With a literacy rate of 99%, the United States’ education system might not appear to be broken from the outside. Yet ask anyone living through it – or sending their children through it – and you’d be amazed at how many criticisms it receives.
Costs are increasing; results are static. Children are becoming more proficient at sending text messages than they are at world history.
And in the end, the result is that compulsory education until the age of 18 years old is not helping children, but robbing them of precious time in their formative years.
But in order to truly understand what’s wrong with the education system, we have to examine the system itself. That’s why we’ll start at the beginning and look at how the United States chooses to educate its children – and hopefully learn enough lessons to suggest an alternative that could spark an intellectual revolution.
The United States Education System in 2011
Like in so many countries, the United States’ education system is compulsory – children are forced to go through it by law. Enrollment stands at 81.5 million if you include primary (“Grade” school), secondary (“junior high” and “high” school), and post-secondary (“college”) school.
Children are divided into “grades” based on their age – and on rare occasions, their abilities. Throughout the year, they are taught for approximately six or seven hours a day with summers off (“summer vacation”) – a privilege also enjoyed by the teachers, who otherwise earn a yearly salary commensurate with the pay someone else who works 12-month years earns.
Schools run by federal, state, or local government are called “public schools” – any student can go to these schools and the costs of tuition are handled by taxes. Private schools are also accepted as long as they are given state approval in the form of accreditation.
Makes sense, right? Everything seems fine at this point. Where are the problems coming from? Once you take a closer look, however, you see the truth: the problems are already present everywhere in the system simply because of the quality of the system itself. Let’s explore these further.
Potential Problems with the Education System
While the aspirations of a public education system are noble, they are by no means any more effective than a multitude of other options. The United States primarily runs its education system through government coercion overseen by the federal Department of Education. This, in and of itself, is a problem. Let’s take a look at the other problems:
While getting children to act with others their own age is crucial to socialization, the “grade” system is by no means ideal. In fact, the socialization that children enter in their formative years is nothing like that in post-school life. In post-school life, people are not divided into groups based on their age. The way people choose groups is entirely independent of any government system or coercion – which is exactly why children should be learning this actual method of socialization rather than learn socialization in an artificial environment.
Under the current system, there is one clear strategy: “one size fits all.” Children are divided by their age and taught the same things as everyone else. This is great to encourage basic knowledge of literacy and mathematics – but beyond the basics, where does uniformity succeed?
Children have different inclinations, talents, and ambitions. Uniform lessons rob them of their inherent curiosity and instead of the disastrous effect of delaying the development of their skills until they’re free to choose their own area of study by the time they reach post-secondary education. Uniformity is the enemy of education.
Lack of Competition
Everywhere we see competition outside of schools, companies clamor to lower their prices and attract the most business. The basic need for competition in a free market fosters better quality and lower prices.
The United States school system ignores this principle of economics and allows public schools to exist outside of reality – instead, they are given their own budgets and allowed to function without any realistic system of accountability other than school board elections.
Schools that compete for parents’ dollars would instead have to keep tuition costs low (after all, how can they charge parents if parents can’t afford the tuitions?) and quality up (otherwise, all parents with school choice would change schools) in a free market system. But the U.S. education system has nothing to do with free markets and therefore has no real accountability to the most basic economic unit of civilization – money.
What Are the Solutions?
We’ve spent a lot of time criticizing the U.S. public education system; how about offering some solutions?
The solutions are easy to understand. But they are difficult to implement.
Privatizing the school system would allow companies to offer education to parents and children with more freedom to experiment and customize their experience to fit each individual child’s needs. If children have poor parents, they could receive vouchers of money to choose a school of their liking – this puts the power of accountability in their hands rather than in the government’s hands.
Private schools, forced to compete with each other for better teachers and better classes, would start rewarding the best teachers with pay increases – rather than the chronological system present in today’s public schools. Teachers would be motivated to increase their quality and the students would become better learners. Schools could advertise their high test scores and attract more students and schools that fail to deliver would watch as their customers turned elsewhere.
The solutions are simple. But education in the United States is already in the clutches of government, and no one holds tighter than the government. People are afraid of removing old ideas simply because they’ve grown accustomed to the way things are. But the real radicalization of schools would be to turn to privatization and to less government. It would be the best way out of the current education mess, and it would save everyone money.
The fact that no one seems to realize this? That’s the real problem in U.S. education.