How Did We Get Here? Part IX: A Melting Pot of Educational Ideology 

This is one of a multi-part series on the progression of education policies in the U.S. from its founding. Click here to see a list of all the posts in this series

By Matthew Lynch

When looking at the public school systems of today there seems to be a marked return to the roots of the U.S. education system in the late 1700s. Students are once again being corralled into career paths and being prescribed the best course to reach workforce goals in the fastest way possible. Children as young as Kindergarten are being enrolled in specialty schools for math, or science, or performing arts and quarantined off from their peers on other specific or general paths.

It has somehow become the job of parents, and teachers, to discover for their students exactly what they should do with their working lives a full 12 years before those careers start and to lead them down the paths that will get them there eventually. Children who are left to their own devices when it comes to important life choices like how to earn a living must belong to irresponsible parents, or below-par school districts. The economy, it seems, is the only point to public education and really to private education too. If schools aren’t prepping their students to ace assessments, get into colleges and end up in the perfect career that fits their talents, than what good are they anyway?

This teach-to-career specificity has infiltrated even the highest ranks of American society. President Obama’s Race to the Top program links federal funding to states following a point system that relies heavily on assessment of the materials deemed most important for U.S. students to be learning – much of which is determined by the increasing need for math, science, technology and engineering occupations in the U.S.

The President has also been vocal about his support for stronger teaching to technology programs to meet the expected explosion of computer science and related field jobs in the next half decade. His “Educate to Innovate” campaign is designed to move U.S. students from the middle to the top of science and math achievement in the next decade. This initiative relies on interactive games, private partnerships with organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and national science competitions with visits to the White House as prizes. According to the White House website, Educate to Innovate is about “increasing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) literacy so all students can think critically in science, math, engineering and technology; improving the quality of math and science teaching so American students are no longer outperformed by those in other nations; and expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.” Schools that make a commitment to the program will earn extra brownie points when it comes to Race to the Top fund allocation.

So what is so wrong with trying to strengthen areas like technology, science, engineering and math? We hear at least once every month on the news that U.S. students lag significantly behind other nations when it comes to these subjects. We should be doing something to fix that, shouldn’t we? In the eyes of Americans, the country should never be behind other nations in well… anything. We should erect the biggest buildings, have the highest gross domestic product and know the most about everything. When something threatens our “best” mentality, we worry. What will become of us? What will happen to our way of life? What sort of second-best (or worse) country are we leaving to our children?

The problem with this fear is that learning is forsaken in the process. Sure, our kids learn some things but what about the other items that are left off the priority list? In another decade, when Americans lag in language arts and critical thinking skills, will federal school funding be linked to programs that stress these subjects above all others?

For all of the strides Americans have made since post-Revolutionary days, we seem to have the same archaic mindset when it comes to our schools – specifically our publicly-funded ones. Education is inextricably tied to our perception of what it will earn individual students and the economy as a whole and not to the pursuit and furthering of learning as a nation.

There is still a lot to love about public schools, though. In a world that often seems fraught with unfairness and discrimination, public schools are the true equalizers. Do they always provide the same qualities of education to student of differing socioeconomic backgrounds? No, not always. But the principles are there. Do public schools prepare all students adequately for the college and the workforce? Not by a longshot. Public schools do serve as the main agent of positive change between one generation and the next, though, and bring the right of an education to students exactly where they are.

With the right tweaks to the system, public schools in America can continue to educate their students from all life circumstances and backgrounds and in ways that are better than ever. It will take some work though, from all of us. It is not enough to simply accept the shortcomings of today’s public schools, or abandon them in search of other choices. In order to ensure coming generations are ready to keep America at the global forefront, and enjoy their freedoms with responsible citizenship, public schools are a necessity. They are the only places that can effectively reach the majority of generations with the same messages about the value of learning, importance of equality and vitality of preserving the American way of life. For these reasons and many more, public schools need to not only be preserved but supported and constantly improved. Follow my series on the progress of the U.S. educational system to learn more about where we’ve been, and where we need to go, as collective educators.

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