American education

The United States likes to pretend that its educational system is not broken

The United States likes to pretend that its educational system is not broken. We must reform American education. 

Many in the United States are stunned year-after-year as American children continue to test poorly on the world stage; yet, we have done nothing to change this reality nor take an introspective look on the flaws of our system.

The United States likes to pretend that its educational system is not broken. In many ways, this is true. The best districts in America, the best high schools, and the best private schools all perform at an equally high level.

Yet, the students who cause America to perform poorly on internationally administered tests are the ones f0r whom the current, standardized system is not working. For these students, particularly high schoolers, a more personalized system of approach, like those implemented in the top-performing countries, would bring essential educational gains.

The Features of a High-Performing System

A comparison between the education systems of the Netherlands–ranked number nine according to a 2015 study by OECD–versus that of the United States which holds the 29th position best reveals the pit holes in an American education.

The Dutch system is quite standardized for students through the age of 12, at this point, most schools administer the ‘Cito’ exam. Teachers use students’ results on this exam as well as their educational history to suggest which of three secondary education tracks would best suit them. The first track is a pre-vocational school which grants a degree upon completion of the four-year course of study (approximately age 16); second, is a more general educational track for five years; and third is a pre-university educational program that lasts for six years.

Within each of these secondary school options, there is the possibility for further formation of an individual study programme. For example, some programs within the pre-vocational degree are more practical whereas others are more theoretical. More so, being assigned to one of these tracks does not limit a student’s potential; the vocational degree can also lead to higher professional education if desired and does not limit anyone to certain careers.

One Size Fits All in America

In the United States, the system is wholly different. All students complete elementary and middle school education together and in the majority of districts, nearly every single student attends similar high schools. These schools mainly offer different versions of only one degree–a high school diploma–around the age of 18.

After this secondary education, students then have the opportunity to attend vocational schools, nearly all of which require a high school diploma or equivalent GED; two-year associate-degree programs; universities; or complete no further education. This system lies in stark contrast to that of many top-performing countries such as the Netherlands.

America’s Failing Its Low-Performing

If a student in the Netherlands leaves school at the earliest age–16–he or she will already have, at the very least, vocational or educational skills. In America, many states allow students to leave school at age 14 with parental permission or force them to continue to struggle within the system until age 18. Either way, without a high school diploma in the United States, it is extremely difficult to find labor paying above minimum wage and even with a high school diploma, many struggles to find work that provides salaries which would allow them to live above the poverty line.

The United States should not try to become the Netherlands–we are too different in many ways–but America should start offering new opportunities to its lowest performing like the Dutch and other countries have been doing.

The students who drag down America’s scores in world-wide tests are those who attend districts known as dropout factories. Normally they live in poor, low-income districts that have a hard time even getting the majority of their students to graduation day. I live twenty-minutes from one these places–Trenton, New Jersey–where it was a record in 2014 that over 50% of their students graduated on-time; compare this to the national four-year graduation rate of 80%.

In places like Trenton, the education system is failing its students. Many need the money provided by a full-time job or have missed so many days of class that they would be unable to graduate with their class. Four years of high school education, which could only provide an equivalent paying job as they could get without the degree, seems to be the waste to many drop-outs.

Providing Practical Skillsets Early

If America were to install a vocational track within schools (not a vocational degree which many have), it could keep many students in secondary education until the age of 16, at which point they would be qualified for above-minimum wage careers and they could have qualified certification in practical skills. Keeping students in school until age 20, as happens in the United States, for an equivalent skill set seems to be a money-making endeavor that could only benefit the government and not students.

The United States’ educational system needs to stop seeing itself as beyond tremendous change–that their system works in theory–when it really does not and is instead letting down the students who need them the most.

Yale Young Global Scholar, Hadley Copeland focuses on the North America, Middle East, and Europe.

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