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Max Provencher is a senior at Searsport District High School and serves as the national treasurer of Future Business Leaders of America.
If you walked down the hallways of an American public school in 1960, you would find that almost nothing has changed in the past 60 years. Businesses are operating in new ways, embracing new technology and adapting to the changing landscape of the future. The calls for public education to change are nothing new. The cycle of blame and complaints in public education is near endless. Yet, nothing happens. Despite all this effort and energy, public education moves at the pace of a typewriter.
However, my grievance with public education goes beyond the surface; the underlying framework of American public education needs to be demolished and then reconstructed.
From a young age, I knew that I craved something more than conventional public education could provide. I wanted to learn about business, entrepreneurship and space; I wanted to learn about new technologies, and I wanted to learn about the future. I wanted to learn 21st-century skills that are not part of the traditional education model. Artificial intelligence, coding, automation, renewable energy, cloud computing, cybersecurity, mixed reality, logistics, cryptocurrencies, fintech and financial literacy are emerging as the most important skills and industries for a successful career, according to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The primary purpose of public education is to prepare students for success; schools seem to have forgotten this amidst the bureaucracy and political correctness. Public education is sort of like the old saying, “jack of all trades, master of none.” It teaches a lot of things poorly, I believe, to a large number of students. Worse, many of the things that public education requires for graduation are no longer necessary for most students.
As British education advisor Ken Robinson explains, the current structure of public education was designed and conceived for a different age. Robinson poses the ultimate question about education: How do we prepare children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century? We cannot prepare students for the future by doing what we did in the past.
Not only is what public schools teach problematic, but so is the how. Practically, the only thing that public education seems to be good at is producing test takers. In the real world, employees, business leaders and public officials are not judged based on tests or book knowledge; they are judged based on their actions, performance and deliverables.
I admire business leaders like Peter Theil who offers a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship “to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” Or Richard Branson’s Virgin Startup, which offers financial support to young UK citizens looking to start a business instead of going to university. These ventures help bridge the gap between what public education currently teaches and what is required to succeed in the global economy.
My final grievance is that I believe public education constrains creativity and forces conformity. It instills a fear of failure into students because of negative consequences for trying new things. I would know because I had that fear, and so do millions of other students. I consider myself one of the lucky ones who never stopped dreaming, questioning or wanting to learn more about the things that interest me. Other students leave public education without meaningful knowledge, without any real dreams and without the basic skills needed to survive.
In “The Polar Express,” the boy rings the bell that only those who believe can hear. As he grows older everyone around him has stopped believing, but he can still hear the bell. The same is true for public education, when we lose our dreams and creativity it’s gone forever.
So what can be done? The solution is as complex as it is radical. Eliminate tests, replace textbooks with open education resources and rethink homework; restructure graduation requirements to be more flexible; redesign the grading system to reduce pressure on students; and implement a more forward thinking curriculum, including the topics referenced earlier. Businesses, entrepreneurs, bankers and coders should be used as catalysts for change.
I will be long gone from the grasp of American public education by the time any changes are made. What I view as the corroded, rotting embarrassment that is public education is bound to collapse if something new is not erected in its place. Not much has changed in the past 60 years, but the hallways of public education have become worn, tired and dilapidated.