opinion   |   column

COLUMN: US education requires drastic overhaul to remain effective

I went to a public high school in a wealthy suburb of Texas. My school had an average household income in the top 1.6 percent of the United States. All my friends had lofty goals and reasonable expectations they could acheve those goals.  My peers wanted to be future doctors, executives, tech pioneers and politicians. Most of the students wanted master's degrees, and almost all of them were going to four-year colleges.

I was late to realize, however, that most people were just going through the motions of school. They learned little and earned the grades to get into good colleges. Our high school was a college student factory. However, students without plans to go to college were left far behind.

The system is broken on a fundamental level. Above all else, American educational philosophy is deeply flawed. Our primary schools do little to truly help us, and our secondary schools are marred by a baffling lack of direction.

Policymakers must recognize the new role of education in the U.S. Globalization has made employment more competitive. For nearly a decade, many schools have pushed college education as the surest path to higher living standards. 

The number of Americans with bachelor's degrees has doubled in the last 30 years. Employment opportunities for high school graduates are increasingly scarce, making college almost a necessity for well-paid jobs.

But college is prohibitively expensive. Average college costs have increased at 3.5 times the rate of inflation. Tertiary education is increasingly inaccessible. 

Proposals to reduce costs or subsidize college tuition, such as those of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, are unlikely to succeed and would still be subject to the turbulent winds of future legislation.

The government can’t reliably combat inaccessibility. The only thing it can do is make high school education adequate again. In short, it must be career-focused.

Stated goals of most school districts are to prepare students for college, but this one-size-fits-all approach is not suitable for students who don’t wish to pursue college education. 

Because of this, the U.S. should shift focus from generalized curricula to an emphasis on career-focused tracks for students who are uninterested in college.

Schools should catalyze skill development in their students, not force them to memorize random drivel. Forcibly teaching an aspiring auto mechanic about Martin Van Buren’s controversial campaign tactics or the amount of energy produced by glycolysis is useless.

As well as moving away from literal content focus, high schools should change their relationship with the working world. 

This is becoming a major issue in Indiana. In 2016, The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana, reported more students were taking technical education classes and this had led to legislative change.  

Senate Bill 297 proposes teaching employability skills. This includes educating students on career choices and teaching them how to succeed in those careers.  This bill was passed in February by the House and Senate.  

Some staple high school courses could be replaced with courses in personal finance, basic law, health and job search skills —  topics that prepare students for their transition to adult life.

Cutting some classes would leave time for specialized classes like those listed above. This is where we can take a page out of Germany’s book. 

German secondary schools have a well-developed program of post-secondary apprenticeships in partnership with the private sector. Many of those students enter the workforce via such apprenticeships where they become productive adults without going to college.

Some have come to realize this. My district back home, Fort Bend Independent School District, is currently investing $59 million in a Career and Technical Education Center. Subjects such as welding are being introduced to upperclassman class catalogues. 

My district is following what other districts have been doing for years. The question is if the rests of the districts in the U.S. will follow.  

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