A discussion about the most dire issues facing the U.S. must start at the root of all progress: education. The best way to fight systemic inequities is not top down but from the ground up.
How could an individual hope to fight a systemic, often invisible, problem without first learning it exists? How could a group hope to push back against tradition without first learning there’s something to push back against? If democracy is threatened, who among us will be wise enough and sufficiently prepared to guide us out of it?
Everything begins with education.
Although the U.S. routinely ranks among the highest spenders on education, rarely do we crack the top 25 in academic performance. We spend, spend and spend but results elude us still. Though the U.S. is not the worst in academic achievement, the gap between how much the U.S. spends and how well American students perform in the classroom is troubling.
One 2007 study found that a mere 8% of 8th graders in the District of Columbia performed at grade level in math. But the evaluations given by teachers rated over 95% of those students as performing well.
In this case, not only were students underperforming, but the teachers were covering up their failings as educators.
Those in the U.S. who pursue their education, attain a college degree and attempt to move into the workforce can be unwittingly held back by the material they did not learn.
For instance, the way history is taught in high school can skew a students’ outlook on slavery, presidential history and public policy, among other things. Perspectives can shift depending on the political slant of the teacher or even school district.
Students can emerge uninformed about the experiences of indigenous or Black Americans, for example, if they are not taught about certain inequities. The result can be a lack of empathy and a misled view of our nation’s history — or worse, an ill-advised path toward extremism.
Inherent biases can follow students into adulthood like a shadow, slanting their decision-making for years to come.
The narrow perspective offered by much of traditional education reverberates in the workforce. As young adults transition from school to work, they may lack the ability to recognize systemic inequities, privileges or other factors that have bolstered or slowed them down.
A lack of understanding can sow resentment and even violence — which is made worse when it is racially or economically motivated.
Further, individuals brought up the traditional, American way of schooling can be held back by the way they were taught to learn.
Memorization is a long outdated method of teaching and learning, yet it is still heavily relied upon in public schools. General regurgitation of facts, dates and equations is an analog task in a digital age.
Further, to focus on memorization means dedicating a great deal of time and effort to a task that exists primarily within classroom settings. Success within this type of education does not correlate with career or real-world achievement.
With pervasive access to the internet, public records and powerful handheld computers (smartphones), information retention has decreased in necessity. Rather than teaching students to memorize and recite, a new emphasis should be placed on information synthesis — connecting the dots, formulating narratives, using evidence to seek and ask questions.
We need a renewed focus on navigating freely accessible technology. How to communicate and collaborate. How to search and read and synthesize. How to weed out assumptions based on independent research. These then could contribute to a greater media literacy which can combat the dissemination of fake news.
Changing our approach to public education must happen soon. How could we ask new generations of thinkers and doers to think or do when they are inadequately prepared from the start?
Education is a building block to becoming a responsible and productive member of society. With a society that is not educated to their full potential, facing immediate political and existential threats becomes all the more imposing.
Antiquated classroom practices keep the U.S. underperforming in global academic rankings. Rising to the top will require rethinking not only what is taught in classrooms, but how. Then, more empathetic students can make the transition into the professional world and emerge as wiser, better leaders.
This story was reported and written through a journalism course on opinion writing and edited by USC Annenberg Associate Professor Alan Mittelstaedt. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.
Click here to read more essays from the series “America’s ailments: We’ve got issues.”
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