Who Does Our Education System Work For?

Recent months have led me to reflect on our current education system in the West and more specifically in the United States. The basic case is well known: The US is barely ranked in the top 20 of OECD test scores, and American parents asked to grade the nation’s public schools mostly gave C’s and D’s. Videos and articles about the education system’s problems abound.

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Going to school in Montgomery County, MD. Photo from Martin Lender at HechingerEd.org

Yet American universities continue to top global lists. American students continue to compete internationally for positions in top graduate schools, big business, and elite organizations. For me and thousands of people like me, the education system — from kindergarten to university — was effective at opening our minds and getting us good jobs. Yet I have many other friends and acquaintances, some of whom attended school with me, who had terrible experiences during their education. And as stated before, national perception of our education system is poor.

This paradox got me thinking — who does the education system work for, and why? Following is my response — I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on it. What have I missed?

1 Students motivated by competition
This one I know from personal experience. I loved races. I loved spelling bees. And I loved competing for top grades in the class. There were times when I didn’t particularly like the subject we were studying, such as math or science. But I loved proving that I could do it as well as anyone in the class. People who love winning can enjoy the test-based methods we employ in school, even if they don’t enjoy the subject, because of the competition inherent in the social environment.

2 Fast readers, mathematicians, or memorizers
Students who are talented at one of the fundamental skills of education, either through natural ability or parental drilling, find it easier to succeed in our education system. Among those skills, I think reading, mathematical calculation, and memorizing are vital. A child who reads quickly will finish a science textbook or a story problem in math more quickly and will comprehend more. A child who calculates quickly will finish addition homework or chemistry homework much more quickly. A student who memorizes well performs better on tests and rote writing assignments. That makes the work less tiresome, which helps them succeed more easily (again, whether or not they enjoy the subject).

3Students who prioritize discipline and obedience
This was not something I had personal experience with — I was often in the bad graces of my teachers — but I knew students who were obedient and respectful, and the education system rewarded them. There were awards for good behavior, along with privilege and good treatment from teachers. This incentivized children who could sit bring themselves to sit quietly to continue their good behavior.

4 Top universities and graduate schools
The universities themselves also seem to be quite satisfied with the way the system works — at least top universities. They have more qualified candidates than they can accept every year, both at undergraduate and graduate levels, which means every year there are students capable of getting degrees who are turned away. This scarcity has allowed top universities to raise tuition prices every year for decades — the education system produces plenty of qualified students for their programs. Additionally, it produces more than enough professors (with PhD’s), which means they are never short of qualified candidates to fill the ranks of their faculty either.

5Elite management and financial organizations
I worked in a consulting firm after college, and I interacted with many other firms and banks during my last few years of school. I can say with some confidence that for the firms which make the greatest profits from our business system have little trouble with the education system. Each year, when they descend on college campuses to recruit, they are flooded with applications from top candidates. I never once heard a consultant, banker, or corporate executive say that the education system does not produce sufficient candidates for their recruiting needs.

6The wealthy
From the beginning of civilization, the wealthy have used their money to ensure influence in society and their influence in society to benefit themselves and their children. The education system is just one example — a child from a wealthy family who is willing to work hard can almost always get a good education, either in a good public school or in a private school. They can graduate from college with minimal debt and can afford to experiment and be patient in hunting for a job which fits their skills and interests after college. In itself, that is not cruel or unfair — it would be nice to have a system where everyone had those blessings, not to take them away from those who have them. But such behavior sometimes comes at the expense of those who have less in life.

1Students who are easygoing or who dislike authority
A student who thrives on competition and on following rules will do well in our modern education system. A student who dislikes either of those — and there are plenty — has a tough time. They are hounded by teachers and vice principals, hounded by parents, and end up feeling caged in by the “system.” Autonomy is one of the essential psychological needs of human beings. Is the potential of thousands of children being wasted because we refuse to recognize an essential human need?

2Students whose strengths are creative or social rather than academic
I have a close friend who is an incredible singer and performer and one of the funniest people I know. The education system recognized none of these talents, instead penalizing him for his lack of interest in science and grammar. In the Republic, Plato wrote, “Do not train children in learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” Might every child have a peculiar genius that we could help them find if the educational system were not so rigid?

3Industries or companies who need candidates with specialized skills
Among lists of careers with the best hiring prospects, those requiring specialized skills are most prevalent: nurses, engineers, software developers, physical therapists. These jobs require prior training — despite 16 years of education, I would be unqualified for any of those positions. Additionally, most of those fields have experienced enormous growth in the past 20 years, so parents and mentors are often unaware of them and don’t encourage youth to train for them. This is a disconnect between the job market and the education system, as well as a function of our rapidly changing world, but one which will probably rectify itself as individuals and families realize where the best job prospects lie.

4Low-wage, labor-intensive industries
A 2011 article about immigrant farm labor in Alabama explains that, “At a moment when the country is relentless[ly] focused on unemployment, there are still jobs that often go unfilled. These are difficult, dirty, exhausting jobs that, for previous generations, were the first rickety step on the ladder to prosperity. They still are — just not for Americans.” The article goes on to explain that once an industry becomes dominated by immigrants, like agriculture in the United States or car manufacturing in Europe, it becomes difficult to lure native-born workers back into the ranks. But I really believe that kids who attend decent schools and particularly decent universities also realize that such low-paying jobs require workers to sacrifice their health and happiness in the service of generally wealthy owners. The more education you get, the more such work looks like a raw deal. That’s one way our education system may hurt certain industries and companies, particularly those which don’t want to pay the going wage.

5The poor
There is a good deal of evidence that the current education system benefits the children of wealthy families more than poor ones. What does this look like? Children of immigrants who fall behind in school and lose friends because they have to learn English. Black kids who drop out of underfunded public schools and get picked up by the prison system. White kids in rural areas who don’t have the college preparation classes afforded to their suburban counterparts. There are exceptions, but by and large, children who come from low-income families are not given tools for success by our education system.

6A sustainable democracy?
The question mark here indicates that I’m not entirely sure about this one. But here’s what I think: an education system which exacerbates wealth inequalities, only facilitates academically oriented students, and does not accurately redress the nation’s underemployment issues will end up undermining true democracy.

More specifically, as far as I can see, the nation’s elite institutions — banks, management consultants, universities, government agencies — are well served by the education system. The nation’s elite — the 1%, the heirs and heiresses, the entrepreneurs who get lucky — are well served by the education system. Many middle class families are also well served, and even some poor students make it despite a difficult system, but there is no guarantee of such success. A democracy which relies on an educated public and a thriving middle class cannot be complacent with such a system.

Of course, it’s relatively easy to point out problems — solutions are the hard part. But there are intelligent people throughout the world working on these issues. Recently I told a friend that I had education on the brain. I was moved by his response, which read in part, “I suggest a system that rewards students for investment. I suggest a system that supplies more personal relationships, rather than tests to make sure ‘no student is left behind’. I suggest an educational system that puts community first and selfishness second. … The true sign of a successful education is found in a productive and safe society.”

I also believe education is absolutely fundamental to a productive and safe society. We’re not doing terribly, in the United States, but we’re not there yet. As we remember who the education system does — and does not — work for, we will be better able to make the right changes.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

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