October 21, 2015

GLANZEL | The Quagmire of Public Education

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My freshman year of college, I faced a tuition, room and board bill of $64,000.  My freshman year of college, I took out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.  My freshman year of college, I lived on my own for the first time.  My senior year of high school, I needed a pass to go to the bathroom.  If I couldn’t go to the bathroom on my own, how was I expected to take out loans, pay my tuition and function in the real world?

There is a troubling dichotomy in the American education system.  Today, the higher education system of the United States stands as the envy of the world, as 16 of the world’s top 20 universities are American.  Simultaneously, however, our nation’s primary and secondary educational intuitions are among the worst in the developed world.  Quantitatively, the United States has some of the lowest math and reading scores of the world’s wealthy nations; qualitatively, our students lack the capacity to critically think and engage in complex problem solving.  We have failed our students –– and something has to change.

In 2001, President Bush greatly expanded the power and influence of the government by passing the No Child Left Behind Act.  Overall, the law demands that states establish a system of standardized testing to measure the success of students and their respective schools.  As a conservative, I find the law to be an appalling overreach of federal power and jurisdiction.  As a rational human being, I see the law as a great barrier to human thought and exploration.  In essence, President Bush’s legislation suggests that the success of a student can be simply reduced to a score on a test.   

Because of No Child Left Behind, I spent the vast majority of my elementary and middle school years learning how to take tests.  I vividly remember my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Adamo, lecturing for hours on how to take a multiple-choice exam.  As you could probably imagine, I never paid attention in Mrs. Adamo’s class.  While I certainly had teachers who thought I was worthy of an education that did not focus on test taking, most of my instructors had a laser focus on our exam scores.  It did not matter how critically or creatively I thought, but how well I could fill in bubbles on a Scantron.

When I got to high school, I was able to take honors courses and courses in the International Baccalaureate program, which allowed me to escape the prison of standardized testing.  Sure, I had to take a New York State Regent’s exam at the end of each year, but my honors instructors did not seem to care about the scores.  Instead, I was blessed with teachers who focused on my capacity to critically analyze texts and historical perspectives, to explore topics (such as art or philosophy) that I was unfamiliar with and to write a coherent essay.  Sadly, I cannot say this was the experience of the majority of my fellow classmates.

As with elementary school, most of my peers continued to be subjected to the misery of standardized testing.  And even as we all began to grow into young adults, nearly everyone was treated as a prison inmate.  We were never allowed to leave the cafeteria during lunch, we had to have a pass to go to the bathroom, we could not go to the library without a pre-signed pass and we were not allowed to wear the hoods on our hoodies (I could go on, but I only have 800 words).  So, my classmates were never allowed to see the enlightening part of education, as they were never introduced to the ideas of discovery, experimentation and critical thinking.

I cannot help but think that the story of my high school is the story of too many high schools across the nation.  Our students are not treated as rational human beings facing a critical point in their intellectual development.  Instead, American students are seen as simply numbers and bubbles on a multiple-choice sheet.

The answer to this problem is not simple –– but it is achievable.  First, we must reject the convoluted educational demands of the federal government (whether it be No Child Left Behind or the disaster that is Common Core).  The Constitution prescribes the power of education to the states, not the national government. States and local institutions are able to better understand the regional needs of their students.  Second, if the federal government is so keen on involving itself in matters of education, it should not pass sweeping pieces of reform.  Rather, the national government should expand funding for educational programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, vocational training and pre-engineering schooling.  Finally, our schools must take accountability.  Each school must find a way to foster a love for learning, discovery and open-mindedness.  In addition, our students need to be granted a degree of freedom.  If you need a pass to go to the bathroom, how can you possibly be expected to implement self-imposed boundaries on the freedoms of adulthood?

Michael Glanzel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Cornell Shrugged appears alternate Thursdays this semester.