education, Teaching

The Void of Education: What Matters

Every year, I am faced with a challenge familiar to many educators across the US and even around the globe–I have to convince my class that education matters. To some, this may seem redundant, especially for high school students who need to graduate, but any educator instinctively knows that a student will learn best when they believe in the gravitas of education. In the United States, this hurdle can be immense for educators, as they may spend months toiling and lamenting about different ways to get students to buy into the idea that education is vital for their success. Most of the time, American educators are (strongly) encouraged to cultivate a relationship with all their students to facilitate this buy-in process. This is why many foreign students who study abroad in the US often say that American educators are friendlier and more caring (Ripley 2013).

Though successful relationships are beneficial to the success and learning of students universally, I question its utilitarian usage in the context of American classrooms. The orthodox ideology of students must learn has shifted to how can we get students to learn?, and rightly so. The objective must be true learning for all students. However, US educators have to spend a lot of time investing in the buy-in process because it truly is a necessity for American classrooms; the efficacy of relationships is hard to oppose.

Regardless, building a relationship with students is not an easy task, especially when many in lower-performing schools are used to negligent teachers or even worse, long-term substitutes whose content knowledge and experience can rarely replace an official teacher. Compound this burden with an increasing focus on test scores, unstable student home lives, and the fact that many teachers only see students for an average of one hour daily in secondary education. It is obvious why educators burn out and schools end up being closed.

This has led many schools on a frantic search for the famed “Super Teacher” that can solve all problems by investing their blood, sweat, and tears into an 70+ hour work week. This is completely unsustainable, but schools continually invest more into fancy technology and moot “professional development” sessions only to still have struggling students. Even from an optimistic perspective, teachers are often lauded for their “sacrifice” and “dedication”, but are never praised for their intellect. Barring college professors (to be discussed), the educator is ironically rarely seen as highly educated.

super teacher
This mentality is more of a Kryponite

The entire education system has been blindsided by trite issues that it is ignoring the fundamental problem–America does not care about education.

I say this in a holistic sense because, upon examination, there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise: America spends over $12000 per student in secondary education, which is the 5th most in spending per student (OECD 2014) and even more so for college. Many parents are actively involved in their children’s school events. And we even require upper secondary ( junior and senior year) schooling for children until 18 years of age; this practice is not as common as one would believe. Pragmatically speaking, there is good indication that we are at least somewhat invested in education.

OCED spending per student

As usual, the devil is in the details. The general sense of apathy towards education is hard to detect with conflicting aggregate data whose external validity is debatable. Instead, it presents itself in the micro-interactions in the world of education: It’s when students cite Bill Gates as a counterexample of how one can be successful without a proper education. It is when parents only signal their “concern” when their students start failing. It the strong incentive to let students pass a class even if their mastery of content is pathetic. It is the fact that derogatory words, like nerd, undermine and deter students from excelling academically.

Weirdly enough, nerd becomes “cool” outside the bounds of education

My biggest gripe, and one that I believe epitomizes the current US mindset towards education best, is when I hear students say that “school isn’t everything“, usually as a means to justify their own failure or lack of effort. Yet, the ubiquity and severity of this phrase far exceeds the realm of a common excuse.  It is undoubtedly a message they have gotten from the surrounding culture, whether it be parents, friends, movies, or games, and we instinctively know what it means. But, why does it exist?

Granted, school isn’t everything; there are many other factors that determine both a child’s success and happiness in life–arguably the two most important things parents want for their child. But why has this phrase become so widely accepted, even as to create juxtaposed ideas of being “street smart” versus “books smart”? After all, the two are not mutually exclusive in any regard. But at its root, this dichotomy reveals something else about what parents and the greater populace truly believe about the US education system–it does not provide students with a comprehensive skill set for most modern challenges.

Perhaps this is common sense. If so, that would be arguably more disconcerting because it would represent how inured we are to having an insufficient education system. We have become complacent with the misbelief that school can only provide one type of “smart” that it has become our excuse when a child fails at a class or subject. By doing so, we actively oppress the potential of our education system, even if it is unintentional. After all, no adult would choose to devote 8 hours of their day to any job if the salary was insufficient to their goals and lifestyle, so it is unreasonable to expect students to devote 8 hours of their youthful exuberance to something that would not give them the skills to succeed in life.

Great and ambitious minds can try all they like to “revolutionize” the system–as Bill Gates did by pouring over $2 billion into his small schools initiative, which failed– but so far, there has been no one-size-fits-all solution. The issue does not originate from logistics, economics, poor implementation, bureaucracy, politics, resource management, race, technology, or even the generation gap. First and foremost, America faces an ideological civil war against its own belief in the efficacy of education.

This belief that school isn’t everything is universal, but subtle. It is easy to tell kids that going to school is important, but those words prove ineffective unless we truly believe in that message, and American society simply does not. Again, the cultural indicators prove invaluable in deciphering the message we send. Americans particularly love entertainment: football coaches continue to have the highest paid job across most universities, and billions go into constructing new sports stadiums rather than improving schools or even roads. We’re able to name a plethora of movie stars, music artists, and athletes with ease, but struggle to name even 10 famous scientists–a test I often do with my students. Subsequently, our students start to value those things more as well. Even foreign exchange students from different cultures pick up on this fact:

sports vs math

A comparison of what foreign exchange students in the US think is important to their American counterparts, math or sports.

Though we demand education for all students, US culture mockingly highlights individuals who obtained success despite not excelling in their education. Our culture is analogous to the teacher who hands out worksheets for the sake of students staying busy while the he or she busy themselves with other things (this may sound eerily familiar to some of us). Under these circumstances, few, if any student at all, would be motivated! We may consistently tell students that education is important to their success, but we definitely have not shown them that this is true.

Consequently, American teachers then have the additional, onerous task of persuading students (and even parents) to care about education, which leaves much less time for academic rigor and the development of higher-order thinking. This perpetuates a vicious cycle that rapidly degenerates the educational climate. Students and parents do not feel like education grants them the skills and knowledge to succeed in life, and teachers have neither the time nor autonomy to teach those skills because they must invest so much time in getting students to reject our culture’s message about the futility of education.

As with the classrooms of highly successful teachers, micro-successes can also exist at a school level. Through good leadership and trained faculty and staff, schools are able to create a strong counter-culture that successfully rejects the status quo and convinces students that education is vital to their future. However, these environments may only provide a momentary interlude before students are once again barraged with the same message. Even then, this only ensures that those lucky few who were able to attend those schools are adequately prepared for higher education, while others are thrown off-guard by their professors’ expectation in college.

prof survey prep
The chart above shows that college instructors believe that recent high school graduates simply lack the skill sets to thrive in college

The million-dollar question is how do we translate these successes onto a grander scale? While politics and government focus on top-down approaches of recycled district initiatives, raising teacher minimum salary (often without raising taxes or reallocating money, which spells disaster for local districts), and changing test standards or books, this does not address or even acknowledge the crux of the problem. Instead, the question should be how can we make people believe in education? 

The answer is complex and highly debated. Perhaps we should imitate highly successful systems, like Finland, and implement even more serious changes such as one that would raise the requirements for an educational certification to a master’s degree among other things. Or maybe we should incorporate Korea’s privatized system of cram schools, designed to supplement what public school lack, so citizens can elect the best schools with their money. There are many options available for us to take, and choosing one over the other causes ceaseless arguments.

Yet, I believe there is a good litmus test to inform us if a decision steers education in the right direction: simply ask, does this make people take education more seriously? Certain decisions, such as requiring public educators to have a master’s degree, may sound ludicrous, but it would almost undoubtedly allow society to take education more seriously. Other choices, like allowing the free market to determine which schools stays opened by “recruiting” more students, simply does not bolster the image of education as a whole.

Students, as any educator will tell you, are extremely intuitive to their surroundings: those that are fortunate to grow up in an environment that truly cherishes education, undeterred by what the overall culture states, end up successful while those not as fortunate  come to treat school as a begrudged obligation to fulfill. We cannot have education–one of the major means of correcting economic disparity and one of the founding pillars of democracy–become stratified itself. We must start demonstrating that education matters.


  3. The Smartest Kids in the World Amanda Ripley 2013





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