Why the School System Isn’t Educating Your Children (And What to Do About It)

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by Rachel Denning

The Industrial Age changed the world forever. Today, we’re surrounded by the effects of it, which to us seem ‘normal’ and permanent. But the world wasn’t always like it is now.

In only a few generations, the world has moved from an agrarian, disconnected society, to a corporatized, centralized world community. Because of the Industrial Age, we have factories that produce things in mass (think packaged food and computers). We have cars, and highways connecting city to city. We have infrastructure like sewer systems and communication.

We also have the school system – something that didn’t exist a hundred and fifty years ago – at least not in the form we know it today. The largest educational shift in the history of the world occurred with the advent of the Industrial Age.

old classroom with machineryA hundred and fifty years ago, the majority of the population farmed or learned a trade, and any ‘schoolin’ they needed to do their job better, they learned from a parent or a mentor.

A small minority of the population went to academy to study, for the sake of studying. They philosophized and analyzed and scrutinized, in an effort to understand how the world works. They loved learning, and studied what they were passionate about.

But then came factories, and mass production, and the need for literate, compliant workers to fill the job of doing repetitive tasks. But where could employers find employees like that to work on their assembly lines?

Enter the school system, modeled after the factories themselves, with bells and lines and segregated subjects and grade levels and testing and rewards and punishments – a place where future workers would get a head start in ‘doing what they’re told.’

In essence, the large-scale government school system we have in place today wasn’t invented with a goal to educate kids or to create scholars. It was created to train kids to work well within the system, so that they would become compliant adults who could follow orders at the factory.

Now, the majority of the population could attend school to learn reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, (as well as how to follow directions and comply with authority) so that they would be employable as factory workers. The remaining minority still learned from academies for the sake of learning.

Along the way, well-meaning people decided that, since they were teaching stuff anyway, they should teach stuff that matters. Let’s add history and science and lots of other subjects. Lets give them the dates and figures and facts, so those who attend will know something about the world.

Then other well-meaning individuals decided that we needed some way to measure if all the effort that was being made to teach facts and figures was actually working – now enters the testing and grading system and *wah lah* – you have today’s current school system.

The problem with public school isn’t necessarily what is being taught, or who is teaching it. The problem stems with why and how it’s being taught.

It’s like the old adage, “Which came first…?” In the case of our schools, it was the factories that came first, not the desire to give a real education to the public.

The questions asked were not “How can we create a system that will help the general populace to become scholars and leaders, in order to produce a generation of creative, innovative pioneers who will lead-out and change the world?”

Instead it was, “How can we create a generation of compliant, obedient, literate workers who can fill these factory jobs?”

“How do children learn best? How can we best develop their full potential?” was another question not asked.

Instead, “How can we teach them to follow orders and give them the (job) skills they need to make good (replaceable) employees?”

Classroom from 1850sAlso at it’s base is the faulty assumption that the mind of every individual functions the same everywhere, at every age, and can therefore be passed through the same machine and produce the same, expected, calculated results

The result is not real learning or personal enlightenment, but a system that rewards us for conforming to the basic requirements.

The entire foundation of the system is wrong. As a result, it doesn’t matter how good the teachers are, or how nice the school is, or how great the curriculum might be.

When you’re dealing with faulty foundations, it’s like trying to drive a train on a track that’s derailed. No matter how good the train might be, it’s still headed for disaster.

It’s time for some reformation.

First, Start by Defining Education

What’s really happening at our schools is forced regurgitation. Children comply because they are taught to comply – to pass the test, to get the grade, to follow the orders. But they aren’t really being ‘educated.’

Opening up a child’s head and pouring in information isn’t education. Learning to read, do math, and to memorize dates and facts and figures isn’t education.

But we can’t really decide if the current school system is educating our children, until we have a clear understanding of what education is.

What is education??

Is education the system of delivering facts and figures? Is it being ‘literate’? Reading at ‘grade level’? Is it a method of teaching; having a certain amount of knowledge by a certain age; earning the right grades; getting good test scores; having ‘good’ teachers; going to the right institutions or receiving the right accreditations or degrees?

Too many in society today equate ‘education’ with ‘graduation’ from some learning institution. Yet, education does not come from graduation, and graduation does not guarantee that one has an education.

Some say that the aim of education is to prepare our children for the ‘real world’, meaning the civilization in which we live, so that they can fit themselves into society and live and prosper according to how it is established.

As important as that aim is, I would say that education is even more than that.

True education is a living, breathing evocation of the powers of the mind and spirit of each individual. It’s the development of character, the unfolding of unique gifts and the enlargement of talents and passions.

Real education nurtures a love of learning, and encourages the natural inclinations of each individual – whether that be science, art, math, language, social studies, history or none of these – so that each child can become an adult who knows who they are, what they’re good at, and what contribution they can make to the world.

Education isn’t about the information as much as it is about the individual.

Education’s focus shouldn’t be about determining the details that need to be transmitted to the masses, but instead how can we make the masses come alive? How can we inspire them to want to learn, to want to study for the pure joy of it? How can we encourage them to develop their full potential and become valuable contributors to the community as a whole?

Perhaps about now you’re thinking that this is a lofty definition of what an education should be. Maybe you’re feeling hesitant about taking dramatic action. But that is exactly why we still have the system we do. That is why we are stuck, with kids who graduate with a hate of learning, bucket loads of school debt, and without the basic skills to get a good job in today’s economy.

Today we stand on the brink of a huge cultural transformation. The world is progressing at a faster rate than ever in the history of our planet. The economy is changing and becoming more globalized. Everything we have known will not remain the same.

As a result, the good ‘jobs’ won’t be those that require obedient cogs who follow directions (exactly what the school system is currently training for). Those jobs are being outsourced to other countries where labor is extremely cheap.

Instead, the good ‘jobs’ will be offered by employers who are looking for trendsetters, rule-breakers, thought leaders and creative individuals who follow their imagination. Or, they won’t be ‘jobs’ at all, but mini-businesses started by these types of individuals.

The current system is better than nothing. It is at least teaching basic literacy skills.

But is that what we want for the future, or more specifically, for our children?

Do we want our kids to be only employable for the jobs that are getting cheaper and more ‘dumbed-down’?

Or do we want them to become the innovators, the ‘linchpins’, the thought leaders, the leaders and statesmen of society?

If we want the latter for our kids, then it’s time that we take matters into our own hands and do something about it, because the current systems are failing in these regards.

As parents, teachers and educators, we will determine society’s future because we hold the education of the next generation in our hands.

Over the coming week, a series of posts will be shared with a variety of ideas on reforming education. Stay tuned!

4 Steps to Improve Education in the USA

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

This post was written by Rachel Denning as part of a week-long series about redefining education. Rachel is currently traveling to Argentina in a veggie-powered truck with her husband and five children. You can follow her at Discover. Share. Inspire.

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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9 Responses to Why the School System Isn’t Educating Your Children (And What to Do About It)

  1. Jenn Miller April 9, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    Love it! Great historical overview of where we were and how we got here. Nice job Rachel!

  2. Mary April 9, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    Great job on this. I whole heartedly agree with everything you’ve said!

  3. MaryAnn April 9, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    Rachel, great job. I agree with everything you said. I loved school because I had a passion for learning and teachers who were real educators. I have grand-children in public schools who can’t write or spell and couldn’t find the USA on a map let alone other countries (is geography taught anymore?). Businesses know that public schools are falling short. I had a great career right out of HS. To have that career today would require a minimum of a BA with Master’s degree preferred and the student loan debt that goes with it. My granddaughter will be in her 40’s before her student loans are paid off. What kind of life will she have? And will all this “schooling” (note I did not say education) really pay off?

  4. Greenman April 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    As you probably know, Boise High is one of the best high schools in the country for preparing kids to go on to college and beyond. The culture starts at home and in grade school. At Washington the volunteer to teacher ratio average 1.25 volunteers per teacher. Mrs. Toothman volunteered at Washington for 45 years nonstop! The culture continues through North and East Junior High Schools where students that are ready can start their studies at Boise High in the 8th grade – why wait? Over 35% of an average graduating class is part of the National Honor Society and over 80% go on to college. Part of it is having safe neighborhoods, tons of activities like cycling, and more for kids to aspire to than the work a day world most people put up with.

    • Nancy April 9, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

      @Greenman, I get it. I think there is a lot of good going on in the schools and it’s hard for me to hear so many people bashing them. Truth be told, the majority of the bashers don’t know what’s happening in the schools. I do agree with Rachel that there is room for improvement – a LOT of room for improvement – and I feel schools were created with the best interests of kids in mind. That said, there are some interesting ideas out there and it’s important that we talk about them.

  5. Living Outside of the Box April 9, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    I graduated with great grades, both in high school and college (yes, National Honor Society, and all). But much of it do I actually remember, NOW? Now that I am in prime working years of my life? Almost none of it.

    I agree with Rachel that testing results do not prove an EDUCATION, so much as a graduation. Some people are really good at study/memorization…but even those people don’t necessarily always remember those things that they scored well in!

    Had I been given different opportunities to apply knowledge in ways that interested in me, and were real-life application experiences…I think my overall education would have been much more effective! It’s time to rewrite the system!

  6. Andrea April 10, 2012 at 5:24 am #

    Amen. If the powers that be really wanted the general population to be intelligent and forward thinking than they would take this on board. Unfortunately I fear it’s exactly what you said: they aim to teach people to be good, replaceable employees. It’s up to parents to take charge and give their children a real education.

    • Nancy April 10, 2012 at 10:00 am #

      @Andrea, It’s up to parents to take charge and give their kids a real education regardless of where their children go to school – homeschool, private school, or public school. It’s parental involvement that is key.

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