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Formal Education in the United States

Written by Anvita Tripathi

Illustrated by Anoushka Damani

The Boston Latin School, established in 1635, was the first school in what is now the United States. Although it has changed locations, the public school is still operating today. This public school was the beginning of an entire carefully designed system of educational institutes which later came to be known across the world for its brilliant colleges and universities. For example, almost every high school student today is more than just familiar with the term ‘Ivy League’ which stands for an American collegiate athletic conference comprising eight private research universities in the Northeastern United States.

But behind this fascinating history and reputed names, lies the truth of the American Education System. The facts remain that it is currently not doing nearly as good as its competitors. Behind the show are large scale issues like the lack of funding and a nation-wide crisis as the number of teachers quitting the system for good increases. As per the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index (WEFFI) report for the year 2019, the American System stands at a rank of 22, with not many chances of an improvement. What is going wrong? Who’s responsible? Why isn’t it being talked about? Many questions like these have been raised, none of which, however, have been answered in a clear enough way. To answer all the pressing questions and more, Anvita Tripathi presents to you the first edition of ‘Formal Education: The World Tour’, telling us everything that we need to know about the American education system and more!

1. What are the basic principles and objectives of the American Education System?

The American Education System is a fairly simple structure which holds a selection of values, both contemporary and orthodox, very dear to itself. The carefully designed Education System of the United States of America has been observed to reflect American ideals and priorities. For instance, the ideals in question include a dedication to democratic ideals and a commitment to individual freedom that has only quite recently become institutionalized. The current public education system also widely adheres to its long history of coeducation and claims that its primary motive is to ensure equality of opportunity and equity in access to education for all children, irrespective of their gender, race or disabilities, if any.

The education system is also quite decentralized. In accordance with the tenth amendment in the American Constitution, the federal government has no authority to establish a national education system as such decisions are made at the state or district level. Because of the same decentralization, the laws governing the system vary greatly from state to state, and in some cases, even from district to district. Despite this remarkable factor indicating diversity and opportunity, the system is astoundingly similar throughout the fifty states. Why so? Well, this is caused by various factors. Some of them being the uniformity in the social and economic needs throughout the nation, the frequent inter-state transfers of teachers and students and the role of national accrediting agencies in shaping education.

2. How accessible is this education system?

It is widely recognized that there are many inequalities in American society on both economic and social levels. According to a number of studies, the education system in the United States proves to be one of the most unequal systems in the developed world. Students have been shown to be presented with extremely different options, which vary according to their family’s social status. Compared with the rest of the member countries of the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), an American child born into a low-income family has less chance of accessing a better standard of university education than a child born into a middle-class family in, for example, a European country. Students coming from upper-class families have the means to access high-quality resources to prepare them for college, a significant advantage for ensuring success in the university admissions process. Therefore, it is not surprising that only 10% of students attending the best 146 US universities come from lower- or middle-class backgrounds.

3. Are the American people satisfied with this system?

When it comes to the current arguments on the American education system, public opinion is, not surprisingly, swayed to a side. With the current global economic climate, it seems apparent that the now established education system is unable to meet the needs of the American hyper-connected society; a society that is in a constant state of evolution. The American student, teacher and parent is, to put in simple words, not satisfied. And even after taking up the matter with the most high-ranking levels of authority, the only ever observable positive outcome has been the increase in the per-student investment of the government. But this investment doesn’t go into the places where it’s most needed such as lab equipment or increasing the availability of free public education. Instead, it goes to the secondary necessities such as security and other non-instructional costs. Needless to say, the people who are actually a part of this system and not the ones who run it have numerous complaints, this being just one. For example:

  1. Lack of Assistive Technology: A key to improving the educational experience for students with disabilities is continued improvements in assistive technology. Assistive technology in K-12 classrooms, by definition, is designed to “improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” Whether high-tech or simple in design, assistive technology has the ability to transform the learning experiences for the children who benefit. Nearly one-fourth of a specific student population is not being properly served and with so many technological advances. Assistive technology in simple and complex platforms has the ability to lift the entire educational experience and provide a better life foundation for K-12 students with disabilities.

  2. Overwhelming Number of High School Dropouts: U.S. Census Statistics tell us that 38 percent of high school dropouts fall below the poverty line, compared with 18 percent of total households in every demographic. Dropouts are also 40 percent more likely to rent their residences and spend $450 less per month on housing costs than the overall population. Only around 60 percent of dropouts own vehicles and they spend over $300 less on entertainment annually than average Americans. It’s clear that a high school diploma is in fact the ticket to higher earnings, at least on a collective level. The negative financial ramifications of dropping out of high school cannot be denied, but the way they are overemphasized in educational institutions seems like a worn-out tactic, especially as it makes the student population think of itself as a simple future earner, not a learner. Instead of focusing on students as earners, the education system needs to begin valuing students as learners so as to encourage them to finish their high school education.

4. Teacher’s Cut: What do the teachers make of this?

In consideration of recent events, the supply of new certified teachers in the United States is shrinking, but the number of public school students keeps growing. This has now evolved into a full-grown crisis. So what is going wrong?

In the US, teachers work about nine and a quarter hours a day. That's an hour and a half longer than the average for teachers in other countries in the Organization for Economic Development. Teachers in the US. work more than two and a half hours longer than their colleagues in South Korea, Finland, and Israel. But surprisingly, they spend about five and a half of those hours actually teaching. That's more than the OECD average and significantly more than teachers in New Zealand, the UK, and Singapore. Teachers in these countries get more time for planning, grading, and collaborating with each other.

So do all those extra teaching hours translate to better results? Not quite. Students in the US score slightly above the OECD average on the PISA exam, which tests 15 year-olds all over the world in reading, science, and math. But they score lower than students in countries like Finland, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, where teaching hours are much lower.

The average American teacher also spends more time planning lessons, grading student work, and leading extracurricular activities. But those extra hours aren't necessarily reflected in the teacher’s paycheck.

Needless to say, there are a number of reasons why teachers under the American Education System decide to quit. And there are just as many causes to justify the ridiculously large number of high school dropouts. But as said earlier in this piece, there isn’t much to say when talking about the things being done about these crises. Even though the American population full-fledgedly agrees that what its education system needs is a revamp, the action being taken is quite literally negligible. But the even more distressing fact is that the U.S. is not the only country to be facing this exact issue. Plenty of nations around the globe know for a fact that their current systems are soon to collapse and that they need some serious damage control. However, when or how, are among the many questions that remain unanswered.

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