Think about your professional career. In your current vocation, what do you use in your daily life that was taught in school?
For the majority of Americans, the answer is little to nothing. As a high school teacher, I’m faced with this reality on a daily basis. We see students with low motivation, youths who get in trouble, high achieving kids who are fixated on grades, and everything in between. In my opinion, our school system has created each of these problems: do you think kids would need extrinsic motivation if school was practical? Probably not.
Our current school environment blames teachers for issues such as low motivation, behavioral problems, and standardized testing scores. Playing the blame game is great for overseers, but does nothing for our next generation. Let’s put the blame where it should be: America uses an outdated education model made for the industrial era, not the information age.
By GDP, the United States is the wealthiest country in the world and also produces more millionaires than any other place on Earth. As such, America invests more money into education than almost any other country in the world.
With our abundant resources in mind, consider the fact that America ranks towards the bottom of the developed world in PISA scores. PISA measures academic achievement in various categories with the rest of the world. Our international rankings might indicate that Americans are stupid, but the truth is far from that. The educational system we’re using produces terrible results, so how are some Americans still financially successful?
Look at some of the most brilliant minds in America and the answer becomes apparent. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, and Thomas Edison. Two on this list dropped out of college and one had little formal education at all. The way that American schools are designed is not conducive to making mistakes or taking risks. To me, it’s no surprise that they didn’t need a high school diploma, let alone a college degree to make them successful. Intrinsic curiosity, interest in what they were studying, and practical applications made the aforementioned entrepreneurs successful.
What if our secondary education system used a similar model?
Here’s how I’m going to define core classes: things that are mandatory throughout secondary school. These are classes that have their own content area teachers who specialize in a specific category. Some things mentioned exist, but are not up to par and are not standardized enough to have a nation-wide impact.
Do you know anyone who went to a vocational school? At vocational schools, new students are introduced to a variety of skill offerings before they can decide on a specific shop to focus on. Another key feature to this model of schooling is that they focus on their shop for a certain amount of weeks, then alternate to core content such as English, History, Science, and Math. I envision self-exploration following this model, but for white collar occupations.
So many people go through years of college without choosing a major. Then when they get a degree in the major they chose, they never use it again. Imagine if you could get hands on, practical experience in a variety of work environments before ever leaving high school? Chances are, you would then be able to narrow your career focus more and would come out of high school knowing what you liked and disliked. You would gain practical knowledge and real life experience rather than guessing because you liked reading about it in class.
For instance, I have a brilliant friend who became an accountant. His math grades in high school did not indicate any type of natural ability– the problem was that he didn’t care about calculus or geometry, neither of which were practical to him. Once he got Microsoft excel spreadsheets and budgets in front of him, he became an accounting wiz. The problem is that he went through school thinking that he was terrible at math, when in reality all that was missing was a practical application for what he was good at.
So many kids that are disinterested in school simply don’t care about the topics they’re being forced to learn. If you gave them the choice to go and experiment with jobs in a real life setting, I guarantee there would be far higher participation rates because the experience gained would be practical. A kid who loves coding should be able to dedicate more time to that, just as a kid who enjoys entrepreneurship should be able to test ideas while in school. Let people do things that they like and they will work harder to be successful.
Some states have begun to mandate that personal finance be taught, I think that’s great. When I was in high school, I had no idea how to manage money. My parents would always say “save your money” so I did, but then I didn’t know what to do with it. No one ever taught me about investing in the stock market or real estate, or even entrepreneurship. For the longest time, I just assumed that rich people were really good at saving money. Since money can often be a topic of hardship at home or parents simply don’t know much about the topic, it is ignored. This is where schools should step in to help people learn fundamentals.
The average American spends more than they save. In other words, most Americans are in debt. This is a crisis that impacts many people’s lives and could be prevented or mitigated by financial education. Teaching people how to create a budget and read an income statement would help students think about money differently. Being able to save, budget, invest, and even doing taxes should be basic knowledge in society, not a mystery.
Then there’s the current student loan crisis. Everyone is pleading for debt forgiveness now because so many people borrowed without understanding the repercussions. I’m fortunate to have paid my debt back, but when I was graduating high school college made it seem like you were getting free money. They never mentioned interest until it was time to pay. Yes, I was a naive 18 year old, but aren’t most 18 year olds naive? What if schools taught people how to analyze debt and explain paying it back? Then people might be able to make informed decisions before going into debt in the first place.
Financial education should be the bedrock of the American education system. If done well, I truly believe it would help change the income inequality gap people always talk about. What do we have to lose by trying?
Yes, gym class and health are already taught in schools. We have innovative teachers, but they’re tied to an antiquated curriculum–weight related health issues persist, so it might be time to reassess our approach here.
We should teach our students about well-balanced diets. Instead of just saying “eat vegetables,” have kids look at their body mass index and calculate their required macro nutrients. Then, have them cook healthy meals as part of class. Students in Japan do this, why can’t Americans? People will use socio-economics as a crutch here, or say it’s not possible. Every school has a cafeteria and as far as I’m aware, students are guaranteed 1 meal a day through government subsidized programs. Plus, shouldn’t we all know how to feed ourselves?
Schools are definitely getting better at teaching the exercise component of gym. When I was in high school no one ever taught me how to lift weights properly, alternatives like yoga, or even how different muscle groups worked. People would be far less intimidated by working out if this were commonplace–I know so many girls that like working out, but stick to the elliptical because they don’t feel confident lifting weights. Then, there’s guys I know who only bench press and ignore other important muscle groups. People need to be taught how to use their bodies, we’re all athletes!
An updated nutrition and exercise program would do wonders for our society.
Rethinking the American school system has the potential to make future generations more adaptable in the workplace, financially savvy, and healthier. In order to keep up with an ever changing global economy, the United States needs to adapt by making school a reflection of the present, not the past. Opportunities for self-exploration are vital if we want to have a versatile and adaptable workforce. As the wealth gap increases and American debt remains high, it is also imperative that we shed light on financial matters at school. Finally, teaching proper nutrition and fitness methods, Americans would reap the rewards of longevity that other countries are already seeing. Our school system needs to change if we want to improve as a nation.