A Blog for Social Change by Giulia Curcelli
When I was younger, every year late in the summer, I would go to the store with my mom and my sister and pick out a new outfit for the first day of school. In kindergarten in was a dress with a watermelon printed on the front. Freshman year (yes, this tradition continued until freshman year) of high school, it was jeans and a plaid shirt.
In fifth grade, I picked out a gray shirt with blue writing that read, “I love school. What’s it to you?”
My future as a nerd (a label I wear proudly) was determined at an early age. In elementary school, I legitimately loved going to school, but not to eat lunch with my friends or to play on the playground at recess. I loved going to school to learn.
I enjoyed middle school. It was remarkably different from (and much more competitive than) elementary school, but I had great teachers and nice friends, and again, I liked to learn.
I was terrified to start high school—and rightfully so. I didn’t adjust particularly well. For two years, I attended a local high school that shall remain unnamed, one that is known for its overachieving students and high levels of competition. I hated it. That isn’t to say I couldn’t compete, though. But I wasn’t learning anything. In my sophomore Chemistry Honors class, I got an A+ spring semester; a day into summer vacation I couldn’t have told you anything that was on the final.
As a student who favors humanities classes, I was limited by the selection of courses—plenty of advanced classes for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) students, but very few for me. But even in my history classes—history being my favorite subject in high school—I wasn’t learning anything.
I realized that four years of “learning” like that wouldn’t get me anywhere, so I looked for options, considering everything from changing schools to homeschooling. Through the discouragement of teachers and administrators (and friends) alike, I was incredibly fortunate to find Middle College.
(Middle Colleges vary significantly from program to program, so this is a description of my experience.)
My Middle College program consisted of students from seven high schools from two districts, with about 40 students in each the junior and senior class. As English and social studies classes are standard per each grade level, we have those classes together at our local community college with two designated Middle College teachers. To fill the rest of our schedule, we take college classes, simultaneously finishing up requirements for high school and earning (transferable) college credits.
Moving to Middle College was the best decision I ever made—I found a tight-knit, family-like community of students who push each other to be better, a staff of teachers and counselors who care about students as humans and not just as test scores and GPAs, and classes that I enjoyed. I found my niche, discovered a love of politics, and figured out what I want to do with my life. And no longer was I blindly memorizing information and promptly forgetting it; I took classes that I found interesting and relevant, and I applied my newfound knowledge to my life. (I also became significantly more annoying with my constant “Did you know that…?” and historical tangents. Still, a small price to pay.)
My negative experience with high school was also social. As an introvert, I was constantly uncomfortable in certain classroom situations. (Societal bias against introversion is another rant for another day.) I have a difficult time spontaneously adding my input to a conversation, and the pressure to do so made it increasingly more difficult. Middle College changed that for me. I found a supportive, mature classroom of students where I could be myself and participate on my own terms, progressively more often as I grew comfortable.
People sometimes ask if I feel like I missed out on the “traditional high school” experience, and I often laugh to myself, simply because I forget that I didn’t have the traditional high school experience. To me, Middle College felt like such a normal step.
I was lucky that I had alternatives, and I was lucky that I had a choice. Middle College and other early college programs are growing increasingly popular; simultaneously, the dissenting voices rallying against traditional public schooling are growing louder. Obviously, there is something wrong with our public education system.
Why should I care?
Why should it matter that the system alienates some people? It’s worked until now, right?
Well, no. It does matter. Education is everything. Education is the future. Education is the way that we fix all of the other problems with our culture and our government.
This graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrates a couple important benefits of education.
I now turn to the fictional character of Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe in The West Wing) for an eloquent explanation of why this problem matters:
The West Wing Episode 1.18 “Six Meetings Before Lunch” (Watch this clip here.)
“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”
The problems with the public education system are complex, so I won’t claim to cover them all in a single blog post. I will, however, use research and statistics to seek to identify some of students’ complaints.
- Teachers teach to the test, and standardized testing is used as a barometer of student performance, which discounts students of different learning styles who may be intelligent but may not take tests well. This idea was reinforced by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which provides that accountability on the part of states shall be proven through “annual testing for all students in grades 3-8” . A Washington Post article explains, “Teachers oppose the tests because they provide minimal to no useful feedback; are keyed to a deeply flawed curriculum adopted in 1893; lead to neglect of physical conditioning, music, art, and other, non-verbal ways of learning; unfairly advantage those who can afford test prep; hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring; penalize test-takers who think in non-standard ways” . Thus, the teachers themselves are not necessarily culpable, but rather the larger system.
- Simply, students are not interested in what they are being taught. If they are not involved in what they are learning and invested in their educations, school is not doing its job. One survey states that “75 percent [of students] report material being taught is not interesting” .
- Not only does the information not hold students’ attention, but they see no point or relevance in their education whatsoever. The same survey indicates that “60 percent [of students] said, ‘I didn’t see the value in the work I was being asked to do’” .
- The standard group discussion model does not accommodate the diverse range of students in a classroom. Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, explains, “Introverts like to work autonomously, but the trend in education over the past twenty years has been focused on group learning” .
- A subset of this problem, one that I personally have noticed, is that the constant drive to get ahead means that true collaboration is forgone. This does not mean that group work is omitted, but rather the idea that students work together to challenge each other to individually be the best versions of themselves.
Many students do not find their classes to be engaging.
Five Things We Need to Do for the Education System. Now.
(This list is not by any means comprehensive but it is a place where I propose we start.)
1. Quite simply, stop teaching to the test. Let teachers be creative. Let them teach to different learning styles. Don’t use standardized testing as a barometer. In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed, “Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn” .
2. Allow students to pursue ideas in which they have an interest. Do not expect all students to have the same passions or curiosities. Even in teaching the fundamentals, integrate subjects so that students can find something interesting about it. Teach statistics using practical examples from politics or psychology or history. Teach history with diagrams and statistics or linguistic tricks to memorize important names or dates or causes (one of my favorite mnemonic devices: MANIA to remember the causes of World War I. Militarism, alliances, nationalism, imperialism, and assassination.). Cater to multiple learning styles so everyone has a working knowledge of the basics.
3. Emphasize relevance. Don’t make it about rote memorization, but rather about how the information is applicable, even for those who won’t go on to study a certain subject.
- A couple of personal anecdotes:
- Before eighth grade, I thought I hated history. But my American History teacher changed everything. She gave personality to important figures and helped us connect to the subject. Needless to say, as I will be majoring in History next year, she definitely changed my mind.
- For the past few years, I’ve been a camp counselor for summer science camp. I work with elementary school kids of all ages who, obviously, have an interest in science. I mentioned genes in passing and they proceeded to nag me for the rest of the week: “Tell us more about genes!” After about 20 minutes of talking, though, I had pretty much exhausted my knowledge of genetics. So I diverted their attention to a subject I knew more about. One kid asserted that “history is boring.” I challenged myself to change his mind. I told them stories that my parents and grandparents had told me about their childhoods (social history, the historical study of ordinary people). Even the boy with an aversion to history took an interest. They were curious because it was relevant. Genes were relevant, their grandparents were relevant, their education was relevant.
4. Let students move at their own pace and learn in their own ways. For introverted students, understand that participation is multifaceted. Not everyone will raise their hand or contribute to a group discussion. Instead, they may actively listen, share in small groups or in partners, or express their thoughts through written assignments. Different people are comfortable sharing in different ways; some are energized by groups and some are exhausted. Be understanding and accommodating of different learners.
- I’ve touched on introversion/extroversion, but this also extends to students who learn at different paces and who are at different levels developmentally. During the school year I work as a tutor for Reading Partners, working with elementary school students from low-income communities who are reading behind grade level, giving them individual attention to improve their reading skills. Luckily, there is a program to help them in this area. Some of my good friends were left behind by the public school system. They fell through the cracks early and couldn’t catch up.
- Though it would be a drastic change, this video proposes that perhaps students should not inherently be grouped by age, and perhaps there are more effective ways of grouping students together. It also questions the idea of the smart/not smart dichotomy.
5. Finally, understand that collaboration and competition aren’t antithetical. Encourage students to work together as they are comfortable. This cooperation will teach them how to get along in the real world and will help them be just as successful as teaching them to be competitive will. Let students push each other to improve individually, to think critically, and to challenge established ideas. Don’t necessarily pit them against each other.
Funding for public schools is another issue entirely, but with the recent recession, all levels of government are cutting back and classrooms are bigger than ever, which makes accommodating different types of students even more difficult.
In conclusion… what can I do?
Practice these ideas with your peers or your kids or your friends, or even with yourself. When you learn something, ask yourself why it matters and why it is relevant. Learn information in multiple ways. Share ideas with others. Have engaging conversations. Investigate topics that interest you.
Research current education legislation and write to your state congress-people or local boards of education.
Extend the fundamental American ideals of plurality and tolerance to education. Understand that the current system may work for some students, but it doesn’t work for many. There is no single solution. The only solution is to make school relevant and comfortable to as many different types of students as possible.
Ultimately, it upsets me when I see people complaining about how terrible the American public school system is because I know there are better alternatives; in fact, I’ve experienced one. The problem doesn’t need to sit idly, festering, worsening, because we can solve it. We can only hope to stop alienating students from a life and a love of learning.
 U.S. Department of Education. (2004, February 10). No Child Left Behind Overview [Executive Summary]. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/overview/intro/execsumm.html.
 Brady, Marion. (2011, November 1). The complete list of problems with high-stakes standardized tests [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/the-complete-list-of-problems-with-high-stakes-standardized-tests/2011/10/31/gIQA7fNyaM_blog.html.
 Bryner, Jeanna. (2007, February 28). Most Students Bored at School [Article]. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/1308-students-bored-school.html.
 Long, Cindy. (2013, March 21). Author of ‘Quiet’ Talks About How to Engage Introverts in the Classroom [Article]. Retrieved from http://neatoday.org/2013/03/21/author-of-quiet-talks-about-engaging-introverts-in-the-classroom/.
 Strauss, Valerie. (2012, January 24). Obama on education in State of the Union address [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/obama-on-education-in-state-of-the-union-address/2012/01/24/gIQAVfAwOQ_blog.html.