Our Schools Really Are Failing, but Not How You Think

By Logan Albright

Over the last several years, the efforts of most education reformers have been largely focused on opposition to Common Core standards. This is indeed a worthy goal, but sometimes it pays to take a step back to avoid missing the forest for the trees. Common Core is a symptom of a larger disease, a disease that affects the way we think about education as a whole. Let us not delude ourselves by thinking that ending Common Core alone will suddenly solve all the problems with American schooling.

Too often, we get locked into accepting the premise we are presented with, feeling no need to question it. The problem, we are told, is that test scores are too low; the solution is smaller class size, more money, better curricula. In fact, the common understanding of both the problems and the solutions in American education is badly flawed.

The mantra of education policy is well known, even to those who don’t really follow politics or the news. “Our schools are failing.” This phrase has been repeated so often and for so long that one is forced to wonder whether there was ever a time when they weren’t failing, or if we even have a clear vision of what success would look like. Or we might wonder whether schools are really failing at all, or if this is just a talking point used as an excuse to secure more funding and a greater role in national policy conversations. There’s some degree of truth in both statements, but not in the way you might think.

Schools are failing, failing to recognize and encourage creativity, individualism, self-direction, independence, and basic curiosity. Where schools succeed, it is in instilling conformity, boredom, indifference, and obedience into the population. There has to be a better way.

We’ve become trapped into thinking that there are no alternatives to the status quo, that we must continue down the same road we always have. The funny thing is, things haven’t always been this way. Mandatory schooling has only existed in the US for about 150 years, but that’s long enough that no one can remember a time without it. Before its introduction, literacy rates were actually higher, at least among non-slaves. The idea that children need formal, institutional education in order to learn basic skills like reading and arithmetic is relatively recent. Man is a naturally curious animal. If he weren’t, civilization as we know it would not exist.

And yet, today, policy-makers insist that what we need is not a different kind of schooling, but simply more of it. Children used to start school at age six. Now, if they are not in preschool by three, parents worry that they are falling behind. There are talks of extending the nine month school year to twelve months, and to lengthen the school day until children are barely allowed to see the sun until they turn eighteen. Does anyone really believe that sorting kids by age and forcing them to remain confined with each other and take tests for nearly two decades is necessary to produce an intelligent, free thinking population, or that this result can even be obtained through such draconian methods?

This is the path that countries like China have taken, and which too many politicians would have us emulate. What they don’t understand, however, is that China’s single-minded focus on test scores is a response to a lack of opportunity. They use schooling as a sorting method to select the few among them who will actually have a chance at prosperity. America is a fundamentally different environment, where we tell our children that they can be anything they want to be.

If we want to get serious about solving the education crisis in America, we need to stop tinkering with a broken design, and instead throw the whole thing out and start from scratch. Adjusting funding levels and giving students iPads instead of blackboards are never going to address the real reason why children are not living up to their potential.

This is not unprecedented; the alternative education movement takes on this challenge every day, and in such a variety of ways that it’s clear there is no one “right” answer. From homeschooling to unschooling to Montessori to online learning, parents are out there fighting for their children. But they’re up against a monolithic stigma that what they are doing is somehow unnatural or extreme, the lunatic fringe instead of a creative solution to a pervasive problem. It’s no easy thing to overcome generations of ingrained assumptions, but until we do, we’re only nibbling around the edges of that problem instead of actually solving it.

Logan Albright is the senior research analyst at FreedomWorks.

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