Four steps to improve education in the USA

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by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

I don’t get it.

A few years ago I remember watching some documentary about the 9/11 conspiracy. They took the exact same set of facts the rest of us had and somehow interpreted them to conclude that the destruction of the World Trade Center was a deliberate act of the US government. A conspiracy designed to throw America into the midst of chaos so some other, more catastrophic, plot could happen.

I don’t buy it.

Other people are convinced that our school system was deliberately and intentionally created and designed to keep people dumb.

I don’t buy that either.

I’ve been reading a lot and watching a lot of videos lately about the “lies, myths, omissions and distortions used to indoctrinate blind patriotism (aka nationalism aka mysticism).”  I listened to Charlotte Thompson Iserbyt talk about how non-profit organizations are “changing the education system from academics to a brainwashing using Pavlovian, Skinnerian, operant conditioning computers and work force training from the globalist economy; the corporate fascist, socialist, communist government that’s coming right in this minute.”

I’ve read Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams and his thoughts about how our school system was designed 150 years ago to produce slave labor.

Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

I’ve also been a school teacher for 21 years and have both a BA and an MA in education.

According to many, the “fact” that schools were created to produce worker bees for the benefit of wealthy land-holders is proof enough that schools ought to be demolished and the antiquated system abolished.

I feel they’re barking up the wrong tree.

I believe our schools were created by people with the best interests of our children and our nation in mind. I believe they are still run by people with the best interests of our children and our nation in mind.

It’s just that my definition of what those best interests are and their definition of what those best interests are differ.

  • They believe holding teachers and students accountable through standardized tests is good. I believe that’s a terrible approach.
  • They believe focusing on “the academics” is the best way to turn things around. I believe we need to focus on critical and creative thinking.
  • They believe that starting early and expecting kids to master skills based on age will encourage those children to excel. I believe early pressure prevents normal development in children which, in turn, leads to long-term consequences.

Who’s right?

I like to believe that most (if not all) non-profit organizations in the USA were created because the founder truly believed in the good he or she could bring about. Charlotte Thompson Iserbyt feels they are brainwashing our kids using Pavlovian, Skinnerian, operant conditioning to create a corporate fascist, socialist, communist government. Who’s right? Is there any way to know?

I think the vast majority of people criticizing the schools today are, in fact, criticizing No Child Left Behind. Our schools were doing a great job in helping kids learn how to learn before NCLB came into being. We were “creating” capable, competent, thinking graduates who were able to think creatively and critically. Unfortunately, NCLB destroyed the best our schools had to offer.

As devastating as No Child Left Behind was on our schools, I still believe it was designed and formulated with the best interest of our kids in mind. They thought they could improve reading by mandating it. They thought they could improve the education of our children by holding teachers accountable for their students’ test scores. We know now that was a dismal failure.

Regardless of which viewpoint you agree with, I think we can all agree that the system is broken. Things are seriously wrong in the school system today.

train tracksMaybe I’m a hopeless optimist, but I believe we can fix this thing. I believe we can get control of this train and get it back on the right track. It’s unfortunate that we’ve got a whole generation of kids who’ve been harmed by NCLB, but it’s not too late to grab this bull by the horns and steer it in the right direction.

Here’s what I think needs to happen in our schools:

Ditch the standardized tests.

standardized testThis is the easiest and fastest way to make change in our schools. Standardized tests are very effective in measuring some things, but not the things we need to be emphasizing in our schools. Think about it – if every child who happens to have been on this planet for a set amount of time is expected to answer the exact same thing on a test, what is that test measuring? Not critical or creative thinking, that’s for sure.

Ultimately, having our kids think creatively and knowing how to learn are the most important things we, as adults in their lives, can teach them. The world they will enter tomorrow will be radically different from what we know today. We can’t prepare them for that world as we don’t even know what they’ll need to know. All we can do is help our children develop the skills they’ll need to learn whatever it is they’ll need to learn. And that means knowing how to think creatively and critically and knowing how to learn.

We can’t measure that on a standardized test. What we can measure on those tests is trivia. We can ask kids what the parts of a flower are or to name an example of a nominative pronoun. We can have them identify the main idea of a passage or to solve a math problem that has exactly one correct answer. But there is no way, on a standardized test, to evaluate critical or creative thinking.

Put the focus on learning how to learn

learnKids need to learn how to learn. They need to learn how to think creatively and critically. They need to be able to take a specific set of instructions and figure out how to create a product to fulfill them. They also need to be able to take a larger idea and break it down into components. They need to deduct and induct and deduce and reason. They need to create their own unique solutions to problems.

Constructivism is the idea that “people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge. To do this, we must ask questions, explore, and assess what we know.”

Constructivism should be the typical manner of teaching in our classrooms. We should encourage students to use active techniques like experiments and real-world problem solving to create more knowledge and then to reflect on and talk about what they are doing. The teacher need to understand her students’ preexisting conceptions, and guide the activity to address them and then build on them.

In short, when we walk into a classroom, we should see kids actively engaged in their learning. They should be thinking and doing and asking. They should be learning how to learn.

Less is more

less is moreIn order to create a school system that will prepare kids for the challenges they’ll face tomorrow, we need to stop cramming facts and figures into their heads. We need to adopt the philosophy that less is more and delve deeper into what we do teach.

The actual content that is taught is irrelevant; it’s the process of learning that matters. It makes no difference if one third grade teacher teaches the phases of the moon and another teaches the parts of a flower. What matters is that we delve deep into that topic and truly explore it. Rather than simply memorizing the words like waxing gibbous or waning crescent, help kids understand how and why that happens.

Rather than simply memorizing that a stamen is a part of a flower, help kids understand that it is the male reproductive organ of a flower and includes the anther and the filament. Consider form and function and how the two are related. Think about what would happen if the stamen was shaped a bit differently or devise another way nature could have accomplished the same thing

Rather than moving on to new topics every week, spend a quarter or semester digging deep, learning about the why and how rather than just the what.

Parents need to parent

parentingOur schools have evolved to be something much greater than they can possibly be. Many parents are all too ready to hand their children over to the schools and expect the schools to parent their children.

It’s parents’ responsibility to teach their children to brush their teeth and eat healthy food and to treat others with respect. It’s in the home that children should be learning good work ethics and how to dress properly and how to say no to drugs. That’s parenting.

Many parents have chosen to take on both teaching and parenting their children and that’s fine. However, too many parenting tasks have been put into the schools because many parents aren’t doing their job. Seeing as how schools have the kids every day, more and more has been crammed into those hours. There is nothing inherently wrong with teaching kids how to avoid becoming a teen mother or how to stop bullying, but there are only so many hours in a school day.

Asking schools to teach kids to read and write and understand mathematical principles and design scientific studies and identify the causes of our wars AND all that other parenting stuff is too much. Parents need to take responsibility for their children and start being parents.

I believe our schools can be wonderful centers of learning. We can help our nation’s kids be the best they can be. We have the tools, we have the knowledge. Now we need the support. And the freedom to teach the way we know will work.

This post is part of a series of articles by various authors about Redefining Education. All week we’ll be exploring the issues with education today and suggesting ideas for improving it.
Why the School System isn’t Educating Your Child (And What To Do About It)

You Can’t Reform an Education System Based on Oppression

Educating Kids Through Teacher/Student Partnerships

Let’s quit arguing about what’s wrong with schools and man-up as parents

Imagine something better than school

Is our education system built on miracle teachers?

How to improve our schools from an unschooler’s perspective

Thinking out loud, outside the box

Learning is the new paradigm of Education

Schools & Jails: What’s the difference?

Education for Today’s Global Economy

Wisdom: Knowledge that has been tempered by experience

How to use parental mentoring as a solution for educational reform


Nancy Sathre-Vogel is a long-time schoolteacher turned homeschooling biker mom. All told, she spent four years cycling the Americas with her children, including a 3-year, 17,000-mile jaunt from Alaska to Argentina. Now she lives in Boise, Idaho where she’s happy as a clam. There’s no telling where she’ll be tomorrow. Nancy is the author of this blog and has written three books:

Twenty Miles per Cookie: 9000 Miles of Kid-Powered Adventures

What Were We Thinking? Bicycling the Back Roads of Asia

Bicycle Touring with Children: A Guide to Getting Started

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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18 Responses to Four steps to improve education in the USA

  1. Sabrina Carlin April 9, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    Great ideas! I’d love to see more depth than “coverage” ( I teach foreign languages from preschool to 12th grade). I’d like to see fewer standards Ed tests and more time to focus on learning as a process ( not a race to the finish).

    • Nancy April 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

      @Sabrina Carlin, For sure. If we get rid of the standardized tests that only test trivia, then we will be able to focus on the things that matter. Why is that so hard for some people to understand?

      • Sabrina Carlin April 9, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

        >, sorry – I meant “standardized tests”. I absolutely do not believe that there is a conspiracy to dumb things down. I do see hovering parents as an issue (those that make excuses for their children’s poor performance in class and blame the teachers) as well as students that feel they have to have an A ( thus causing schools to inflate grades and furthering the dumbing down of the curriculum ). I have students who will nitpick their grade to death and needle me to get the highest score because they have to have a high GPA. Many of them (at the high school level) don’t care about the subject matter and just want an “easy A” and their parents demand it.

        • Nancy April 9, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

          @Sabrina Carlin, And that brings up another problem. Why do parents insist on an A? What does that A mean? Why aren’t parents actively engaged in their children’s education, seeing what they’re learning, knowing what’s happening in school? Too many are too quick to rely on the schools to do it all and as long as the kids bring home A’s they’re happy.

  2. Mary April 9, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    Good article Nancy. I agree the standardized tests have got to go! NCLB is no good. The government (who are not teachers!) needs to back way the heck off of education. I believe the Fed Dept of Education needs to go too.

    I would love to see teachers be able to use their creativity, and just let kids dive in to the things that interest them. My elementary education was FUN. I have friends that are teachers – I am disheartened to hear all the stories from them. One teacher is limited to ONE REAM (500 sheets) of paper for the entire school year for her class of 30 students! She rarely does handouts because she can’t afford to buy a lot of extras. Sad.

    I do somewhat disagree that there isn’t some agenda out there to dumb down our kids. Even if it isn’t on purpose, it is happening. Otherwise community colleges wouldn’t have dozens of remedial class offerings. I have heard that the Masters is the new Bachelor’s and the BS/BA is the new high school diploma. It seems extreme, but it may not be that far off!

    • Nancy April 9, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

      @Mary, I do agree that the academic level in schools has gone down, but not because of some greater agenda to keep people stupid. It’s because parents aren’t parenting. They aren’t supporting their kids so teachers are having to spend their time doing things they shouldn’t have to do. If kids don’t have the support at home, they won’t do well in school.

  3. Justin April 9, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    Good for you! Finally someone at least attempting to offer some solutions! And you nailed it with the parenting thing!

    We can focus on the negatives all day, and in some cases we should, but the reality is the United States is producing some very intelligent and free-thinking youngsters.

    Teachers mean well, and so do school systems. For every news article one reads about some school banning hugging or punishing kids for originality, there are hundreds of schools doing the opposite, but they don’t get any press.

    And where is the parental responsibility in all of this? No one ever mentions that. School’s can’t do anything without the investment of the parents. And by “investment” I mean being their every day! Helping, supporting, working with the school and kids daily. There are many sides to this issue, this is not just a one-way street. You don’t see too many kids falling behind educationally when their parents are really invested, regardless of what school they attend. It’s going to be tough for a homeschooled or unschooled child to succeed without parental support and investment, same goes for publicly educated children. Just because your kids go to school, does mean parents don’t have to educate.

    So many factors here, but I have to say, to pool the whole system into one big negative heap is just wrong. What good can come of that? There are way more schools and teachers doing good than there are doing harm. Way more! Give people some credit. Most people care. Call it optimism Nancy, but I call it realism. Kids are learning. Could we do better? Yes, but kids are learning. There are many wonderful public and private schools out there.

    We should try and fix systems with ideas and support instead of saying how much everything sucks and how stupid all these people are for dedicating their lives to trying to help people youngsters learn in what is a very complicated, crowded, and political world.

    Much thanks for this Nancy!

    • Nancy April 9, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

      @Justin, Thanks Justin. My husband and I were talking about the parental involvement thing yesterday. We both agree that we, as teachers, could tell within the first week of the school year which kids had supportive parents and which ones were on their own. You can’t imagine how obvious it was!

      I could tell you that very first week of school which kids would do well in my class and which wouldn’t – it went right along with the parental involvement. There were a few exceptions where kids knew what they wanted and were willing to make it happen in spite of their parents, but very few.

      If parents are actively involved in their children’s education – regardless of whether it’s homeschool, private school, or public school, the kids do fine.

      • Justin April 10, 2012 at 3:01 am #

        @Nancy, I can imagine – I do it every day. I have spent my life working within private institutions to help struggling kids within public schools. I totally get it!

        My daughter’s school is down the street and in a Boston Public School. Parental involvement is through the roof. My wife teaches Japanese to 1st graders at after school. Funds are raised through almost weekly charity drives and events that are parent sponsored. It works if people get involved.

        I know it doesn’t work for all schools. I agree with you on testing. But the idea that we are trying to keep kids dumb is just wrong. It’s wrong. It makes no sense. The idea that people are sitting in a room saying, “Let’s create kids that are really stupid so they commit crimes and go to jail and can’t take care of themselves” is just silly.

        People are missing the biggest part of this issue here. Not everyone who has kids is a good parent. Some people do horrible, terrible things that effect kids ability to learn for life. Trauma changes a brain. Literally changes it. Tough to teach a kid with uninterested parents and a damaged brain. So what does a school do in these cases? Do people understand how many foster care kids are in schools? How many mentally ill kids are in schools? Is it a public schools job to care and educate these children on every level when parents aren’t around? What is a public schools job?

        I guarantee to you that if all parents had the ability to be invested our educations system would look like gold, even with it’s flaws.

        And what about before we had public education? How well was everyone doing then? Our ability to read and write and the rest was far less than before public education came along.

        Look, I am not 100% public education. I am taking my kids to travel as well, but for the sake of travel, not because I am running away. We just need to be more real about this parent involvement thing. People need to be involved. I’ve seen the richest districts on earth have horrible students and parents who run off to Paris and leave the kids with $2,000 for the weekend. This is why kids don’t learn. All the education and resources in the world will not help a kid with an absent parent.

        • Nancy April 10, 2012 at 9:59 am #

          @Justin, Amen Justin! We left the schools to homeschool not because we were unhappy with what was happening in school – our kids loved school and were learning a lot and were challenged and stimulated and all that. We left because we wanted a travel lifestyle and being tied to school 9 months per year didn’t fit that lifestyle. In other words, we didn’t run FROM school, we ran TO a different lifestyle.

          There is no question that our schools can work – and if we got rid of NCLB and allowed teachers to teach again – then they’ll be good for the vast majority of the population. There will still be kids that won’t fit and I’m glad we have the homeschool option for those kids.

          You nailed it here: I guarantee to you that if all parents had the ability to be invested our educations system would look like gold, even with it’s flaws.

  4. Jess with2kidsintow April 9, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    Luckily, there are a few options emerging out there now on the public schooling scene such as Montessori and International Baccalaureate. The IB missions statement is as follows: ‘The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment. These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.’

    Up until recently, IB was only generally offered at International Schools, but now it seems to be going into the public school system too. We are fortunate enough to have a public primary school which is 5km from where we live running an accredited IB PYP and have just enrolled our youngest in kindergarten there this year.

    So far for us, this seems to be the best solution to combining a ‘mainstream’ school system with our own values and ideals. The school seems determined to produce ‘life-long learners’ and ‘global citizens’.

    • Nancy April 9, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

      @Jess with2kidsintow, there are a LOT of options! I always say to check out all the options before making decisions. Here in Boise we have a world-class math and science program for advanced kids that we have opted to enroll our kids in. It’s an amazing program that, elsewhere, we would pay HUGE bucks for – but here we had a $5 fee for the year.

      There are many options out there – it’s all about searching around and finding out what you can find.

  5. Mary April 10, 2012 at 1:54 am #

    Great ideas Nancy! It is hard to call out the parenting component but you are right. Teaching good tooth brushing is just plain silly. It is a time suck! Creativity is most important and I agree that NCLB has been a disaster.

    I do disagree though on 2 fronts. For 1, I definitely feel that there is an agenda to keeping us all less creative. Making us good worker bees benefits too many people for it not to make sense. These people running the government and hence our education system are too smart to not have know what NCLB would mean, in my opinion.

    I also feel that, although I see where you are going with the needing to “learn how to learn” thing, I also feel that children inherently know how to learn, be creative, ask questions, etc. So it isn’t so much that they need to be taught to learn but rather they need the freedom and support to keep up the great work of asking questions and looking outside of the box! Of course the powers that be would prefer the general public NOT question things:)

    • Nancy April 10, 2012 at 9:56 am #

      @Mary, This goes hand in hand with the parent thing: I also feel that children inherently know how to learn, be creative, ask questions, etc.

      Yes, children coming from loving, caring parents who support their children will learn those skills. That’s why I always say that it doesn’t matter where a child with actively involved parents gets their education – homeschool, private school, public school – they will be fine no matter what.

      As I see it, schools simply enhance what parents teach their kids – and unfortunately, too many parents aren’t doing much of anything so there isn’t much to enhance.

      If parents are giving their children the message that it’s the “learning” that matters, then kids will learn. Even if those kids are unschooled. The problem is that not all parents are as loving and involved as you are. It’s hard to see that if the only families you are around are all as loving as yours. Walk into a school and get to know just ONE class of kids – you’ll see what I’m saying real quick.

  6. jen April 10, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    I love this article and agree with most of it but am getting caught up with the parental involvement comments from Justin and Nancy. If our kids are forced to learn because they are a certain age and evaluated based on standarized tests then there will be kids that fall behind not because their parents are uninvolved but because the system is failing them. I have a 1st grader that is very visual, excelling at advanced math and spacial tasks but gets stuck on some basic things that label him as behind in some areas. He’s just not interested in those things (or he will get them when his brain is ready). The drill and kill does not work with him. But it doesn’t matter to them because he is nearing the end of 1st grade and he can’t do x so he is behind. It’s frustrating. Also thought you might find this interesting about the company I work for. Even the biggest corporations are rewarding the misfits if they are innovative, creative and producing. Doesn’t matter what piece of paper they have or grades they got. I posted this on my FB page today….
    IBM just awarded seven new Fellows, the company’s highest technical distinction. Only about 200 people have received this distinction in the history of IBM. BUT what is fascinating to see is that one of them is a high school drop out that lived out of his car when his first company went bankrupt. Conceding that his formal education was “insignificant and unremarkable,” Jeff is excited to be joining the exalted ranks of IBM’s top technical minds. Another is a world-class mathematician and was hired by IBM with no background in Computer Science. “I was fascinated by the idea of proving things. Here was a subject where you didn’t just memorize, you had to prove your logic. That really excited me.”

    • Nancy April 10, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

      @jen, ===If our kids are forced to learn because they are a certain age and evaluated based on standarized tests then there will be kids that fall behind not because their parents are uninvolved but because the system is failing them.===

      Absolutely true! That is incredibly bang on. There WILL be kids who are “behind” no matter how involved parents are. That’s exactly why those idiotic standardized tests are so harmful. With those tests, we tell kids and parents that they aren’t “up to snuff” and need to “work harder” and all that bulpucky.

      As you said, kids are human beings and we can’t mandate them like we can a machine. If we look at them like creative little beings, get rid of the testing, and create meaningful creative projects in the schools, then kids like your son won’t be made to feel inadequate and whatever.

      Drill and kill doesn’t work with ANYBODY! What’s frustrating is that as educators, we know that. When NCLB came around and teachers knew what it would be we were adamantly opposed to it for the exact reasons you’ve just said. Unfortunately, too many parents were putting the blame on teachers and said, “If we could just hold the teachers accountable, things will change.” Hello??? Kids are kids. Human beings. They’re unpredictable and at some point we have to rely on human judgement.

      • jen April 10, 2012 at 4:01 pm #


        Exactly. His teachers are helping and supportive but they have to base everything on the tests and standards. I feel like a broken record at conferences. When they say he is still behind in the reading test. I say “Is he progressing, is he happy, he is enjoying/comprehending the books you give him.” The answers are yes…but the test say….

        • Nancy April 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

          @jen, Ignore the tests. Tell him to ignore the tests. He will have no choice but to take them but let him know it doesn’t matter. The tests are absurd and I am quite confident they will be eliminated in the next few years.

          If he’s reading and is happy, then that’s all that matters.

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