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The State of the American Education System

Children are not blank slates, there is no “standardizing” of education that can be done at the institutional level to ensure equal educational outcomes for students. Experts, politicians, media, and advocates all miss one thing when they talk about education reform: it’s the structure, not the curriculum of the institution itself, that is the problem. To fix this problem we must fundamentally change the way we think about education, and we must throw out the education system that was developed in the late 1800’s. A system developed largely by a man who said our education system was scientifically designed to prevent overeducation and the average American should be humbled by their role in life. That’s a paraphrase from William T. Harris, United States Education Commission in the 1890’s. For the United States to compete in a global environment in anything other than sports and defense spending we must reimagine our education system and teaching, shift our focus from rote memorization to information validation and critical thinking, and provide every school with the same resources regardless of area property taxes.

Reimagining our education system means we no longer base a child’s education on what grade they are in, but rather on their progress through the new learning environment. Picture this scenario, Child-A is currently in the third grade, but is reading at the first-grade level. Should Child-A still be in first grade or is it appropriate to push Child-A through hoping one day it will click? Sticking with Child-A, they read at a first-grade level, however, they are doing math at a fifth-grade level? Now what do we do with Child-A? Herein lies the problem with the notion of grade levels, especially with ages four through twelve. Any discrepancy in learning between those ages is going to be exacerbated in middle and high school.

There are three primary things that must be considered when making a change as big as this one. Teaching, curriculum, and learning benchmarks are the key hurdles. Making these changes can be done gradually as well. By starting with our most malleable students, our elementary school students, we can set the stage for the transition of our middle and high schools. For example, we begin the process with children who are currently in the third grade or around eight or nine-years-old and prepare for the middle school transition in coordination with their progress. Their transition into middle school would start at age 12 or 13.

My vision for elementary school looks like this:

1. Reading, writing, and mathematics are the only subjects taught as part of the curriculum level system.

2. Teachers are positioned at outcome levels for each subject. Once a student meets the required outcome level they move up to the next teacher.

3. A final benchmark is set at age 12 and students must reach their required benchmarks to proceed beyond that point and into the next curriculum level.

The curriculum level system is based on the knowledge, skill, and ability a student needs to have mastered by that level. The levels are 12, 16, and 18-years-old. Children ages four to twelve learn only reading, writing, and mathematics. The goal is to not clutter a student's mind, but rather on mastery of the primary subjects by age twelve. Those objectives being excellent written and verbal skills, and a solid and unshakeable mathematics foundation. Children ages twelve through sixteen are introduced to the sciences, the arts, history and social governance, craftsmanship, psychology, and continue building upon their foundations in mathematics and language arts. Assuming the age 16 benchmark is achieved the child moves on to the last level: life and career planning. At this last level students are given direction, life skills, assisted in career and family planning, and decide on college preparation or an apprenticeship path with the trade of their choice.

Taking this route and restructuring our education system serves several purposes and solves many of the historical problems with the American education system. Students are no longer required to learn every subject at an equal and arbitrary pace. Young students are not inundated with information most cannot reasonably be expected to understand as a young learner. Teachers don’t have to worry about juggling their time between children who are at grade level, below it, or above it, nor do they have to be faced with the decision to recommend a student be held back a grade.

Teenagers are introduced to topics that might interest them without the fear their math foundation will crumble beneath them or risk not being able to read aloud without hesitation or the inability to pronounce a word. They're given broad instruction about a variety of topics early and allowed to go into a more specialized direction their final two years rather than force a child with a penchant for math and science into arts and music, nor the opposite.

At the final level our young adults are focused solely on their interests and honing their early knowledge. In addition to this honing, they are planning their future in an environment with support and one that promotes exploration without the rigidity of our current school system. The benefits abound when we meet children where they are and want to be, rather than force them to be where the system wants them to be.

As for teachers and funding, I propose we stop trying to standardize students and instead we standardize the administration. We get rid of the current school district tax rate that most states have, and we have one set of standards for funding and administration through a specified portion of property taxes. A federal school tax levied on the assessed value of all property in the United States. One of those rare taxes that actually does have some use, but I digress.

Rather than going directly to local school boards, the school tax goes into one federal pot of money and is distributed evenly among every school district in the United States. Of course, this idea needs a lot of work, because the first thing every school board is going to do is find a way to get a school district more than its allotted amount, but the money is divided by number of students in the school. Instead of having states with average funding per public school student of nearly $35,000 and other states having average funding per student of barely $9,000, we can establish a national average and adjust it accordingly for cost of living.

In addition, we can revise the standards for teachers and pay every teacher in the nation a fair wage, again, adjusted for cost of living, so we don’t have teachers with masters degrees and 20 years’ experience earning $50,000 a year in one school district and a teacher with the same qualifications and experience earning twice that in another school district.

As I stated earlier, we need to stop trying to standardize children and curriculums and start standardizing the education system. In doing so, we need to overhaul our education system to meet the challenges of the 21st century and leave the education system developed to support the industrial revolution back in the 20th century where it belongs.

I am by no means saying my idea is the panacea that will solve all our problems. What I am saying is that the education system in its current form is not serving the children, the teachers, the administrators, or the nation. The only thing our education system is serving right now is our service driven economy, an economy that is already seeing a spike in automation and artificial intelligence that is likely to send us to record unemployment rates before the end of this decade.

Big business isn’t going to need a quasi-educated and obedient workforce in 20 years, robots and AI will take care of that. What is will need is creative thinkers, problem solvers, skilled maintainers, and engineers among other specialties. We need to educate for the AI revolution, not for the iron and steel revolution of the early 20th century, and we need to start 10 years ago.

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