How Public Schools Fail | Teen Ink

How Public Schools Fail MAG

April 9, 2008
By Owen Welsh BRONZE, Nahant, Massachusetts
Owen Welsh BRONZE, Nahant, Massachusetts
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Random House defines education as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” This seems like a basic foundation for what the U.S. public education system should be. It certainly would be nice if our public schools taught us general knowledge, helped us develop the powers of reasoning and judgment, and prepared us intellectually for a mature life. Unfortunately, they do none of these things.

Currently, the U.S. education ­system accomplishes three things: teaching us irrelevant information, preparing us for the bureaucracy of the college system, and destroying our intellectual curiosity.

The saying “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” is not far off. As students approach high school, the information they learn goes from necessary, like addition, to slightly applicable, like intermediate geometry (while I may use the Pythagorean theorem sometime in my life, I have yet to encounter that time), to just plain unnecessary. For example, sophomore year we were taught the law of cosines, which allows us to find the length of one side of a triangle when we are given the degree of the opposite angle and the length of the other two sides. This is as useless as it sounds, unless you plan on going into mathematics or engineering, and it’s only one of many useless facts today’s high school students are forced to learn.

It’s sad but true that many students are more focused on getting into ­college than on their academic development. College graduates make ­substantially more money than those with only a high school diploma, and though there is no direct correlation between money and happiness, a college degree also increases your chance of having an enjoyable job, financial security (different from wealth), and the respect of your peers. This is all well and good, but our public school system has been so focused on getting students into college that it has completely screwed them over.

For one thing, schools now place more emphasis on preparing students for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. ­Only recently have colleges begun to ­realize that these tests don’t actually measure intelligence, and it’s common knowledge that these tests only determine students’ ability to take standardized tests. This is bad for both the students who do well and those who don’t. Bad for those who do well, because their hard work preparing for the test is an investment that won’t help them in the future; bad for the students who do poorly, because most receive a low score simply for not being good at taking these tests.

The college application process also skews students’ priorities when it comes to extracurricular activities. The concept of selfish giving has ­already been discussed in the Teen Ink article “Acts of (Selfish) Kindness” ( To sum it up, author Daniel R. claims that many students are motivated to do ­volunteer work and community service only because of their desire to get into a good college.

As I was growing up, I struggled to come to terms both with my gender identity and my mild Asperger syndrome. As a result, I didn’t get involved in activities like church groups and community service until I was 15. By then, it was too late to develop a track record. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t do any extra curricular activities. I did karate for seven years, I was involved in Webelos, I was the vice ­treasurer of my middle school’s Rotary Interact Club, and I am currently the president of my school’s Anime Club and an active member in its Gay-Straight Alliance. I even have a part-time job. Still, I was denied initiation into the National Honor Society (NHS) because of “lack of service.”

I wouldn’t tell you that personal ­anecdote if there wasn’t a point. Our school’s NHS advisor said that many applicants were rejected because of lack of service and if we did more we might be admitted next year. The NHS considers service important because they believe it shows selflessness. But if I did more service between my ­rejection and the next initiation, I would only demonstrate that I wanted to get into the NHS, not that I had ­suddenly become a better person.

Colleges have also messed up high school education by turning it into a competition. Your chances of getting into a good college often depend on your class rank, regardless of how smart or dumb your class is. Or it may depend on your GPA, regardless of how hard or unfair your teachers were.

These two statistics merely provide a glimpse into the complexity of the college applicant. Luckily for some of us, the better colleges emphasize students’ essays, but even that can be risky. Some people just aren’t that good at writing, even though they may excel at other things, so their essay could decrease their chances of getting into a good school.

The final failure of American public education is the destruction of students’ intellectual curiosity. When we are in elementary school, we look forward to school because what we are learning is relevant and practical. This fades as we enter middle school, and by high school the subject matter is both uninteresting and impractical. This combination makes high school students view school as something that they have to trudge through every day until the final bell rings and they can “have fun again.”

Where did it all go wrong? When we started focusing on the competitive aspects of education and how well our students did compared to other countries, we forgot about the people who really matter: the students. How can we fix it? It may be too late for our generation, but the next one could be improved with a few adjustments. First, we need less emphasis on the “core classes” like science, math, and social studies. We all need basic backgrounds in these subjects, but by the time students reach high school, they know what they like and should be ­allowed to choose which classes to take. This will allow students to learn what they enjoy while still preparing them for life.

Secondly, we need more emphasis on elective classes since they help ­develop academic curiosity. While some teens view electives as easy ways to fill up their schedule, they ­actually help students grow as people while teaching them practical skills
for life. And since students choose these classes, they will not lose their academic curiosity.

In the end, the biggest change needed in the U.S. public school system is ­listening to students. While some ­psychologists would have you believe that teenagers shouldn’t be in charge of their education, our input is critical if we are to flourish in high school. Many students are surprisingly knowledgeable about their educational needs, and if our voices are heard, then the education system could get back on its feet and accomplish its purpose: to impart general knowledge, develop the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally prepare us ­intellectually for mature life.

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This article has 27 comments.

newmoon<3 said...
on Jun. 4 2009 at 1:50 am
wow. I loved that. you rock

on May. 12 2009 at 9:36 pm
ryerye626 PLATINUM, Port Washington, Wisconsin
41 articles 0 photos 1 comment
I love this so much. I tried writting something similar to this but it didn't turn out so well, but good job and thank you.

on May. 12 2009 at 3:11 pm
ReflectionsofYou GOLD, Mason, Tennessee
10 articles 0 photos 107 comments
Is that what cosines are for?? Huh....

I'm not in public school but I do know what your talking about. I agree for the most part. I just finished up 10th grade and all of the college stuff is hanging over my head. I'm so sick of it. It's one big contest and every day I have to wonder if I'm doing enough to just be considered for colleges.

The good news is that I keep hearing that colleges priorities are changing and their opting for more divesity. We can only hope I guess...

Fjammer BRONZE said...
on May. 10 2009 at 11:29 pm
Fjammer BRONZE, Greenfield, Missouri
4 articles 0 photos 8 comments
As a sophomore in high school, I understand and relate to your essay. This week I took my finals that are written by the state, which requires teachers to spends weeks reviewing. All in all, the teachers spend their days teaching to a test. Talk about sucking the fun out of learning!

I agree with you on how colleges are messing with our education. Without using the SAT/ ACT scores or GPA average, how do you think colleges could choose their applying students?

on May. 10 2009 at 5:32 pm
totalbookworm96 BRONZE, Granger, Indiana
1 article 0 photos 22 comments
you made some really good points.

on May. 10 2009 at 10:31 am
CABhahahahaHPhahahaTLhaha GOLD, Kamuela, Hawaii
14 articles 0 photos 10 comments
right on!!

arielambar said...
on Apr. 30 2009 at 4:53 pm
Wow, this is so true. I am a junior in high school and I can totally relate to this article. I have done so much volunteer work throughout my high school career. Yes, I did have a good time volunteering but would I have done it if it didn't benefit me in some way?- No, probably not. I also do not feel that what American's consider "Community Service" is really community service. Helping a business or big coorporation for free doesn't make you a better person. All it does is look good on a college application. Anyway, great article.