From kindergarten until college, I was homeschooled by my mother. At the time, she had no formal education beyond a high school diploma. Nevertheless, my sister and I outpaced our scholastic peers as the yearly standardized testing my mother insisted we take placed us far ahead of our grade levels.
Instead of homeschooling through high school, my sister and I transitioned to community college. I started at 15 and she at 16. We both attended universities once we reached age 18.
Were we geniuses? I’d love to entertain the thought, but a better answer is that we were given an educational environment tailored to our needs, while our peers often struggled through an industrialized learning system that hasn’t been given the opportunity to meet the needs of 21st century students.
This is not the fault of hard-working teachers who often work long hours for low pay and use their own limited personal funds to improve their classrooms to give kids the best education possible. On the contrary, we’re wasting the talents of teachers by shoehorning their skill sets into a systemic learning program designed for an industrial job market that is increasingly nonexistent.
The American school system as it stands today wasn’t an explicit construction of the federal government, but the end result of centuries of evolution.
Out of the civil war emerges a national education effort
The process that created the American public education system began in schools founded by churches in the 1700s and began to reflect the system we know today in the late 1800s, when, following the abolition of slavery, a K-12 system resulted from reconstruction efforts.
Booker T. Washington, a former slave, established a movement to train black Americans as teachers that eventually led to the creation of numerous state universities. But in the 1890s, a standardization effort emerged that resulted in what we now know as the K-12 schooling system, including grade levels and accreditation. American education efforts in the late 1890s are nothing short of impressive in that they emerged from the rubble of a civil war. But almost 130 years later, we’re living with the same system.
Throughout the 1900s, efforts to standardize and further hone and improve this system continued. From desegregation to school lunches, the system evolved to meet the needs of a diverse and rapidly growing citizenry. But one element was lost amid this growth: a recognition that the system itself was designed to stabilize a rocky nation, not foster creativity or critical thought as culture rapidly evolved.
No child left behind, the Obama correction and a crisis of imagination
President George W. Bush tried to address the problem of the public school system that increasingly found children slipping through the cracks. He signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, an effort that essentially failed and now represents an object-lesson to education reformers in poor government oversight of education. The legislation prescribed a more robust regulatory structure based on setting student achievement goals and implementing strict standardized tests to receive federal funding. It was a strategic blunder.
President Barack Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act was a conservative answer to the problem of the Bush administration’s bungled policy, returning a greater deal of control to the states. It was an implicit admission that the federal government did a poor job at improving student achievement. But instead of fixing the problem, the ball was kicked back to states. This is not good news for students on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.
A 2012 study found Americans ranking poorly among developed nations in math skills and completely unremarkable in other categories, despite the U.S. spending more money per student than other nations. For one example, Slovakia ranks about the same as the U.S. on student assessments and spent roughly $53,000 per student in 2012. We spent a whopping $115,000 per student.
Few political figures are showing innovation or creativity in addressing the problem of American education. But answers do exist.
What if the solution is believing in our children?
In journalist Greg Toppo’s inspirational book on education reform, "The Game Believes in You," he argues that the problem isn’t poor standards, but a complete lack of engagement students experience in their learning environments. Too many schools reward obedience over critical thought.
“Good teaching is not about playing it safe. It’s about getting kids to ask questions, argue a point, confront failure and try again,” he writes. An examination of how students interacted with an educational game called Mission U.S., which places students in problem-solving scenarios throughout history, was a startling indicator of challenge. The game’s creators found that, in the section on slavery, students chose a “good slave” route while in school and only took the risky option of helping the enslaved character escape to freedom while playing the game at home. In school, where students are trained that offering correct answers is better than attempting to creatively solve problems and possibly failing, students were reluctant to buck the rules.
The problem was that “obedience, not defiance, is what’s expected.” Teachers had to encourage students to try helping the abolitionist movement in the simulation.
It takes a village to educate a nation
This rejection of obedience-learning was a theme throughout my homeschooling, where creative thought and individual initiative were a much stronger focus than test scores. We took yearly standardized tests to make sure we were achieving the expected national standards, but those tests were not a source of stress, or even focus, throughout the year. Instead, we took field trips. We played thought-provoking video games. We read books that interested us. We tried to solve math problems by making our own equations from the tools we learned in the book. We joined friends who had parents with differing expertise and learned from them in hands-on environments.
From chess to baseball to skating to interactive museum visits, creative thought and social team efforts were the essential building blocks of our education.
When I’m asked how “hard” it was to start college as a teen, I tell them it was a breeze. I was already prepared, because the personal initiative and creativity college requires had been fostered in my education since kindergarten. My homeschooling mom taught us to think like we were in college from the time we were old enough to pick up a soon-to-be-defunct No. 2 pencil. (Thanks, mom!)
Innovative teachers exist in classrooms throughout the U.S. who utilize immersive technologies and contemporary learning methods to foster greater development in students. But the system itself is still stuck in an ideology of the past.
Our public schools suffer from an authoritarianism problem. We need to start addressing it today. A true embracing of creativity, as opposed to obedience, requires a cultural change. The federal government won’t solve this by default. We need to vote for reformers who understand the problem, foster inquisitiveness in young people who cross our paths and join school boards ourselves in locations where schools are producing mathematically-challenged robot children.
Americans should find inspiration as they reflect on our public education system’s roots in innovation and emancipation. We can fix this together.