On Secondary Education: Why It is Broken

On Secondary Education: Why It is Broken

I am sitting in one of the dark classrooms at one of the schools I teach at in Riga, Latvia pondering why one of my students said that they would like to see the school burn down.

What are we doing to make high school students feel so demotivated and even angry at the system? I saw this in America, and I am seeing it here as well. I was hoping that traveling 8000 miles might show me some difference in public education, but it has only opened my eyes wider to the problems I already knew existed.

I am also teaching at a university, and this is where I see some kind of light for public education and the secondary school system that we high school educators are all but trapped in right now.

At every high school I have taught in, I have felt constrained as a professional. I have my own ideas about what to teach and how to teach them, but these ideas must conform to some standard curriculum to prepare for some tests to make sure our students are ”successful”. Some schools have been more strict, others less, but the feeling of conformity was always present.

At the two colleges I have taught at, I was given a standard curriculum to teach, but then I was pretty much left alone to figure out how to teach. At the university here in Latvia, I was told to take liberties within the classroom and to just make students better. How awesome is that?

My question always has been and continues to be why do we torture younger students and reward college students? Why does education and teaching get easier and more liberating the higher we go? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? When I got my Masters degree, I felt like going to class was fun. The projects were challenging, but always interesting to me, and I felt like what I was learning was useful and purposeful. Most of high school feels like regurgitation (for both teacher and student). Students have this look on their face like, “We’ve done this all before, so many times.”

And we PILE ON THE HOMEWORK! These poor kids here in the IB program are swamped. At Westside it was AP students burning the candle at both ends with so much work for every class that they were just struggling every day to keep up. Why is it this way? What are we trying to prove exactly by making students suffer like this?

I do not have all the answers, but I just ask for common sense reform. If colleges and universities can successfully teach students by trusting their teachers to be professionals and focusing on a curriculum without micromanaging day to day activity, why can’t high schools work the same way? Why did secondary schools become this strange place where everything has to be standardized and meeting these standards for these arbitrary tests to the point of nausea is the norm instead of letting students learn how to learn and enjoy learning for the sake of learning? Shouldn’t they be more exploratory and creative when they are younger moving toward more and more discipline as they advance in their studies?

I want to write more about this, but more important, I want to start a dialogue with other teachers, administrators and educational professionals. I know I am not alone in feeling this way, so the ultimate question is that if everyone knows the system is broken, why are we all continuing to support it? Why aren’t we making big, deliberate changes in the fundamental way we approach education now? Change will not come just because we sit here and wait for it. It needs to happen sooner than later, before the schools all metaphorically or literally burn down.


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