How traditional schools are failing at readying our kids for life

traditional schools failing kids

Global pandemic aside, parents are (and should be) concerned about their children’s education. For far too long, our schools have repeatedly failed many of our kids. There’s too much red tape and not enough digging in and really ensuring that we’re meeting each child’s needs. 

We’ve learned that oversight is necessary. But this guidance of learners often looks like weeks of standardized testing each school year and specific graduation requirements that force adolescents into a uniform and confining box.

No human fits in a box, nor should anyone be forced to.

It’s time that schools shift from checking the boxes on state testing and graduation requirements and become a catalyst for success after high school. We believe that relationship-based micro-schools are the path to that success.

At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting, leaders addressed the gap between our youth believing in the power of education and the existing reality: Our youth

“demand opportunity and an education which allows them to build their skills and contribute to their own societies. Beyond literacy and numeracy, they seek digital and transferable skills like problem-solving, critical-thinking, communications and entrepreneurship. They know these are the skills they increasingly need in a world in which jobs are being transformed by globalization, automation and expanding webs of trade and commerce.” 

Sadly, school-to-work transitions are lengthy and many youth are trapped in dead-end, low-quality work. Even prior to the pandemic, it was a challenge for youth to break into the labor market and on average took “a staggering four and a half years to find their first decent job.” If we look at our disadvantaged youth and girls, the statistics are worse. 

How do we change this trajectory? Four ways:

  1. We change policy that mandates time wasted on state testing, and in the meantime stop teaching to the test to allow time for authentic learning
  2. We train teachers to create project-based and experiential learning experiences for students with the practice of greatly decreasing the amount of disengaging lecturing 
  3. We create internship programs and senior projects to allow students to explore careers and passions in a real-world context and
  4. We get smaller and more personal

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Authentic Learning Over State Testing

According to the Education Writers Association, teachers spend 14 days preparing students for state exams and 12 days prepping them for district exams. That’s a month of school days just for prepping, to say nothing of the number of days students spend actually taking the test. Assuming that each round of tests takes about four days, mandated assessments take up to 20 percent of the school year. 

This sort of assessment measures students’ retention of information, not how well they can apply it in real-life situations. And to gain back 30 or more days in a school year could mean the difference between being introduced to a concept and mastering that concept for many students.

Why not spend more time with real, authentic learning instead of rote memorization and drills that only prepare students to take a one-off test?

Experiential Learning Over Disengaging Lectures

Anyone who has been around children knows they don’t respond well to lectures–whether those lectures are at home or at school. Children of all ages quickly disengage from one-sided “conversations” and stop listening. And if they’re not listening, they’re not learning.

We need to empower teachers and schools to create learning environments that foster authentic, two-way conversations, informed by doing and real-life experiences. This requires training for teachers who are used to teaching in a traditional setting–both in how to get students more involved and how to manage behaviors and curriculum to ensure teachers are meeting each student’s needs.

Workforce Readiness Over Graduation Prep

Students will graduate from high school, but continuing in the traditional model doesn’t prepare them for college or the workforce. Why? Again, we’re preparing students for standardized tests, not helping them learn to navigate the real world or apply knowledge that they need to be productive members of society. This may help prepare students for rote college learning, but many students don’t aspire to attend college. There’s nothing wrong with some high school graduates taking a gap year, going to trade schools or directly into the workforce.

As noted in a World Economic Forum article, “Anytime, anyplace learning and skills development: multiple pathways to learning need to be available to youth, including the most marginalized, to enable them to develop the skills they need to succeed, at a time and in a place that suits their individual circumstances, including with the use of digital technology and community-based approaches.” 

Big Picture Learning and High Tech High are two models that do this well. School vocational programs are an underused resource that has the potential to support more students getting real-world experience while still in high school. Less focus on SAT scores and more on experiential learning can make this needed shift to relevant learning a reality.

Smaller Schools Over Bigger Classrooms

Until we stop expecting teachers to follow an assembly-line schedule with up to five groups of 30 students per day, we are not going to be able to provide these multiple pathways to learning. And our most disenfranchised students will be the biggest victims of this achievement gap. 

We see students thrive in public choice schools and micro-schools, largely due to smaller numbers and more emphasis on relationships and individual strengths. This needs to become the norm–teachers coaching smaller groups of students. The teacher-in-front-of-the-classroom lecture model needs to go the way of the dinosaur and allow students to pursue passions and be engaged in their daily learning.

Let’s rethink education and prepare our students to confidently step into the workforce or college with the skills needed to succeed. We can do this by focusing on authentic and experiential learning, where we prepare students for life.

If your school isn’t doing what it needs, it might be time to find a solution. Download our guide on Seven Steps to Opening Your Micro-School and get started today.

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