The Growing Discontent With American Education

The Growing Discontent With American Education

There is a growing discontent with American education. You can sense it swelling like a big wave, evidenced in a mix of troubling stats and trends from waning public perceptions of education to significant declines in enrollment and attendance. Students aren’t just talking about their discontent with education but walking it, too.

Enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities peaked in 2010 and has been on a steady decline since and more than a quarter of students in K-12 schools are now chronically absent. Certainly, many factors are at play here ranging from mental health issues and a pandemic hangover to technological disruption and a series of education policy debacles. But the ultimate culprit of our discontent may be the hardest of all to acknowledge and address. The brutal reality is that education isn’t exciting, engaging or relevant for far too many students.

It sounds harsh to say and even more difficult to write, but ‘exciting,’ ‘engaging’ and ‘relevant’ are not words often used to describe education. When asking students, parents or employers, we are more likely to hear descriptors such as ‘boring,’ ‘outdated,’ and ‘disconnected from the real world.’ Indeed, only 26% of U.S. adults who have experienced higher education strongly agree their coursework is relevant to their work and day-to-day life. And a mere 13% of K-12 students give their school an “A” grade on “making them excited about learning.”

One of the many outcomes of students who find little excitement or relevance in what they are learning is not just declining attendance but also employers of all shapes and sizes who say they can’t find the talent they are looking for. With nearly 10 million open jobs in the U.S. and a mere 11% of business leaders strongly agreeing graduates are well-prepared for work, we cannot afford to have an education discontent crisis.

While we have spent the better part of the last three decades focused on improving students’ standardized test scores, we’ve made effectively zero progress against this goal. The most heralded solution in recent memory for improving schools was ‘Common Core’ – which took a decade to roll-out and then faced repeal and backlash leading to no measurable result. And as we put more emphasis on ‘academic standards,’ we let students’ real world work experience atrophy as the least-working generation in U.S. history. At the higher ed level, less than a third of our graduates complete a work-integrated learning experience (such as an internship or a semester-long project) as part of their degree.

How does school remain relevant when it provides such little exposure to the real world of work? How does school compete with the engaging and addictive content found in modern-day media, video games and bite-size-length mediums such as X, TikTok, and YouTube shorts? How does school remain up to date amidst the fastest-moving technological and social changes in history? Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes to the great discontent with education. But we can start by establishing a new, fundamental goal for education.

Our aim should be to make education more engaging and relevant. This sounds so simplistic. Yet this has never been a stated goal of any education policy reform in the past half century. If we were to make this our driving goal, we would need to put much more emphasis on the art and science of teaching and learning and on the integration of learning and work. And we would need new ‘north stars’ or metrics for which to aim.

We have national institutes for all sorts of important national priorities. But we don’t have one for teaching and learning. We have a U.S. Department of Education and a Department of Labor as wholly separate entities – yet nothing that aims to integrate learning and work. The average U.S. student takes 112 mandatory standardized tests across their K-12 education, yet we have no national measures of student engagement, exposure to experiential education or work-integrated learning.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And the will is developing in the rising swell of discontent with American education.

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