers has never been higher.

I’m going to post a lot about what I think we’re doing wrong in public education and what I believe can be done to fix those problems, but here I think I’ll start just by explaining why I think we let things get so bad; why there is such a need for deep, systemic reform. So thanks for sticking with me through the introduction, let’s get to the heart of the matter.




There is only one thing I should have to tell you to make you see that what we’re doing in our schools is wrong, and that is the fact that we haven’t significantly changed the mechanics of our education system since the 1840’s. Yes, we’ve undergone cosmetic changes and many “reforms” since then, but if you ask any modern student what the staples of their education are, you’ll find that the list you get has changed alarmingly little for over 150 years. We may have changed what a classroom looks like by including iPads and SMARTboards, but we haven’t changed what a classroom is, at least as an institution.

But why should we have to change it? As the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” People could argue that the reason certain elements have persisted in education for so long is because they are fundamentally valuable to the learning experience. But none of them are. I’m sure I’ll go into each of them in more detail in other posts in the future so I’ll leave that alone for now and use a more general argument here.

We most often relate evolution to biological systems, but it is in fact a universal truth. Everything—animals, people, societies, institutions, even ideas—need to adapt and change as the climate around them shifts or risk fading into insignificance. Think about the samurai of Japan, a once dominant class that failed to adapt to the arrival of new technology in the form of western guns. Look at newspapers, which either move more and more into online distribution or fold under the weight of antiquated printing costs when no one (under the age of 30) reads print newspapers anymore. This is just the way of the world: things change; either you change with them or you become irrelevant.

None of this is even to mention the fact that our education system is the spiritual successor of a Prussian model designed not to educate but to instill obedience; made to produce workers, not thinkers. The fact that we haven’t allowed it to change in any significant way is really the least of our worries when the original system was so far off what true education should be.

But why, if as I suggested above institutions must evolve or be left behind, has education almost alone been able to remain fundamentally unchanged for so long? The answer is simple: we need it.

The fact that education in this country has stagnated for so long is a direct result of the way we view education. In America, as in a lot of other places, we see the availability of quality education as a fundamental human right. Education as a resource is something that everyone should have access to.

And don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with that. Education is the strongest weapon against the many inequalities that still plague the modern world. It’s essentially a requirement for social reform.

The problem is exactly that: the institution of public education has become a requirement. And once something is necessary, once its value is determined not by how well it achieves its goals but by the mere fact of its existence, it no longer needs to evolve or change. Because no matter how broken, bloated, or ineffective it becomes, we will still support it because we need it. The exact same thing has happened to our government as a whole, but that’s an issue I really don’t want to touch on here.

Exempting any institution from the need to evolve in order to ensure its survival is the surest way to make it ineffective. If you don’t have to change, why would you? That takes effort. It’s hard and uncomfortable. Other businesses take that risk because if they don’t, if their competitor does first, they lose their customers. But there are no competitors to a public education system, no one to step in and force them to move forward or be left behind.

As only one of many example of this, let’s talk about summer vacation. As much as we love having that solid chunk of time off, any teacher you ask will agree wholeheartedly that having an extended summer vacation the way we do is bad for education as a whole. Kids come back from having that much time out of the classroom with heads full of mush. It’s not their fault. We’re creating an unnecessary and detrimental division between time spent as a student and time spent as a kid. Everyone who has studied this issue agrees that if we took time away from summer vacation and strategically relocated it throughout the year so that the amount of vacation days didn’t change, our educational system would benefit.

Do today’s students even know why summer vacation exists in the first place? So that kids could help out on their parents’ farms during the busy season. That’s it. Does anyone still use it that way? Yes, it is a time for kids to get “summer jobs” and internships, to build work experience and learn some responsibility, but those things could easily be worked into the school year itself if we weren’t so fixed on taking the existence of summer vacation as a given.

So, if summer vacation is so detrimental to our schools, it no longer serves its original purpose, and a solution is readily available, why do we still have it? Because politics. It’s the same reason pennies still exist despite being more than useless. None of the people who are in a position to make this decision feel like it’s in their best interest to change it. No one wants to be that guy who abolished summer vacation, and if he was his odds of being re-elected would probably be pretty slim.

Arguably, summer vacation has taken on a new purpose—to give kids (and teachers) time to recover from the stressful environment of school. But that to me just indicates that we’re doing school wrong. It shouldn’t be some torturous experience that kids have to suffer through until they get their shot at freedom. If schooling were done correctly, kids shouldn’t want to leave. It should be an energizing experience, not a draining one. Yes there should be breaks and times for families to go away together, but if kids really need three months to recover from a year of school, then we are doing things seriously wrong.

In summary, the fundamental problem with public education is that the system has no incentive to improve itself. Public schools will always exist almost regardless of what they do inside their classrooms. Unlike almost any other business or institution, they don’t lose by refusing to adapt to the changing demands of our modern world.

Only we do.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think about this issue below.