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Thoughts on Improving Public Schools


In between the years of 1991 and 2003, I went through the public school system in the United States. It was an atrocious, frustrating, failure of an experience for myself and has caused me to spend a decent amount of time thinking about "the system." Here are some of my thoughts for strategies that might help fix U.S. public schools. I believe these fixes if instituted correctly would lead to happier, creative, more productive and more responsible adults.

I will add to this that I don't believe that there are any "cure-alls" or "silver bullets" for the US school system. It is a complex system, perhaps intentionally, but complexity is the one failure that makes it really hard to fix the rest of its other systemic issues. A move in a positive direction, like many of our issues in this country, would be simply to reduce the amount of complexity we have to fight just to get basic things done. Aside from that though there are some changes that I think could do some immediate good:

Sleep, Physical Fitness, Healthy Eating

In the news recently have been some studies showing the dramatic effects that allowing kids to sleep-in has on their performance at school. I myself wonder why the hell it took everyone so long to figure this out. Kids are still growing thus they need more sleep, more food, and better food. Giving them an adult schedule and feeding them like irresponsible adults doesn't earn points in my book for great strategies, but it does win the award for easiest failure to make. It's easily the quickest high impact fix, that no one wants to make. Why? because it's probably the only thing in the school system that could actually be fixed with money.

Leverage Technology correctly

Generally when lay people talk about "bringing technology into the classroom" they mean one of a few limited things: Content that is primarily on a TV or internet, Giving kids some sort of physical device, Teaching programming, corporate apps that promise 10X improvements for efficiency... these things are all fine and good but the won't really help anything, and they're almost certainly guaranteed to cost a ton of money.

The reality is that the best way to use technology for positive improvements are incredibly simple things:

  • Making it easier for teachers to collaborate (think like Github for teachers)
  • Provide faster feedback loops in between Students, Parents, and Teachers. (literally can be as simple as google sheets)
  • Improve data collection making it easier to improve the curriculum.

  • Improve the availability of teaching materials for teachers or schools may have gaps (think MOOCs / Udemy for rural students).

  • Improve teacher training using online resources (MOOCs / Udemy)

It takes a village, and parents make the difference

The big difference between children that do well in school is generally the parents. Teachers, Genes, School system, friends... yea they matter, but nowhere nearly as much as a hardworking, focused individual with vested interest helping out for 2-3 hours a day. In fact, one of the most frustrating things in looking at the broken system is that no one recognizes that it's really the parents that are doing the hard work. Teachers teach for 6 hours then (if the child is lucky), then they go home and are taught by their parents for another 2-3 hours. They call it "homework", but it isn't... its the parent's lesson plan.

Having parents teach their kids isn't bad. It's awesome. In fact, we need more of it... and the results would be fantastic. Furthermore, you can extend this concept by involving more family, neighbors, and/or small connected groups. Creating vested communities that take pride in educating children.

Career, Guild, or Cult?

Teachers are unionized, but they are actually more than that. They are an entirely separate culture that policy creators fail to recognize. We hear a lot about how teachers are underpaid. We don't hear a lot about why highly educated people (masters requirement) CHOOSE to go into a profession where they are underpaid. Think about that for a second... why would someone choose to work a job that is very demanding, that comes with a low salary, and requires a relatively high education level? It's a job for passionate people, but there is also a naiveté there. This is part of the reason why the Gates study failed so dramatically. Attempting to motivate people with things they don't care about isn't a particularly useful strategy.

Perhaps, we shouldn't invite insist on a walled garden of passionate people, and perhaps make it more like a normal job. Easy fix on this one is to:

  1. Get rid of pensions (which by the way, anyone who says teacher's total compensation is low needs to learn about their pensions)
  2. Pay teachers appropriately for their skill level. (and without a pension)
  3. Allow qualified, normal people, that do not come from "teaching backgrounds" to be teachers. I.E. Hire good quality people that can teach and not just "teachers"
  4. Use tenure only as it was designed - to protect researchers and lecturers from negative backlash for voicing unpopular (but often true) academic perspectives. Primary school educators generally do not need these protections - though they should be afforded some leeway since parents are notoriously opinionated.

I believe the effect of having the weird pension system leaves a bunch of disenchanted, passionate people in a position where they are just waiting to get out. They think of it as a tour of duty they need to put up with until their number is called. In other professions, when your performance drops, or you don't like your job anymore you leave. This is not the case for teachers. Allowing new people into the system will also create a new infusion of ideas and passion. Revolving doors are Bad, but so are stagnant workplaces.

Schools are not Hierarchical Corporations/ Factories (or Prisons)

American's love their giant hierarchical institutions... we as a country are absolutely obsessed with them. Normal Americans want to go to school at the Harvard's, Stanford's, or University of Texas' of the world They want to work for the Google's, Goldman Sachs, and Deloitte's. And while no one wants to eat at a McDonalds... Americans all would like to be CEO of McDonald's.

We fashion our school systems from the same cloth... its as though schools are supposed to be some sort of factory for injecting information into kids. Inside this concept is a fallacy though... In the same way that not everyone wants to work for Google... not everyone learns best in a big building with a lot of other people around. The assertion that there is only one way is wrong...

We should be providing ourselves with options for the environment. And yes I know that there's Sudbury schools, private schools, Montessori schools, and so on... but these have not been normalized NOR have they been, probably, more importantly, Subsidized. No silver bullets, just good old fashion competition, and options for the people involved. Give parents/kids a choice in the environment they put their kids in and make sure their tax dollars go towards environments that they want to be a part of.

Math isn't Math

Probably my most subjective argument on this list, but we don't seem to be making good use of the actual academic research regarding how people learn. Math is my prime example.

The math education for our standard subjects (geometry, algebra, calculus) from over a hundred years ago looks incredibly similar to the way that we teach it today. It's a rote style of teaching that by-in-large focuses on memorization, and the permutation of those items memorized. ZERO real-world application, ZERO stories (Humans are hardwired for these btw), ZERO history, and no attempts to infuse any creativity or novel synthesis. (Every seen a kid write a math report? or build a math project?)

This form of education confuses students because they confuse perseverance for talent... or worse, confusing perseverance for interest (often it is not even their perseverance, it's their parents). The biggest issue though is that human beings don't learn particularly well by beating formulas into their head. So far as we can tell its actually the worst way to teach. It isn't just math though, this style of teaching spans across many subjects. Our schools would benefit from teaching in a way that 1) increases subject and concept connectivity 2) Infuses application, varying real-world examples, and student teaching 3) requires novel contributions to the subject 4) Increases performance feedback loops 5) uses actual research for improving our teaching practices (we basically fly blind right now)

Build modern subjects

In the United States, our curricula is based on a curriculum that was standardized roughly a hundred years ago. As an example, they've finally removed cursive, which was still standard material in the schools up until circa 4 years ago. Cursive aside, there are all sorts of artifacts that exist in our curricula. Strictly speaking, educational artifacts aren't a problem, they are a problem because the world has changed significantly and we are doing a disservice to not prepare students for the world that they will exist in 10-15 years from now.

Programming is an easy example, but there are many forms of digital fluency all of which are desperately needed right now... as well as an understanding of key technological improvements that have impacted all industries (manufacturing, transportation, etc). A modern approach to ethics is certainly something we should be teaching. Basic primers in things that have been automated would also be useful - easy example: legal drafting, which is almost entirely online now.

Far and away the simplest modernization to high school curricula would be swapping Calculus for statistics since stats is certainly more relevant to everyday life.

Grow apprenticeship programs and other formats.

Along the lines of changing curricula, we also need to acknowledge that much of the work/everyday life in the future will be considerably more "niche" than it exists as we know it today (due to automation). Therefore, providing alternative formats for secondary education (late high school) such as apprenticeship programs, independent studies, and immersion programs should all be looked at as useful tools in education to expose young adults to different paradigms of learning.

This also coincides with previously mentioned items such as it takes a village, building modern subjects, providing teachers that aren't "teachers", and making school not seem like a factory or a prison.


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