Changing the Focus of Public Education in the United States


In the United States, the system of public education transitioned from home-schooling in the 17th century to community forums and apprenticeships in the 18th century. It wasn't until after the American Revolution that primary education evolved in the United States and especially the Northern states to support the rising demands of industrialism. With the concept of public education and the age until which children have to attend them became mandatory, private schools started to emerge to offer competitive programs and entrance to the top universities at the time such as Harvard. The structure of this system was built in a time where the identity of the vast majority of people was linked to their families, religion, and communities. The goal of this system was simply to impart general knowledge and basic skills to the students who on average had a very narrow path regarding the course of their life. Public education has evolved over the last two hundred years to be more inclusive of different genders and races, standardized the educational infrastructure with staff and resources, and covering a comprehensive range of subjects. 

However, the rate of cultural change has been slowly increasing and the introduction of the internet and smart technology has demonstrated that we live in a world that's unpredictable and no one knows what it'll look like in 30 years. Despite this uncertainty, we're supposed to be educating our children for it. Our workplaces value creative and well-rounded individuals. Our political system requires people to take an interest and be well-informed of issues. Our culture constantly feeds us an abundance of information that people need to know how to judge or evaluate. Instead of adapting, our focus has been to overemphasize limited metrics to judge and evaluate students, causing a lot of smart and talented individuals to feel like they are not. I propose that our current system is too limited and inflexible and although it was suitable until the late 20th century, it is extremely inefficient to meet the needs of the current and future generations.


Learning over Information

The concept of 'Progressive Education' was proposed in the United States in the early 1900s by John Dewey who believed "to prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities" The current system of public education emphasizes information transfer, often without generating interest or establishing long-term relevance for the subject. As a result, a majority of students struggle to connect the importance of education to their lives and accept their time in school or certain subjects as an obligation rather than a worthwhile experience. 

Unless actively refreshed or maintained, most people can't recall specific names from the Civil War they learned in American History or how to perform complicated integration from Calculus, mostly because those skills are irrelevant to most people after leaving the education system. Instead, people should be able to read the current events and understand how the political and economic forces affect themselves or how to decipher statistics and data presented to them in marketing, advertising, and many other forums to identify its relevance. My contention isn't that schools should stop dealing with curriculi and information, merely that the context of how and why we learn is more important than the what because it's more applicable and relatable to our lives. We live in a world where information is readily available, and education should be a institution that helps each student appreciate its value and allows them to work towards their own personal goals.                                                                                                                                

Investing in Educational Change from an Economic Perspective

Public education is an investment made by the society in the next generation, and while previous generations could predict the market with relative certainty, the recent commercialization of technology has introduced a cultural rate that makes it difficult to predict what may happen. The current education system focuses on conformity with regards to curricula, evaluation, and teaching methods. Instead, it should shift the core towards fostering creativity and diversity. This can include many initiatives from offering a wider range of topics, introducing independent learning programs, restructuring evaluation from test-based to project-based etc. 

One common and odd argument against changing the focus of schools towards creativity for economic reasons is that the average person will still have a job that focuses on productivity, rather than critical thinking, and won't see the benefit from this system. The problem with this argument is that the education system doesn't or shouldn't just cater to the average, but instead try to maximize the utility of every individual within reason. In addition, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the majority of jobs with the highest growth rate for people with a Bachelor's degree are engineers, analysts, managers, and software developers. A lot of these jobs are highly diverse that deal with complex issues and require people who are adaptable and creative to fill them. Therefore, it makes sense from an economic perspective to re-evaluate the structure of public education to focus on diversity and creativity, rather than the conformity.

Establishing Unique Educational Identities

The system of public education is often responsible for being the only time during their pre-adult life that children are segregated from their parents alongside others of equivalent status. This separation allows for each individual to form their own social and cultural identities. It is interesting that the same institution that accepts all forms of social and cultural diversity doesn't apply the same methodology to teaching. People are interested in a variety of different subjects for a multitude of reasons, but the current system has a strict hierarchy of important subjects. At the top are maths, sciences, and literacy, followed by the humanities and languages with the arts at the bottom.

Many students in middle and high school are steered benignly away from their interests because what they like to do isn't considered important, or even stigmatized. As a result, the spirit and talent of many students are being ruthlessly squandered, especially because there's no way to accurately gauge the lost potential. In order to encourage creativity and diversity, subjects should be given a more equal status at least culturally, if not financially. The process of having original thoughts and learning is often correlated to multi-disciplinary ways of thinking, and this equality would not only help exceptional students prosper, but also help struggling students appreciate education by having different avenues to express their strengths. 

Introducing Social Elements and Skills

Education originally started in the United States with the premise that it would help students give back to their communities and government. The curriculum-based system of education has left little place for such involvement, and the responsibility of teaching students the merits or even possibilities of community interaction is left to the families. However, the technological surge in the past 30 years has given students many avenues to spend their time without having to come in contact with their communities. In addition, the domain-based segregation has student forming their individual identities and therefore the idea that "every generation has to rediscover democracy" is more true than ever.

But this idea extends to more than just government process and community interaction, there are skills far more important to students than information. One example of these skills is personal finance. Understanding how to gauge their own financial situation gives students the power to better evaluate and personalize their decisions about their present and future. These issues belong in the education system because their importance has been lost while the culture expecting the next generation to know them without giving them the proper channels to learn about or experience them. 

Emphasis on Personalized Teaching

Teaching is indisputably an art-form, but the cultural perception of teaching is limited to transferring information from a source to the student, an idea that is equally fallacious as the one that learning simply involves memorizing and regurgitating knowledge. The interaction between teacher and student is the most fundamentally important dynamic in education, and it's been vastly understated in American society. If we examine the core of education without the modern institution, we can strip away the buildings, syllabuses, principals, textbooks, unions, etc, we are left with a student learning from a teacher. People are vastly different from one another and consequently learn in every way they can experience the world. The role of teachers is to facilitate learning by engaging a diverse audience onto the topic of discussion. 

Standardization is the biggest impediment to teaching because it forces teachers to adhere to information, structure, and topics that may not fit the needs of the group of students. Personalized teaching does not imply reducing the student-teacher ratio, but more allowing the teacher to judge how to best teach each subset of students in the setting. If recent news is dominated by a certain region or lawsuit concerning a mentally ill person, placing emphasis on those topics in World History or Psychology class takes precedence to make the material relatable. If a topic in mathematics or chemistry has been especially engaging for students, it's worth exploring their interest and allowing for organic progression of learning. These are a few situations that demonstrate that teaching can be more effective if it's allowed to be adaptable to the context of their students. 

Micro-control to Increase Flexibility

Dewey's ideas on progressive education were discussed, but rarely implemented on a large scale because they encountered a highly bureaucratic system of school administration not receptive to new methods, mostly because they receive instruction from the state and national sources. The standardization and evaluation of education by the government is extremely inefficient because there are too many cultural and regional differences throughout the United States. Teachers, schools, and school districts are the best people equipped to make decisions regarding their students and keep up with the changes in culture and should be given more control and flexibility. The role of the government should be to monitor the efficacy of local initiatives and use elements from successful ones to help those struggling. 

For example, a school district in Alaska that is dealing with high drop-out rates has a different list of priorities than a school in an upper class neighborhood trying to help students prepare for highly competitive colleges. A community near an urban area with a diverse population has different focus and initiatives than a school district in a remote area where students don't get the same experiences. There are too many contexts for the government to treat the system using a command structure, and should instead allow schools or regions to develop their own standards and monitor their efficacy. 

Personal Interest and Final Thoughts

I attended school in India until the age of 10 before moving to the United States. I spent a few years outside of Boston for middle school, and then outside Philadelphia for high school. After attending college at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, I moved to Seattle where I've been involved with programs like STEM, Lego League, and the CMAC council. Through my diverse experiences with education, I've noticed that our current system of public education has not adequately responded to cultural changes in the last 20 years. After reading about the various organizations and key figures in progressive education, I want to conduct my own research and add to their work. I personally believe that the creative capabilities and talents of many individuals are being squandered under the current system, but there's no way to quantify lost potential. I will be travelling and speaking with various teachers and school districts throughout the United States in the next few months to gain a better insight into their priorities and see if my thesis has any merit.