How would you reform education in the US?

Sometimes I wish that when it comes to the institution of education in the US, we could just wipe the slate clean. I know that’s impossible, and that you have to work with the existing infrastructure and culture to make gradual progress. But if I could start from scratch and design a new educational system, these are some of the things I’d do:

  1. Raise teacher pay. I’m sure everyone here has had both wonderful and shitty teachers. One of the ways to reduce the number of terrible teachers isn’t to evaluate their performance of those of their students…but to actually pay them what they’re worth. Teachers are training our entire population how to think, yet they often have to work extra jobs just to pay the bills. I know too many people who were passionate about teaching and would have been wonderful teachers, but they went into other fields because they didn’t want to get paid diddly squat. We need to make the job more inviting to the best and the brightest by making it competitively priced.
  2. Less standardized testing. Standardized testing is basically bullshit. It doesn’t accurately measure intelligence or your likelihood of succeeding in college or your career. The only thing you can glean from looking at someone’s scores is their socio-economic status. Kids from rich areas with supportive families do much better than kids living in the ghetto with families who can’t even feed them. Hence why evaluating teachers based on their students is ridiculous. It discourages teachers from working in schools that need good teachers the most, and penalizes teachers who happen to get assigned lower level classes instead of the brightest honors students.
  3. Fail more people. Our country has become so obsessed with crap like “No Child Left Behind” and statistics that it’s forgotten the main point of education: To learn. Instead schools are constantly lowering their standards in order to graduate more students, lest they lose government funding. A high school diploma used to mean something. Now a college diploma doesn’t even assure you’ll get a job. Hell, people with biology PhDs have  a terribly bleak job market. We need to make these things mean something again. If you can’t read past an 8th grade level and can’t do basic algebra, then you should have to repeat the 8th grade.
  4. Promote vocational training. If you want to drop out of high school at age 16 because you know you’re going to be a chef or mechanic, then more power to you. We need to remove the stigma from people who have interests and passion and skill that’s not best used on memorizing Shakespeare (while obviously keeping the Shakespeare for those who want it). Lower the social pressure that says you need to go to college in order to be successful…since it’s simply not true.
  5. Teach how to think, not just memorizing facts. We have people who are college graduates without the slightest grasp of logic or the scientific method. People who can regurgitate the dates that wars occurred but not the politics behind why they occurred. People who can blindly follow instructions but who freeze up when encouraged to be creative or come up with their own plan. Science classes should be more about the process, and art classes should be embraced to foster creativity.
I’m sure I could come up with a million more improvements, but those are the ones that pop into my head first. How would you reform education?

This is post 21 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.


  1. Stacy says

    Number 5, number 5, number 5.

    Not just in science class. Start teaching critical thinking in grade school. Basics of argumentation, fallacies, and cognitive biases.

  2. shouldbeworking says

    Take control of the curriculum and standards away from party politics and put it in the hands of professional teachers.

    Curriculum and standards must be developed after consultation with post-secondary institutes (not just universities)and industry. What do they expect from high school graduates?

    Standardized curriculum and standards within a state. Why should a county decide that their students will learn different material than those across some line on a map?

  3. anatman says

    get rid of the insane local property tax model of funding education. it is unconscionable that an impoverished inner city dweller gets a much worse education than an affluent suburban kid. what could be better designed to perpetuate poverty and privilege?

    likewise, get rid of local school boards. curriculum and school policies should not be set by people who know absolutely nothing about subject matter, pedagogy, youth psychology, or the other things needed to competently plan a school system. would you let random idiots design the interstate highway system?

    get rid of the antiquated concept of allowing kids to quit school. they aren’t needed to bring in the crops any more, people. you don’t let kids drink, why let them condemn themselves to ignorance and unemployment? if a kid has a family situation where the kid “has to support his family”, that is what a properly designed social services system with the phony republican ‘work ethic’ excised is for.

    and you could do a lot worse than to put the king in charge.

  4. Edward Clint says

    >4. Promote vocational training.

    Yes, this. In fact, I would go farther. Instead of merely de-stigmatizing dropping out and going to trade school, integrate trade paths into public high school as is already done in Germany and elsewhere.

    Americans have too much of a good thing- education. The idea that everyone must have a college education or else they’re a failure in life is harmful and wrong.

  5. Atticus_of_Amber says

    Before the government introduced free tertiary education in Australia in about 1975 (and long before it was replaced with a special tax in about 1985), Australia had a system of education scholarships that required you to “pay off” your university fees by working as a school teacher for a number of years after you graduated from college. You could get out of the obligation by paying the fees (or an employer could buy you out if it wanted you straight out of college) but otherwise you had to teach in school for a few years at the start of your career.

    This had a couple of really good effects.

    First, the beneficiaries of this scheme tended to be working class kids (middle class kids had parents who paid their fees) and these kids then went back into working class schools to teach – instant role models!

    Second, many kids who had planned to just do their three or four years of teaching and then move on to their intended career found they really liked teaching and stayed. The result was a quite a few really smart people (particularly, it has to be admitted, women who like the “Mum-friendly” aspects of teaching) stayed on as teachers for life, to the benefit of many future students.

    We don’t have that system anymore. What we have in Oz is actually fairer – you are charged fees but you don’t have to pay them back until your income goes above average weekly earnings and then its just an extra few percentage points on your income tax bill until you’ve paid it off. But it seems to me that something like this system could work in the US as a way of killing two birds with one stone.

  6. ischemgeek says

    I don’t live in the US, but up north: Provide a guaranteed minimum standard of education across the country. It’s not at all cool that when I was a kid, I had no access to special ed if I needed it or the enriched programs I would have loved to be in because I went to a poor school. It’s not at all cool that some kids in my high school couldn’t get into programs they wanted to go to because they were stuck in a rural community.

    The high school you go to should not dictate your access to post-secondary education.

  7. Atticus_of_Amber says

    On the critical thinking point, I think we should think about what we want students to know and be able to do when they graduate from high school and then design a curriculum around that.

    So, what *skills* do we want graduates to have?

    1. Maths skills: Teach kids as much maths as they can cope with – with a particualr empahsis on statistics (and statistical fallacoes) and on the maths of personal finance (Exam question: Here are two credit card agreements, which one is screwing you the most?)

    2. Reasoning skills: Teach logic, the fallacies (use current TV adds as examples), etc. A high school graduate should be able to parse a speech into a set of syllogisms and spot a fallacy at fifty meters.

    3. Writing/rhetoric: Teach how to write a job application letter, a resume, a letter/email of complaint to a government department, a letter/email to your congressman, an article for a newspaper, a report to your boss, an essay for a book, an academic article. Teach how to participate in a professional meeting, give a speech at a town hall meeting, conduct a job interview (from both sides), teach a class, participate in a formal debate.

    4. Research: Teach students how to use a library and online research databases. Teach them how to evaluate teh results of a google search to sift the gold from the crap. Give them a bunch of claims and make them go research which ones are true and which are false.

    5. Computer skills: Teach them how to use a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database, an search engine and browser. Given them som basic idea of how code works.

    A lot of the above can be taught using many traditional knowledge subjects as the examples – history, civics, even sciecne. As such, these can be options depending on the student’s interests (and the school’s resources). Some of the above skills might actually be compulsory subjects in themselves (maths is the obvious example, but maybe reasoning/writing/rhetoric could be a compulsory core subject of equal status to maths) but most skills would be taught as part of other subjects.

    But while a lot of factual knowledge subjects are just useful ways to teach the above skills, there are some areas of knowledge that we want kids to have. Such as:

    (a) Science: Physics, chemistry, biology. The basic theories that explain the world around us.

    (b) Civics: How government and the law works. What their rights are. How to vote, etc.

    (c) History: Where we came from. How teh hell we go here.

    (d) Finance: This is Elizabeth Warren’s thing. Poor people get screwed as much because they don’t udnerstand how the system works as because they are poor per se. Compound interest, credit cards, mortgages, the stock market, retirement planning, budgeting, etc – people need to know this to survive.

    (e) Literature: The great stories that have shaped our culture.

    And on top of this you need the “rounding” subjects – art (including drama) and physicial education (including learning how to swim, hike, camp, and self-defence).

    Hopelessly idealistic, I’m sure, but that’s what I’d do.

  8. Charles says

    Higher education would be funded by institutions using the education they giver to their students to purchase shares in their student’s earnings after they finish school. A university that fails to prepare students for their careers would enter a death spiral of decreasing enrollment and funding until it would no longer be able to attract enough students to operate. Students that wouldn’t benefit from a higher education would not choose to go to college because the college would demand a high percentage of future income since it expects that income to be low.

    For very obvious reasons, someone below the age of eighteen should not be able to sell future earnings rights (“hey kid, sign this paper and I’ll give you two whole dollars”) and cannot sell future earnings (“But your honor, Bobby Simpson signed right here when he was eight agreeing to pay me 70% of his future wages. Now that Bobby’s earning those wages and won’t pay up, I demand you start garnishing them!”). Fortunately, derivatives exist to get around this problem. When a child is about to start schooling, the child’s education agent will invest in that child’s future by committing to a child anonymously and paying the bank a bunch of money. The bank will then match a percent of the child’s wages in the future to the investor but it won’t know who that child is in order to prevent perverse incentives. It may ask for non-identifying information about the child such as parent’s income and require as a condition of the agreement that wages given by family members not count for matching. The agent then shares the child’s success in life, and would gladly fund the child’s education as long as the expected effectiveness of said education would be enough to cover tuition. The agent can bail out on the child by selling that derivative to another agent, but all agents would have vested interests in ensuring that the child has as best an education as possible.

    When these incentive structures are in place, accountability at all levels is possible, only those who will be able to do something with their education will be able to afford it, and people and schools are rewarded based on real performance (and agents have incentives to find the best ways to measure performance).

    Of course, I just thought of this, so it’s likely that there are perverse incentives somewhere, and it may very well completely fail criterion #5. I don’t know.

  9. Nichole says

    Disclaimer: I was homeschooled from 2nd grade through senior year, and I’m now going to college studying music. So my view of education is heavily influenced by these experiences.

    I think everything you said is spot on. I have a few additions, however:

    Restructure high schools so they’re a bit more like a college/junior college. I have friends who spent their high school years not being allowed to take classes they were actually interested in because they didn’t get control over their own schedule. For that matter, in my state (California) you’re legally allowed to take a variation of the exit exam your sophomore year, and then be done after just two years of high school. Some people use this as a way to start junior college early. But the public schools don’t tell you this is an option, because if they lose students they lose funding.

    The other problem I see is the concept of “extracurricular.” This is probably the musician in me speaking, but I am sick to death of the idea that the arts are “extra.” Chemistry isn’t more important than choir, algebra isn’t more important than painting, and English isn’t more important than drama. Which is not to say I don’t like the idea of a well-rounded education–I think studying subjects which aren’t your primary interest is a good idea. But some sort of hierarchy where certain subjects are deemed more important than others is absurd.

    I guess that previous paragraph kind of fits in with your point #4–I think promoting vocational training is a really good idea, but I also think we need to go beyond that. We can’t just promote vocational training as “another option!”…it needs to be an equally valid option, which is viewed with as much respect and support as the option of going to college.

    And of course, more resources for alternative education programs (like my homeschool program, which was part of the public school system). But that’s an entirely separate rant…

  10. Hope says

    Education should be evidence based. We know a lot more than we used to about how people learn and retain information. Many teachers even know this information. But schools are not run based on this information, instead the focus is on crowd management. It doesn’t matter that the brain functions best when we are well hydrated and have opportunities to move frequently. It doesn’t matter that the information we retain the longest is that which is pursued for a purpose, not a test. Schools are not designed for how we learn. Which is one of the reasons that my kids don’t go to school despite the fact that I am a teacher.

  11. lorimakesquilts says

    I think mastery before moving on in a particular subject is critical. Age cohorts and the stigma of being left behind hinder full understanding of all areas of learning. I think we have the technology and educational professionals have the expertise to teach everyone up to their full potential if we’d just give them the authority and resources to do it.

  12. aurophobia says

    Change how schools are funded. Instead of having funding based on local property values, make funding equal so that the quality of public education isn’t based on where your parents can afford to give.

  13. merryoldlandofoz says

    Triple (at least) funding. Fund on a needs basis- a poor inner city school should get more money than a rich suburban one, because there are so many disadvantages for those kids. Reduce class sizes- I’ve read research that mentions having 50 kids in a class. For real? In anything but an honours class, every extra person after 20 has an impact. He’ll, in my level 3 class, I feel like I don’t have enough time to give the 10 of them. The maximum in Australia is 30, and all of us agree that’s too much. The US needs to stop wasting money on tests, and start using it in the classroom.

  14. ohioobserver says

    I teach high school. I teach chemistry and physics now, and in the past I’ve taught biology as well. All your suggestions are valid, and actually constitute important policy changes that would improve the quality of our workforce drastically. I have a 6th suggestion to add, and it comes in the wake of your entries about your research below:

    High school science courses would benefit hugely by having more contact with working scientists who can inform and inspire young students about what science actually does, what kind of life a scientist leads, what the attractions are, and what’s going on RIGHT NOW at the cutting edge of a discipline. Yes, such information is complex and requires some foundation, but with care and preparation students can understand it. I’ve had a couple of friends come to my classes and explain their research, to be received with much interest (I used to be in research myself and still have a few contacts).

    So how many colleagues can you get to contact local high schools, make themselves available once or twice a year, to reach kids about the real world of science? Not every teacher has working experience, and this kind of presentation would be invaluable.

  15. Gilles Vanwalleghem says

    Jen, be careful with point 3. As a teacher’s son and all around skeptic, making people do a class again is the worst idea (there is tons of research on that point).

    When someone fails a class, it doesn’t help him if he has to take it again (I know it is counter-intuitive). The best solution is to implement a personnalised follow up of the student to adress his/her shortcomings. Of course, that implies more teachers to properly follow up each student with problems.

    The way it is now, with teachers focusing on the best and brightest, is the worst-case scenario from a pedagogy point of view.

  16. rhennthyl says

    In the opinion of a recent HS grad…

    0. Pay teachers more. For all the crap they have to put up with, they don’t deserve the crappy pay, and the middle finger from society.

    1. A required “Real Life Preparation” class. I’m not sure if I’m an outlier or not, but a LOT of life skills (pretty much… anything job/money related) are simply not taught in school. Maybe they are as electives, but requiring it would help a lot, imo.

    2. Less focus on academics, and more focus on choice. This would fall under the vocational training aspects. Obviously, you should be familiar with applicable mathmatics (REAL statistics and algebra), the scientific method, critical thinking, financial education, communication, etc. In my opinion, these subjects ARE more important than, say, choir, because they teach skills that you will need, regardless of career path. However, if a person wants to be, say, a chef or a musician, then they shouldn’t need to take algebra and geometry and trig and pre-calc. The problem is that schools focus TOO much on critical subjects, which means the student is less prepared with regards to their vocational training. If you want to have 3 hours of art classes at school once the critical subjects are knocked out, more power to you.

    3. Get rid of standardized testing. It’s stupid. It doesn’t matter. And ultimately, the fact that you got a 25 on your ACT or whatever doesn’t matter past applying to college. Eliminate any and all “standardized testing”. If a student feels comfortable enough to pass up on a subject, make them take a “final” test for Pass/Fail credit. If they fail, they have to take the class. If they pass, they aren’t required to take the class.

    4. Create a standardized, federal curriculum, created by actual professionals. A school in Providence, RI teaches things a lot differently than a school in Atlanta, GA. Standardizing the curriculum requirements at the federal level means more than it ever can at the local level. It will also remove the need for those stupid standardized tests.

    5. Stop penalizing schools for performing poorly. It’s a domino effect. The more inner city schools that are closed means that the rest have to provide for the former students. It results in a death spiral that ultimately screws the poor and serves the rich.

    6. Get rid of summer vacation. After the one month mark, it’s just boring. Instead, year round schooling with two week vacations spread out evenly over the year, rather than clumped together in summer.

  17. says

    The article is spot on, although I am hesitant to embrace raising teacher pay without qualification; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers make an average of $53,000 per year, significantly higher than the national average of $33,000 for all occupations. Obviously, there is great variation from state to state, but one example comes to mind that we should not rely on teacher pay as a cure-all for education: starting pay for teachers in Houston, Texas is around $45,000, and yet high schools there have some of the worst results, with some struggling to keep their graduation rate above 50%.

    But the big one that strikes me is increasing the vocational training available to students. Students tend to be more highly invested when they feel the classes they are taking are directly related to their interests; I can’t help but feel that allowing students to begin developing a vocational plan (all students, regardless if they want to be a mechanic, a surgeon, or a fashion designer) with specific classes to help them reach their goals will fill that niche. This, of course, will require a substantial change in cultural mindsets about vocational education and state-wide curricula…

  18. says

    The whole standardized-test-hating meme needs to die. We can’t improve teaching if we can’t measure it. If the tests aren’t good enough, improve them. Every kind of manufacture in which there aren’t objective benchmarks has stagnant quality — e.g. wine, food, audio equipment. I’d expect the same of education unless there are good ways of measuring it. Education can’t be evidence-based they eschew collecting evidence.

  19. says

    Also, here are citations to show that standardized tests are not, in fact, useless:

    If a school district is great, it automatically gets high scores on standardized tests without needing to provide any specific preparation for it beyond a couple hours explaining basic test taking skills (process of deductive elimination in multiple choice and filling in the whole bubble are the 20% of it that provide 80% of the benefit).

  20. says

    Vocational training is a great substitute for college. Both should be 90% subsidized by the government. But I don’t believe in cutting high school short for it.

    Nobody should be allowed to drop out of high school before 18, or to take less than 3 years math, 4 years science, 4 years english, 4 years social studies, and 4 years PE, 2 years Art, 1 semester economics, and 1 semester philosophy in high school. This curriculum is “college prep”, but it’s not *for* college prep. It’s basic training to make a well rounded citizen rather than a Santorum. Science, English and Social studies should be required in every year of K-12. Math should be required to the extent that is necessary for teaching science, personal finance, and economics, and there should definitely be some exposure to proofs and formal logic.

  21. Tim says

    I think the prevalence of belief in things like homeopathy etc is in part down to the way science is taught. In school we’re generally taught science as a list of interesting things that are true, but now why they’re true or how they were discovered.
    Then when we get out of school and someone says did you know that something diluted to 30C can still make you better or that the positions of the planets can predict your personality, we don’t necessarily have the wherewithal to discriminate those from the facts that are true.

  22. says

    I know this is an old post but jesus- are you fucking kidding me? You can mandate staying in high school the second that the economic inequality that drives people out of it (so they can work early) is gone, because otherwise all you are doing is criminalizing an vulnerable population.

    I am also guessing that you know very few people who actually dropped out of high school. There are a variety of reasons for doing so that you seem to be missing here, along with a variety of types of people who opt not to subject themselves to the abuses of schooling. High school is far from the only way to become educated or well rounded, and there is little evidence that mandatory courses of specific sorts are the best way to acheive such a goal. In fact, I would go as far as to say that forcing people to learn things makes them view learning as a chore instead of a joy (that is if you accept that people forced to pass tests are really gaining an understanding of the material in the first place). A view like yours says that people who know certain topics by rote are better off than people with a genuine passion for learning, and it is simply not true. There are shifts in society that cannot be easily anticipated or incorporated into public schooling (like the integration of computers into damn near every part of life). A person who hates to learn new things, who knows things because they were forced to will not thrive when faced with new challenges.

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