“Good” Schools

For a developed country, American schools — higher-tier ones included — are surprisingly lacking in many different categories, from student admissions to their ineffectual “learning” processes that make it largely ineffective. This directly affects our standing as a nation, as while we head into the future and literacy rates are expected to increase, statistics in this area for the United States stall and even decrease, allowing that of our European and Asian counterparts to put us to shame. In spite of these facts, it can be speculated that the country is in no position to better its school system due to the nation facing political meltdown and there being too many steps toward achieving this goal that cannot currently be taken until they are prioritized by the government (which may never happen). But until then, the vast majority of American schools will continue to suffer.

American schools are far from adequate. The topic has received ample recognition, but little is being done to solve the issue at hand. My school is for the talented and gifted (in fact, that’s even its name). It’s one of a handful of its kind in the state of New York and is currently rated ninth place for middle school. And the reasons why its critical acclaim may be largely undeserved? The answer to that question originates from a matter of the students: Stemming from the issue of the students is the work they are tasked to complete.

In the nineteenth century, the nation’s youth had been expected only to pursue careers in factories, so that was what schools were tailored to prepare them for. If you go to any school in the United States today, you’ll be shocked by how effective this approach must have been, for dozens of students are crammed into rooms for eight hours at a time per day for five days a week (far too much time to be spending there, but that’s an entirely separate discussion). They are forbidden to move or speak amongst one another and only ever do anything when they are told to by their instructors.

Now, more jobs are available, a plenitude of which involve some degree of creative or critical thinking. Schools, on the other hand, do not encourage this sort of thought. I find it particularly ironic that a system intended to be centered around knowledge involves instead what can be identified as forced memorization —no wonder nearly seventy percent of American adults can only read and write at a fourth-grade level! Even major newspapers are written as a reading level no higher than eighth grade. We’ve fallen behind European schools, which are well-renowned, for the very flaw I’m detailing here. Impressive? I think not.

In Scandinavia, around three hours of homework is assigned to students per week (the amount of homework American teenagers are assigned in a day) and their grades are not entirely at the mercy of tests. But in the States? Let me tell you something:

Whether you pass or fail depends on tests. Whether you gain acceptance into a “good” school of your choosing is heavily reliant on test scores.

Basically, whether a student lives or dies depends on tests. Sad to say, but those words carry more truth than quite a lot of people will readily face. Students know this truth, though, and this stresses them out to immeasurable heights. They know that where they go in life will eventually come down to their schoolwork, but the immense amount of pressure this puts on them may cause them to do worse. But this is only what they’re told. As a matter of fact, many influential figures were barely even “C” students. John Lennon. Albert Einstein. Most notably, Winston Churchill, who many know to have failed classes. So why all the pressure? Why all the stress on “good” work?

Returning to anecdotal information, the school I attend is supposed to be one of the better ones, as I’ve said. But a common misconception is between a “good” school and one that is just demanding, the latter of which being a description fitting talented and gifted schools everywhere, while around ninety percent of what a student learns will not apply on any level to what they’ll go on to do in real life.

If you want an example, look no further than math class. Practice problems given to students are often written as word problems in what teachers may call “real world situations” to trick us into thinking we’ll actually need a fraction of what we’re taught. For instance:

Sarah has a science project concerning fluids. She requires 15 9/10 cups of orange juice, 7 3/13 cups of soda and 20 1⁄8 cups of water. How many cups of liquid does she need in all?

(The real answer is, Sarah doesn’t actually need to know. She just has to measure out the right amount of cups for each fluid, which is why we have measuring cups.)

Or in English class:

“When Sarah leaves her house to go outside, what does that symbolize?”

(Nothing at all. In real life we read to pass the time, not to overanalyze every little detail to unlock some “hidden meaning”. We won’t be entirely clueless as to the whole point of the book unless, of course, we’re not really reading.)

If, by any chance, we should need to know any of this information (which I don’t think we will, for obvious reasons), there is Google for that.

As for the topic of students: the entire academic method isn’t helping. You have one or two students who are struggling, a mass that are in a middle ground, and a few kids that have already mastered the material and thus have nothing to learn. Why are all these types of kids doing the same work? I can’t speak for other students, but my own teachers often say that they’re going to divide the class based on skill level so that nobody is confused or bored, but this never happens. Instead of trying to teach in a way where everyone can learn at a good pace in a way that works for them, teachers instead take the route of giving everyone work that is dumbed down to the point where everyone can understand it. But like this, nobody learns memorizes anything, whether it be useful information or not!

Summer vacation consistently appears to be the only way to shed all the mounting pressure of a school year long since past, right? HA! Psych! You’ll be so preoccupied with summer homework and the stress that your very first grades of the new school year will bring that the two months (may be less, may be more) that you have to relax will seem more like a single week of free time! And right after I began sixth grade (exactly following a week’s closure) guess what they do to us?

As if the regular state tests, which are infinitely more intimidating to a student than standard tests, weren’t enough, my school does preparations for the state tests, which isn’t effective either since they aren’t until April. There’s a test for ELA and another for math, each spanning two days. Though teachers constantly tell us that they don’t count for our grade, the preparation state tests can actually make the difference between being stranded with the same old boring, useless work and being stepped up to the next grade to be force fed slightly more complicated but equally useless information.

A student is permitted to opt out of being given the state test, but if they are to do so, they won’t have a grade to vouch for them if they are to apply to a “better” school. Basically, as stressful as it is, students are getting guilt-tripped into taking it anyway.

At this point, one may ask exactly how we can improve the American school system so that it’s actually effective (to some degree, at the very least). However, this is far easier said than done. The United States, as we all should know, is one of the largest countries in the world, and as such, ridiculously large amounts of government spending would be required in order to achieve a nationwide improvement, along with quite a bit of time for the legislative and executive branches to come together on a method of which to make this admittedly vague goal a reality (if they agree on it at all). Additionally, based on the current state of the country politically, it’s hard to say whether any attention whatsoever will be brought to the issue. Due to all of these factors, it’s speculated that little significant change regarding the school system will come about in future years, so maybe the real test is to see how long it takes for everyone else to recognize that the academic system is just digging itself deeper and deeper down into its own grave.

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