“For sale”: a 19th century education system
I come to my senses and dispose of our beloved 1990 Jeep, “Betty”. After spending way too much money trying to get it to work, even when it starts, it is not safe to drive a car that cannot exceed 20 miles an hour.
“Betty” the Jeep is like the American education system. For decades, we’ve poured billions into a model that no longer works, spending an average of $ 15,000 per student per year – and billions more in urban areas.
In total, the United States “spent $ 752.3 billion on its 48 million children in public schools in fiscal 2019, an increase of 4.7% from the previous year. and the most per student for over a decade ”, yet less than 40% of students in grades 4, 8 and 12 are proficient or superior in any major subject.
We spend 35% more per student than the average for Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. For decades, researchers have argued that there is little correlation between the amount spent on learning, outcomes and performance.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “of the 27 US urban school districts that reported their results for 2019 [on the Nation’s Report Card] – from Boston and Chicago to Fort Worth, Texas and Los Angeles – not one can say that the majority of black eighth-graders in their care are proficient in math or reading. Obviously, the children who need it most are the biggest victims of the archaic education system of the Model T era in our country.
And it’s not for lack of money. The Wall Street Journal goes on to report that “of the 100 largest public school systems … the six that spent the most per student in fiscal year 2019 were the New York City School District ($ 28,004), the Boston City Schools ($ 25,653), District of Columbia Schools in our nation’s capital ($ 22,406), San Francisco Unified School District ($ 17,228), Atlanta School District ($ 17,112 ) and Seattle Public Schools in Washington ($ 16,543).
Not only do the results reflect that the system is broken, but even more tragic are the signals from mental health care providers. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “Patients have more serious conditions at a younger age. Between the ages of 5 and 17, hospitals see more frequent cases of self-harm and suicidal ideation. ” 5 years !
Maybe it’s time for adults to realize that pouring more money into an archaic system isn’t the answer. It is in fact abusive and contributes to the mental health crisis among young people in our country. From increasing depression and anxiety to a dramatic increase in addiction-related events and deaths, the mental health issues of our young people have become a national crisis.
“The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing increases in mental health problems in children,” said Tami Benton, CHOP chief psychiatrist. Nationally, hospitals saw over a seven-month period in 2020 a 24% increase over the same period a year earlier in emergency department visits for mental health issues among 5-11 year olds , and a 31% increase in patients 12 to 17 years old.
So what should we do? Returning children to schools where there is pressure to comply, uniform teaching and a lack of instructional guidance is not the answer. One of the few good things about the pandemic was that many children and families realized they could take education into their own hands. Sixteen-year-olds did not have to be at their desks at 8 a.m. Children who felt bullied or late in a classroom found new educational alternatives that had been developed and had been waiting in a showroom to be tested for years.
Imagine the joy of a parent who saved their child from a life of anxiety and depression by finding a new school. For years eight-year-old Caroline dreaded school. The mornings were brutal trying to get her out without disturbing the whole family. But when her parents found an alternative approach to education, Caroline went from depression and anger to a child eager to wake up to the academic challenges she set for herself.
They turned to Acton Academy, a sort of franchise for individual parents who want to tailor education to their children and not the other way around. Acton academies are based on the principle that “all young people are capable of much more than we imagine and deserve the opportunity to find a vocation that will change the world”.
For thousands of families, a choice like Acton is a positive educational endeavor that recognizes that traditional education does not work for many children. It uses blended learning to teach basics like math and reading, then encourages kids to spend most of their time in small groups, exploring the world, and putting their skills to use in various entrepreneurial endeavors. There are no teachers – just guides – who use the Socratic method of asking questions rather than giving answers. Children are not called students – but heroes of their own journey.
More and more parents are removing their children from traditional public schools and enrolling them in schools that provide safe and supportive environments that tailor the academic and emotional curriculum to support and serve the individual students who attend them. They flock to groups like Prenda, which offers education “where students are empowered to become their strongest selves, combining a self-paced, virtual teaching setting and program with in-person learning guides.” Prenda is the “non-traditional” education provider for groups like the Black Mother’s Forum. “Every day the kids don’t want to leave and parents are so thankful that their kids love their new learning environment so much,” says one of their learning guides. “
This is the attitude that will help families face the mental health crisis head-on. When students find the joy of learning and the expectations of success are not based on arbitrary milestones but rather on mastering the material at a pace that matches their own pace of development, they thrive rather than stress.
In a recent newsletter distributed by The Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho, a school that caters to children who love the outdoors, the principal wrote: “In keeping with the school’s long tradition, our winter schedule is from 3:00 a.m. dismissal on Monday and 1:40 p.m. dismissal from Tuesday to Friday. This programs a myriad of benefits, including perhaps the most important, our ability to get out and enjoy much-needed physical activity during some of the darkest and often the most psychologically challenging times of the year.
Imagine a school whose mission is focused on the mental and physical health of children. What kid would want an extra Spanish lesson to spend time outdoors on a sunny winter day? And could someone learn effectively by being stationary for more than 4 hours a day anyway?
I have visited all types of schools in all kinds of neighborhoods over the past twenty years. Whenever I ask students if they like school, the answer is often “no, I hate school”. And unless they are in a place that tailors child-friendly education and uses 21st century pedagogical approaches, we, the adults in this society, have access to innovative and transformational models. It is our responsibility to give children a more human and transformational role model. If you had the option of buying a 1970s Tesla or Pinto, which would you choose?
We’re fond of the romantic notion of schools that look like they were when we were young, much like owning a classic car. But what good is it if it doesn’t work? We will not put our children in a car without seat belts, but we continue to send them through a faulty and dangerous system. What the increase in mental health problems in addition to academic failure signals is that the system is broken. It’s time for a new accelerator.