Photo by Zach Guinta on Unsplash

The Problem with High School

Hint: the solution isn’t giving students iPads

High school in the United States is severely flawed.

For decades, the national conversation around education reform have largely been centered on standardizing content and curriculum, keeping teachers and schools accountable to the performance of their students, and getting students into college. That’s led to policies like the Common Core, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and their related agendas.

The problem with that focus is that it glosses over the other problems with high school today that are far more fundamental than a simple change in policy can fix. Curriculum content in schools is geared towards tests, not real world applicability or interest from students. The general pedagogy of the classroom — a lecture based model where students practice rote memorization and little else— is outdated. Focusing on graduation rates and college acceptance rates brainwashes people into believing that going to a traditional four year university is the only way to succeed in life. Anxiety and depression rates among adolescents have skyrocketed in the last several years alone.

It’s a flawed system that was designed decades ago to meet the needs of a society in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Now, it’s no longer able to meet the demands of a fast-moving society that’s both technologically and culturally different than before.

To understand more, let’s examine the issues that plague the typical high school model.

What We Learn is Neither Interesting nor Useful

In high school, the most common subjects taught are science, math, english, history, and a foreign language. Within those subjects, you have sub categories of subjects like chemistry, algebra, world history, and the like.

These subjects were determined by a group of men called the Committee of Ten more than one hundred years ago. Since then, we’ve taught them almost without question in every high school. At the time, the Committee sought to standardize the US education system curriculum and ensure that people would learn across a breadth of subjects and have the foundations of knowledge to be prepared for life.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that school no longer does that.

At its base, a good education should either be interesting, useful, or both. It stands to reason that if you’ve had a good education, you should remember what you learned. Yet, students forget roughly 60% of what they learned in high school right before they even enter college. Memorizing information for tests and forgetting almost all of it right after tests is a well known element of our school culture. Even as adults, it’s unlikely that people remember much of anything from high school. Do you remember the ways in which the Ming and early Qing dynasties represented the high point in Chinese society? Or what happened in the Epic of Gilgamesh? Or what multiple alleles in biology are? How about demonstrative adjectives and pronouns in Spanish? There’s no context for this knowledge, no place for it to make sense. We learn these topics in isolation without being able to connect them to our own lives.

Adults often lament the skills and subjects they wish they could have learned in school that would have helped them in life. They wished that they had learned about topics like taxes, conflict resolution, investing, how to navigate our healthcare system, money management, how to manage people, and so much more. They wish they could have been exposed to different types of careers and explored them. Yet, the subjects we learn in school are primarily restricted to the aforementioned five subjects and whatever else shows up on our tests.

In high school, tests and students’ scores reign king. They determine if a student gets into a good college after graduating. They determine if teachers get to keep their jobs. They determine if the school’s funding gets cut or raised. With that influence, standardized testing has transformed schools into machines for test scores. Policies like Race to the Top and Common Core have pressured schools and teachers to “teach to the test”, with little to no regard to the relevance of the content we learn in school, the way it’s taught, or whether or not these tests even measure anything worth measuring.

To make matters worse, this tight focus on test content has de-prioritized other programs and curriculums that aren’t critical. Namely, programs in music, arts, physical education, and other electives, all of which have received constant cuts in schools across the country throughout the years. State tests in math and english mean that less time can be devoted to even other academic subjects, like social studies. It’s tragic because of how important these pieces of education are to students. For some, programs like band are sources of relaxation to students and allow them to express themselves in ways that they can’t in class. For others, these programs expose students to new interests and fields and even lead into their careers.

According to a recent Gallup poll on people’s attitudes towards education, 64% of people believe there is too much emphasis on standardized testing in school. Only 14% of parents say that testing is very important in measuring school effectiveness, yet schools rely almost exclusively on testing in determining their effectiveness. Despite all of that, the national conversation on education is primarily about how to increase test scores.

On top of it all, most students are simply bored in high school. Studies that have tracked students’ moods throughout the day have found that levels of boredom are highest during the weekdays, particularly during school time. According to the Emotion Revolution survey, whose mission is to find out how kids feel about the time they spend in school, a whopping 70% of students said they were bored. 80% of students reported that they felt stressed.

If school is neither interesting or useful, then what good is our education?

Our Pedagogy and Assessment System is Out of Date

If there’s anything that proves our education system and our past attempts to improve it don’t work, it would be the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Since 2009, for high school, math scores have been virtually flat. Reading scores haven’t changed since 1998–20 years ago. The same goes for reading, science, writing, geography, and history. By absolute standards, our rate of improvement in high school achievement has been atrocious.

It’s unsurprising, given the way most students are taught. The teacher stands in front of the room and lectures. Students memorize content for the test. They regurgitate it on test day and forget most of it afterwards. Classrooms are designed for effective content delivery, not effective learning. Instead of the traditional lecture-based methodology, teachers should engage students more and use approaches like group activities that involve them as active participants. But schools and teachers are incentivized to move through content and subjects at a set pace — students who don’t understand the content are left behind, and students who are waiting to move forward must wait.

Our ways of assessing student performance are equally outdated. Since schools are supposed to prepare students for life after school and the real world, grades and test scores should be indicators of a students’ knowledge and how successful they’ll be. Yet, that’s often not the case.

First and foremost, standardized tests like the SAT and ACT don’t even predict academic performance in college (ironically, the one thing that our K-12 school system has set out to do). It’s the reason why universities like the University of Chicago have dropped the SAT/ACT requirement for their applications.

It’s a common trope that some of the most successful people in the world were mediocre students at best. Grades also rarely reflect the true knowledge of a student. Imagine this situation:

“Imagine a kid who turns in every homework assignment, participates in class but bombs the tests. Now imagine the student who aces the test, but spends class goofing off and texting friends and finds homework annoying. Both get a grade of 85%, or a “B.” What does that number tell you about what that kid knows, how he or she behaves, or what’s needed to improve?”

When a teacher in Ohio went gradeless and switched to an assessment system based on feedback, self-evaluation, iteration, and observation, “students began completing all assignments, became more engaged learners, and even passed standardized tests at higher rates than their peers in classrooms with traditional grades.” Research shows that students learn the most from feedback without grades.

Grades also encourage cheating. In a national survey of 24,000 high school students, 64% of students admitted to cheating in school. It’s an unfortunate result of a system that cares more about grades than learning.

But the worst result of the system’s focus on grades and test scores has been the effect on student behavior. Students measure their self-esteem by their grades. It actively discourages creativity and risk-taking. It encourages going to school to do well on tests, not to truly learn. It creates a toxic hyper-competitive environment that pits students against each other. At best, it produces students who are extremely good at memorizing information, following orders, and thinking inside of the box.

Yet how prepared are those students for a modern economy that demands people who can think creatively, collaborate effectively, and solve complex problems?

Instead, all they’re prepared for…is college.

Schools Focus On College Prep Above All Else

Students are raised in an environment where the college degree is held as the gold standard for academic achievement. They’re told to study hard, get good grades, get into a good college, and land a good job. They check boxes for classes and extracurriculars, not because it aligns with their values or interests, but because it looks appealing on a college application. It’s often the case that students have no idea what they want to do, yet they’re pushed through the funnel from school to eventually college, where they’re overwhelmed by a less restrictive environment and experience burnout.

Externally, the consensus on improving education is “college for all”. States and districts compel schools to increase their standards and requirements for high school graduation, further putting more pressure on students. This mindset encourages schools to focus almost exclusively on college preparation. According to Anthony Carnevale, head of the Center of Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, high school curriculum has moved to higher and higher levels of abstraction, away from practical and applied learning. Vocational education is discouraged, partly due to its lack of relevance in test content and partly due to cultural pressures to encourage students to pursue “loftier” careers.

The problem with focusing on college prep is two-fold. Firstly, college is expensive. Today, 70 percent of college students graduate with a significant amount of loans. The total student debt in the US is roughly 1.5 trillion dollars, a staggering amount of debt per person that stays with them well into their forties and fifties on average. Even as more people than ever before are entering college, it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone needs to go to college — or will stay in college. Less than two-thirds of college students will graduate for a variety of reasons, ranging from overwhelming debt to lack of job preparation. For many, college is simply a bad investment — spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to possibly get a job that pays much less isn’t an equation that works. For that reason, the value of a college degree has decreased dramatically in the job market over the last couple of decades as costs have skyrocketed and job market competition has increased.

Relatedly, the entire field of higher education will experience a seismic shift in the coming years as ineffective colleges shut down and universities consolidate their programs towards ones that produce graduates with enough job market value to merit the sizable tuitions these institutions command. College alternatives, from income-sharing vocational bootcamps to trade schools, will increasingly gain popularity as people seek job certainty and a much more attractive ROI. In the future, our education system will be multi-variable, with many paths to a career.

And most high schools will still be stuck preparing all students for college.

Negatively Impacting Mental Health

The saddest aspect of our flagging education system is the effect it’s had on the well being of our students.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2016. A survey called “Stress in America” conducted by U.S. News and World Report found that school was a common stressor among most teenagers. Combine school, homework, extracurriculars, and what it takes to manage it all on top of the pressure to succeed and look good for colleges, and it’s a potent formula for burnout. These problems persist in college and eventually into early adulthood.

An NYU team conducted a study on high school student stress and workload. About half of the students surveyed reported spending at least three hours per night on homework alone. Roughly half also reported “feeling a great deal of stress”. Coping strategies ranged from productive ones like exercise and organization to harmful ones like emotional exhaustion and heavy substance abuse.

The stress from the sheer, numbing workload on students affects them both mentally and physically. Most teenagers get about 6 hours or less of sleep per night — they need at least 8 hours to remain healthy. Workload aside, it doesn’t help that most schools open around 8AM, despite the well-documented fact that waking up that early can negatively impact their biological rhythms and physical health.

The worst part is that counseling support for these students is almost next to none in most schools. The average counselor, not even one dedicated to mental health support, is responsible for nearly 500 students. School psychologists, the true specialists for mental health support, are even worse off — one for every 1,400 students.

A particularly poignant sample of answers to the mental health damage to students caused by school in the US can be found on this Quora thread:

A girl told me she gets about three to five hours of sleep per night. An eleventh grader, or a third year, told me that she gets barely anytime to sleep each and every single night, resulting in her sleeping in about half of her classes and having bags under her eyes each day.
The reason? She was studying, doing homework, and having to attend at least three, if not four or five, meetups for band practice weekly that lasts until at least 7 o’clock if not even 10 o’clock on some nights.
A girl I know mentioned how grades were basically everything for the rest of her life. She said how the grades you get in high school determines your rank and GPA.
Your rank and GPA, combined with your national test scores, determines what college you get into. The college you get into decides what jobs you get. The jobs you get decides what life you have.
She was convinced that this was it — her grades determined all of her life, and that she needed to get into a “good” college, which she based her self-esteem based on.

And there are thousands more of stories just like them.

How We Move Forward

Admittedly, it’s a rather depressing situation. We’re long past the tipping point of our education system.

But there are beacons of hope. Most educators aren’t blind — they see the need for change and want to put forth the effort to do so. Initiatives like the XQ Super School Project are particularly inspiring, attempting to spark a movement to rethink public school education in the US and beyond.

And there are a variety of progressive school models and paradigms popping up all over the country, from Depaul Cristo Rey in Cincinnati, to even my own progressive high school in Atlanta, Sora Schools, where we’re empowering students to design their own education by letting them work on things that actually interest them.

It’s not just the adults. Students are speaking out as well — Huffington Post asked 20 teens what they would change about high school. Their answers are pretty indicative of where our education system’s headed:

Overhauling our education system will be a massive undertaking. Our national conversation needs to switch from talking about standards and test scores to how we can actually prepare students for life. We need to be considering alternative assessment models, new ways of facilitating learning, new schedules and structures for school, and more.

Widespread change will need more than just a few innovative schools and some disenfranchised students. It’ll take support in education policy at both the federal and state levels, funding, changes in how we train and assess talent, and support from local parent and student populaces. Fortunately, the demand for change is already there. We just need to continue pushing this movement forward.

For the vast majority of people in the world, going to school is an opportunity to transform their lives and become smarter and kinder people. Most schools don’t do that. That’s why we need to fix these institutions before any more damage is done to our students and the generations after them.


-Atlanta, 2019

A/N: And if you’re interested in the school I’m starting, check out our website! We’re enrolling students for our inaugural class in Atlanta in the fall of 2019.