29 Ways American Schools Fail Students
Everyone knows the American school system is broken. Or at least, everyone has a sense that it is. Americans complain about how schools don’t teach critical thinking skills and schools don’t prepare students for the real world. These complaints are often accompanied by a suggestion to add a class which covers the missing skills.
But this is not enough. It is not that American schools need their classwork updated for the twenty-first century. American schools do not achieve even their most basic goals. American schools:
- Do not teach students what they need to know
- Do not prepare students for the workforce
- Do not make students healthy or happy
- Do not prepare students to be adults
American Education is broken beyond repair. We need to scrap the entire thing and start over.
Here are 29 pieces of evidence to convince you.
Part 1: Schools Prevent Students from Learning
- Schools are physically damaging environments for children. Young minds need stimulation to grow their neural networks. But the school environment is not stimulating at all. Classrooms are often tan, gray and windowless, with hard-backed chairs that students must sit in without moving or speaking. In adults, this much sitting leads to twice the rate of cardiovascular disease and a 10% increase in the risk of colon and breast cancer. Since no one has done any formal studies on these conditions effects on students, we can only guess at the damage it does (but I’ll bet it’s catastrophic).
- Children love to explore. Anyone who has had a young child knows this. Children are constantly rummaging around, opening up containers and dumping out what’s inside, smearing things all over walls, floors and themselves, and making a mess in their effort to explore the world. This exploration is how children learn, and they are thrilled to do it. Simply put, children love learning.
But the manner in which schools teach children — via forced lecture — ruins learning for kids. These lectures are devoid of stimulation and interactivity. Students are stuck in their seats and bored to tears. Anyone who has been through the public school system remembers how dreadfully long class feels. Students often look up at the clock, dismayed to find the end of class still hours away.
After ten plus years of these lectures, students grow up into graduates who avoid learning unless circumstances dictate they must. Nearly a quarter of Americans did not read a single book in 2014. Ask any recent graduate, and they’ll tell you they’re beyond thankful that they’re done “having to learn things.”
- In addition to exploring, children love to play. Play, especially imaginative play, is how children integrate what they’ve learned. Playing is how children use what they know to create something new. They use their creativity and their knowledge to make something more.
But in school’s unstimulating mandatory lectures, a child’s natural desire to create is crushed. In lectures, there is no opportunity for creativity or play. Students must sit and memorize fact after fact so that they can later regurgitate these facts on a multiple choice exam. Even dynamic assessments, like essays and presentations, are graded with strict rubrics which primarily measure fact repetition and consider original conclusions an afterthought.
After ten years of having their creative thinking ability suppressed, students become graduates who are not able to think creatively. Students today do poorly on simple logical reasoning tests, and only a fraction of graduating high school seniors can make informed, critical judgments about written text.
- Not only is creative learning discouraged, learning itself is discouraged — at least, any learning which does not come from pre-approved school sources. Schools enforce this through teaching students a rigorous fear of plagiarism to their students. Schools only allow students to cite from a narrow band of pre-approved sources (which does not include Wikipedia, Medium, or other modern platforms). Ostensibly, this is meant to teach students how to identify an authoritative source — but instead of teaching students how to do this, schools use website blockers to do it for them. As a result, students are even less equipped to identify appropriate sources than they would be if they received no instruction at all. On top of that, school citations require many pages of formalities, sometimes even more than is standard for university research. This discourages students from using many references to make new and unique points, due to both the difficulty of finding approved sources and the sheer number of citations students would need.
To compensate, most students write papers comprised of two or three large block quote citations. The only original writing a student does is to introduce, rephrase and close citations. This leads to a paper which was effectively not written by the student and which contains no original ideas. These essays are hardly worth the paper they’re printed on. Students know this, and refer to this as ‘bullshitting a paper.’ In extreme cases, the students themselves do not even understand what they’ve written. (Again, no citation necessary — for proof, merely find the nearest student and ask them what it means to ‘bullshit a paper’).
These students become graduates who are incapable of evaluating anything they’ve read. One study found that “many… students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event.” Instead of assessing validity via reasoning ability, they judged based on other factors. “The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.”
These students also become graduates who are not able to do research. A report released by Project Information Literacy showed that students lack research skills in a variety of ways: They use research styles that prioritize passing grades over exploratory learning, they do not use the internet to research, and when stuck, they turn to faculty for advice, not research librarians. This report demonstrates that not only can students not research, but that when they are stuck, they turn to an authority to tell them what to do instead of seeking out the answer for themselves.
- Independent learning is further discouraged by the idea of required classes and prerequisites. In the real world, you are free to start learning whatever you’d like to learn, whenever you like to learn it. You are able to start at your own level, and advance at your own pace. This is the great innovation of the internet — it makes learning available to anyone, at any level.
But in school, all students must go through the same pre-selected course-load. This course-load is selected by the state department officials, or local school administrators. In either case, students, teachers, and parents (the people who are actually affected) have almost no input. This course load has little to no customization for each student’s needs. The only options they have are trifling options, such as the choice to take choir vs. theater, physics vs. biology, or an extra class vs. study hall.
What little choices students do have are often limited by prerequisite or grade requirements for courses. Students can sometimes ‘skip classes’ or ‘skip grades’ to get around this, but only after a lengthy application process.
Artificially restricted course options tells students that they can only learn what others have told them they can learn, discouraging them from teaching themselves things on their own.
Because students have no ability to choose subjects for themselves in school, they graduate unable to do so when it matters. Less than half of high school graduates feel prepared to choose college or a career for themselves. (This is especially alarming, since the labor market is moving towards skill stacks and frequent career changes).
- Schools do not hire subject matter experts to be teachers. Instead, schools require a Bachelor of Education. A Bachelors of Education learns about teaching methods. They select specializations such as Elementary School, Middle School or High School. Actual expertise in their subject matter, if it’s covered at all, is covered for only a few courses.
What this means is teachers are barely more qualified in their subjects than the students they teach. Any college graduate is more educated in their subject than the teacher of that subject at the local high school. This guarantees that teachers lack the depth of knowledge required to prepare students for future education. And teachers have hundreds of students a year.
- Because schools only teach and assess the ability to memorize, students have no opportunity to exercise their intelligence outside of this. According to schools, the only way a student can be smart is if they can memorize well. Because this is how schools judge students, students learn to judge each other on this as well. They begin ranking their intelligence (and even their worth) by their ability to memorize.
Again, to verify, ask your nearest high schooler who their smartest classmates are. They will tell you the names of students who can regurgitate the most facts (and therefore get the highest grades), not the names of students who build robots in their spare time.
By this metric, anyone who has below-average attentional control or semantic memory has less to offer. But that group includes not only the learning-disabled and the mentally ill, but many average performers — and many geniuses. The ability to memorize strings of information is only one of many predictors of IQ. All of this means that using the ability to memorize as a measure of intelligence is worthless.
This results in many intelligent children grow up thinking they’re dumb because they are not talented at, or do not put any effort into, memorization. They are punished by the school with worse grades and are labeled by the school as having less to offer.
- Native intelligence is further suppressed by measuring competency in all subjects as an aggregate (GPA) instead of measuring on a subject-by-subject basis. Many genius-level performers excel in their chosen fields, but lag behind in others. For example, Thomas Edison was called “too stupid to learn anything” by teachers. Jacob Barnett, a boy sequestered in Special Education, dropped out. He is now on track to receive the Nobel Prize. Winston Churchill consistently earned poor grades. Richard Branson dropped out of high school at age 15. And the list goes on and on.
But schools do not celebrate these differences, or encourage students to cultivate their gifts. Schools pressure these gifted students into ignoring their gifts, and instead waste these student’s potential making them maintain a well-balanced GPA.
- Schools further keep students from reaching their potential by teaching the hyper-intelligent and the learning-disabled in the same classroom — with the same curriculum. This forces teachers to teach to the Lowest Common Denominator to make sure the slowest students do not get left behind. Often, the only thing schools do to account for student differences is to offer a “gifted students seminar” in place of study hall for bright students (if they do anything at all).
Intelligent students end up learning that, since material is always easy, they do not have to learn to study or push themselves. Less intelligent students learn that they, too, do not have to push themselves too hard, since the bar will be lowered to accommodate them.
- Schools discourage students from pursuing external education. To keep students from doing so, schools offer AP and IB courses, which are high school courses that count as college credit. Attending college courses in high school, known as Dual Enrollment, can be submitted for credit, but requires many reams of forms and a tricky approval process. That is, if the students even know about it — schools do not advertise this option to students in the first place. But outside of these pre-approved sources, external formal education is not recognized by schools as valid credit. This ensures that all education students receive is overseen by the school. (If you have ever heard schools referred to as “indoctrinating students” this is why).
Some schools partner with local technical schools to offer job training. But unless the technical school has a pre-negotiated agreement with the school, these do not count for credit either
- The classroom format squashes inquisitiveness. No teacher can field many questions from each student, no matter how much they want to. This would lead to hundreds of questions during class. (Which the teacher may not even be able to answer, having nothing more than a cursory education on their subject).
As children move through the K-12 schools, they are told over and over to hold their questions. Eventually, students stop asking. They learn that schools do not want their inquisitiveness. They learn school wants them to listen, memorize, and regurgitate, and nothing else. By the end of their time in school, the only questions students ask are to make sure they are memorizing things correctly. All the curious, inquisitive questions vanished long ago.
These students become graduates who do not assess and think about what they learn. Instead, they merely file facts away in case they are needed later. The Wall Street Journal found in half of public schools, high school seniors scored below basic levels of critical thinking skills. In the context of this study, this means that while the students could learn the facts and repeat them, the students could not “make a cohesive argument or interpret evidence” from what they read.
- Teachers are good people who want students to learn. But, by it’s very nature, the job duties of a teacher incentivizes passing a student over teaching a student. The more students don’t pass, the more problems a school has. The school wants funding, and higher teacher salaries, and bigger sports teams budgets. Most of all, the school does not want problems.
This creates a dangerous conflict of interest. A student who is learning critical thinking skills is less likely to pass than a student who is not. A student learning to think critically asks many questions in class. They invite debate. They get into arguments about whether the Right answer is really the right answer. All of this makes this student less likely to select the right answer on the multiple-choice exam. This takes place in a classroom of 20 to 30 other students, all of whom are becoming distracted by the critical thinker, decreasing their chances of picking the right answer as well.
So, the teacher does what they must do (even if they do not want to). They tell the blossoming student to be quiet, and if they want to talk about these things they can after class. But by then, the class has been deprived of their opportunity to learn critical thinking. The students have gotten the message: that they are to sit down, shut up, memorize, and regurgitate.
Part 2: Schools Prevent Students From Being Prepared for the Workforce
- While focusing on memorization and fact regurgitation, schools fail to teach students how to have new and original ideas. (This is the source of the common saying “school teaches you what to think, not how to think”). But with the rise of the internet, modern adults do not need to store facts in their head. Computers will always do a better job of storing information than a human brain. In the modern economy, a worker’s value isn’t in what they know, it’s in what they can do that a computer can’t. Namely, their ability to solve problems and have new, original ideas. With the internet, high performers of the future won’t need to know anything off the top of their head.
Anyone who is a teacher today knows students know this. Teachers in today’s classrooms must constantly field questions like “Why do we need to know this?” And “why do we need to be able to do this without a calculator?” Teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to answer these questions.
I’ll grant that at first, the ability to solve problems without the internet is a necessary stage of learning. But once students understand and can effectively the theory being taught, these unnecessary constraints should be removed.
Students taught using memorization become adults who can not compete against computers in the modern workforce. Economists today live in fear of AI putting millions of people out of work — but if schools taught critical thinking and original idea generation, these jobs would be quickly replaced.
- The very nature of tests and grades are antithetical to the real world. School requires students to get at least 60% on all tests, if not 80% to 95%. School punishes students who don’t know the answers with poor grades. This teaches students to be afraid of not knowing the answer — and to never admit it if they don’t. Schools drive this point home by punishing those who fail tests with parent-teacher conferences and, in extreme cases, holding students back.
But in the real world, most of us don’t have the answers. Most of the things we try, fail. And with each failure, we learn and we try again. And that’s a good thing! That is how people learn and grow. In the real world, admitting you don’t have the answer is desirable if you don’t. Those who are willing to take the risk of failure are rewarded. But school teaches children that failure is aberrant, and you must know it all or you have failed.
And what the schools teach, the students learn. By the time they graduate, students are more concerned with pleasing parents and teachers than they are about enjoying what they learn. Students learn that if they are not 100% correct, they should not open their mouths at all.
- The nature of tests teaches students to think in the black-and-white terms of Right or Wrong. On exams, questions are either correct or not correct. But in real life, there are often many choices. There is not always a right or wrong. Many answers are partially right, or more right than some but less than others. Often the best solution is hidden out of view, and must be discovered. In real life, there is always two sides to the story. But in school, there is not. There is only the teacher’s side, and the student must get in line. Students can appeal to the teacher and beg for their answer to be reconsidered as correct, but students can not debate or thoughtfully disagree with the teacher. (Teachers, for their part, do not like this arrangement either. But the nature of multiple-choice tests forces teachers to decide whether a student’s answers are Right or Wrong. Even if the teachers privately think the students have a point).
These students graduate and become adults who can not handle the ambiguity of the real world. They can not handle being criticized. And who can blame them? Up until graduation, criticism — being wrong — was to be avoided at all costs.
- Many subjects which schools teach are completely unnecessary for the modern working adult. That is not to say these subjects have no value, but they do not have enough value to justify teaching every single person. Schools teach these subjects at the expense of skills people do need, such as financial sense and logical reasoning.
Take cursive, for instance. Cursive is not useless. People who know cursive can read historical documents and compose Thank You Letters. But cursive is not necessary (and what’s more, it’s something one can teach themselves if they like).
Advanced biology is another example. Most students in high school learn about the chemical composition of mitochondrial and cellular DNA. But aside from the fraction of students who go on to be biologists, no one will use this information in their lives. In fact, it’s so useless that most adults forget it within five years of graduating.
Students become graduates whose heads are stuffed with useless facts and figures, but lack the essential skills they need to navigate the world. Graduates may feel that they are prepared, but employers don’t feel the same way. “Less than a third (of employers) think newly minted college grads are ready for the real world.” In comparison, graduates rated themselves ready 70% of the time.
Part 3: Schools Prevent Students from Becoming Adults
- Schools are not only not preparing students for the workplace — they’re not even preparing them to be adults. Schools don’t allow students to exercise their own decision making ability, an essential adult skill. Instead, schools teach students to defer to authority wherever possible.
As children age through the school system, schools teach them to defer more and more. Schools do this by increasing the hours they require students to attend, increasing the number of classes they require students take, and increasing the number of assessments they require students to pass. Schools also fail to cover subjects which would teach students how to function as independent adults. Instead, they focus on academic skills which have no relationship to adult functioning.
This results in graduates who have little ability to function as adults in the real world. These adults are incapable of making decisions, large and small without the approval of authority figures such as their parents.
- School ensures students don’t learn the skills they need to interact with adults in the outside world. School does this by isolating students into an environment made up of only other students and a scant few teachers. This leaves students entirely dependent on the teachers, who are outmanned and outgunned.
School punishes students who try to escape this environment by requiring stacks of forms and permission from multiple staff members for non-approved activities. Students, lacking adult skills, are unable to lobby for and complete these applications.
This creates graduates who, completely lacking knowledge of the adult world, have no idea what they want to do. Upon graduating high school, they lack the ability to function as independent adults. They lack even the most basic skills like email writing, office conversation, and task prioritization.
- Schools further encourage deference to authority through their bullying rules. School rules dictate that when you’re being bullied, you must fetch a teacher. The practice of getting a teacher when you’re being bullied teaches students that they can not handle their own problems, only authorities can. Students who attempt to handle their own problems are not taught how they could have handled it better, but are instead punished as a co-instigator and from that point on treated as a troublemaker.
- Schools continue isolating students after class is out. School does this by promoting school-led activities like sports and clubs and failing to promote non-school-led alternatives. Schools recruit parents to help convince students to enroll by sending home promotional material. At parent-teacher conferences, they encourage parents to enroll students in these activities. Schools sell the idea that ‘ideal’ students are the ones who spend their morning, afternoon, and evening every day in school-led activities. The only way an ‘ideal’ student could be any more isolated from the real world is if their parents enrolled them in boarding school. These students get a brutal reality check when they are thrust into the real world. The term ‘post graduation depression’ has been coined to describe it.
- Schools further isolate students and leave them powerless by failing to teach them communication skills. Specifically, the ability to read, write, and speak well. Schools make it as painful as possible to learn these skills. Schools do not allow students to read, write or speak — unless they are being forced to do these things on a topic of the school’s choosing — in front of an entire room of judgmental peers. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that students learn to hate doing these things.
These students become graduates who fear communication and who entirely lack the ability to do so. What’s more, they’re terrified to even try. 27 million Americans are terrified of public speaking. Graduates can’t write prose to save their life. Graduates do not even know the basic structure of a sentence. What good is having Freedom of Speech when no one knows how to speak?
Part 4: Schools Prevent Students from Even Being Healthy (Physically & Emotionally)
- Schools give elementary school students around an hour of outdoor play time a day. Middle and high school students are not given outdoor time at all. Meanwhile, American prisons guarantee inmates one hour outside a day. Students must attend school for eight of their fourteen waking hours, and complete assigned homework for the other six. It is not a stretch to imagine that some students get outside less than American prisoners. And on top of that, students spend that entire time sitting. We already know how bad sitting inside all day is for adults. Imagine how damaging it is to a growing body. And schools enforce this for students for ten years. Children who are forced to sit all day grow up into adults who do not know how to stay active or enjoy exercise. (This in particular has snowballed into one of the worst health crises America faces today).
- Schools discourage uniqueness and individuality in students. Schools do this by grouping students en masse into homerooms and grades. Here, schools herd them like farm animals. Next, they outnumber the teacher with far, far more students than they can handle. This forces teachers to treat students like homogenous groups. If they don’t, they lose control of the students altogether. (Teachers, to their credit, do the best they can with what they’re given).
This provides a fantastic opening for students to enforce conformity on each other via bullying. Vastly outnumbered by the adults, students are able to bully, gossip about, and otherwise abuse their fellow classmates without getting caught. Even though teachers want to stop these things, there are not enough teachers to do so. The school has rigged the system against them.
- Schools use a special rule to pit students against each other. Using this special rule, schools keep students from asking each other for help and working together to find solutions. Schools encourage students to view each other as the enemy and hide their work from them. The students goal is to find the answer before the other students can. This special rule can be summed up in two words: “no cheating.”
“No cheating” is meant to keep students from copying each other’s work without learning anything. This is easy to do with multiple-choice and memorization work. But the real world is not multiple-choice and memorization. In the real world, there is very rarely a Right or Wrong. In the real world, even the ‘wrong’ answers raise valid objections which must be considered. Therefore, in the real world, there is no such thing as “cheating.” In the real world, when people work together to find solutions, people often find something better than they could on their own. In the real world, when people ask for help, businesses thrive. Even in scientific and academic applications, there is no such thing as cheating — academics are encouraged to collaborate to reach new discoveries together.
These students grow up into graduates who lack the soft skills required in the workplace. They can not collaborate. They lack communication and interpersonal skills. They lack flexibility. Fast Company reports that “hiring managers found soft skills such as communication, leadership, ownership, and teamwork were missing in this new crop of workers.”
- Schools do not want students to do what they love. Schools want students to do what they say students should do. What the students display an affinity for is an afterthought. If a student shows a particular passion for a subject or activity, schools suppress that passion. Schools tell that student to focus on their classwork instead. If the school is a ‘good’ school, the school may send home pamphlets and information for parents to help their students explore their passions, and follow up on this during parent-teacher conferences. If the school is an average school, teachers may merely make a passing comment to a student to ‘try this at home’ and leave it at that.
- Schools do not care if students enjoy their lives. Schools consider “fun” a luxury. Schools teach students that this luxury is something you earn after you have done what you are ‘supposed’ to — in other words, what the school has told you to do. School does not teach, nor even entertain the notion that a student can both be learning productively and having fun.
- Every parent knows each child is different. Yet, schools treat them as if they are all the same. School packs them into rooms and teaches them all at the same time in the same way. Some students learn best by reading, some learn best in the afternoon, some learn best if they take frequent breaks — yet school teaches them all the same way. Teachers are not given the resources to adapt learning to each student, even if they wanted to. If a student acts out or does not perform well, schools apply punishments (bad grades, detentions) until the student conforms.
These children grow up into adults who do not appreciate their own differences. If one child learns best while reading and can not focus on lectures, they grow up into an adult who criticizes themselves for having poor focus. If one child learns best through activities and can not focus on a book, they grow up into an adult who thinks they are stupid for ‘not being able to read well.’
- Childhood, especially middle and high school, are emotionally difficult for everyone. Children inevitably face struggles, like losing friends and discovering who they really are. Schools do not make any accommodations for these challenges. Schools force children to stay in their seat, no matter what is going on with them.
Psychologists recommend that upset people go outside for walks, exercise, relax, or talk to a close friend. Schools force upset students to stay indoors and work. Psychologists recommend upset people spend time doing what they like. Schools force upset students to engage in schoolwork they either find boring or actively dislike. Trapping upset students in this destructive environment is bound to depress even the most resilient students.
These students become graduates who do not have any coping skills to deal with negative emotions. These graduates are vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. This is one of the most serious issues on this list — colleges today face a mental health epidemic that is breaking the back of the mental health community.
- The more intelligent, curious, independent, and creative a student is, the more they struggle in the school environment. The more they struggle, the more they will act out. This is why the most high-potential students often have the most trouble; it is a symptom of a broken system. These high-potential children are either seen as being troublemakers or mentally ill (usually both).
The best thing to do for struggling students is to allow them to engage in meaningful activity, rest, and make sure they are well fed and watered. Schools do not do this. Schools are not equipped to do this, even if they wanted to. Schools are equipped to do one and only one thing — keep students in their seats, memorizing. To this end, schools punish students who act out. They first punish them with worse grades and by restricting their access to pleasurable activities. These punishments make the problem worse, because deprivation of fulfilling and meaningful activities is what led the student to act out in the first place. This very predictable outcome often baffles schools.
Next, schools declare these students ‘mentally ill.’ And indeed, by this point, they might very well be. Schools send these students to psychiatrists, who diagnose the mental illness and prescribe medication and therapy. Psychiatric medication sedates the students and makes them more compliant (and is used despite the staggering amount of damage psychiatric medication does to a child’s neurology). Therapists are often child therapists chosen by the school, and are assigned to continue the work of the school in the therapist’s office.
Better diets, exercise, engaging in meaningful hobbies, and other healthful treatments are not prescribed. This is because doing so would mean the struggling students leave school. If a student who is struggling must leave school to heal, that would mean school was hurting them. And the one thing we can’t do is say that schools might be hurting students… even if they are.
I’d like to close up with a story. This is a story about a teenage student. She recently lost her mother and grandmother. She was placed in foster care. She was moved to a new school. This is a girl who anyone could guess was struggling, even if they never met her. Anyone who knew her story would realize that she was going through a tough time.
One day, she was in class on her phone. The teacher requested that she put her phone away. She didn’t. The teacher called in the resource officer. The resource officer told her to put her phone away or leave. She didn’t. The resource officer proceeded to slam this girl’s head down on her desk, flip her chair, and physically drag her out of the room.
This story is unfortunately true. Psychologist Dr. Kwame Brown wrote a lengthy article about it after it happened, and he said it better than I ever could:
This is… what happens when we pack kids into large groups, and pressurize teachers’ jobs. This child needed people advocating for her, helping her. But everyone is too busy ensuring “compliance” to take the time to understand and work through serious issues.
This was about compliance and ego. Imagine if they had decided to be curious instead.