Are America’s Students Given A Fair Opportunity To Thrive In Today’s Modern World?
As a 12th grader at Ridgeway High School, not a day goes by where I don’t use my device for some kind of educational purpose. Every student has their own personal laptop, every teacher has a smartboard in their classroom, and there is additional staff hired to ensure that both students and teachers are using their technology to its fullest potential.
Technology has transformed the way students learn at RHS, providing an unfathomable amount of information at one’s fingertips, allowing students to submit work over the internet for quick teacher feedback, and exploring online web activities in a variety of subjects.
While technology has done so much for my school, there is so much more it could be doing for others. In America, the national average of instructional computers per student is 3.8 , only 65% of schools have internet , and only 30% of teachers feel comfortable integrating technology into the classroom .
In the modern world we now live in, it is essential for students to have access to computers in the classroom in order to both increase the quality of education given and acclimate students with the technology they will encounter in the workplace. The fact that there are school districts in America where students can’t access the internet, let alone enroll in the online courses and programs these schools cannot offer, should be a crying call to everyone that America’s public education system is failing the majority of its students.
It’s important to note that all of the research and the bulk of the writing for this article was done in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to adopt online learning practices, but that makes this information more relevant than ever. Now every school has been forced to integrate technology into their curriculum, whether they were ready to do so or not, and the gap in the quality of remote learning is wide as some school districts were better prepared to take on this challenge than others.
With the world and its economy hastily modernizing, the number of jobs in fields pertaining to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has increased exponentially. At Ridgeway High School, courses such as Honors TV Broadcasting, AP Computer Science, and an array of digital art classes are just some of the STEM electives offered to students, but as with technology use in the classroom, this not ubiquitous as the budgets of many school districts cannot provide support for these types of classes.
As a result, America’s education system is continuing to fall behind the rest of the world and is failing to prepare its students to enter a swiftly growing STEM-oriented workforce. The lack of quality education, particularly for low-income Americans, does not give young people in this country an equal opportunity to find high paying jobs in the newly modernized global economy.
Because American education systems lack a focus on STEM education and use mostly outdated teaching principles, too many American students are unprepared for work in the real world, thus hurting their opportunity to move up the economic ladder. Without significant monetary and ideological investments into the adaptation of modern teaching techniques, oriented around preparing kids for STEM-related fields and integrating technology into school curricula, America’s student performances and later economic income will continue to fall behind those of countries already years ahead of us.
Harold O. Levy, the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, wrote an article regarding how America is falling behind in educating its children, in which he provides the following statistics:
American students dropped from 28th place in math in 2012 to 35th place in 2015, among the 60 nations where students took the PISA test in both years. In 2015, among all 73 nations and economies where the test was administered to 540,000 students, American students dropped to 40th place in math, and placed 25th in science and 24th in reading.
The fact that seven countries have surpassed the United States’ performance on these tests in only three years is just one indication of how quickly this drop off is happening. The most shocking statistic from this excerpt, however, is that the US ranked a mere 40th in math, at a time when education in mathematics is more important than ever before for success in the global economy.
The facts speak for themselves, and the downward trend of the American education system leaves it failing to provide its kids with quality opportunities for success in today’s workforce. A big cause for this sudden drop in academic performance, which was still not very good to begin with for the country that has the highest government budget in the world, is the amount of money America puts towards educating its youth.
Lack of Funding & Resources:
Since the Great Recession, budgets on all levels of government have been cut in order to direct funds towards saving and then fixing the economy, and with all the money the federal government has spent on coronavirus relief in 2020, we are looking to continue this trend even further in the coming years.
In a study conducted on budget cuts, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the majority of states have lowered their funding of school districts since 2008. These budget cuts have been incredibly harmful to local school districts, as on average 47% of their funding comes from state governments . As the organization found in its studies:
In 35 states, total state funding per student was lower in the 2014 school year than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold. In 20 states, the cut exceeded 10 percent. In 27 states, local funding per student fell over the same period. In the other 21 states for which we have data, local funding rose, but those increases rarely made up for cuts in state support. In 36 states, total state and local funding combined fell between the 2008 and 2014 school years. 
Overall, the majority of states and school districts are losing the financing that they so desperately need, with this study finding that 36 state’s funding has fallen and not recovered since the Great Recession. If this trend from our previous recession is any indication of the future, budget cuts will continue to be commonplace as governments on all levels look to rectify the economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuts to education systems nationwide increase class sizes, keep teacher’s pay low, reduce the number of courses offered, cut back on purchases of educational technology, and do not allow schools to properly maintain their campuses .
School resources, such as guidance counselors, are often the first impacted by improper funding. While the American School Counselor Association recommends that there be 1 guidance counselor for every 250 high school students, the national average is 1 guidance counselor for every 491 students, and in some states this ratio is as high as 1:941 .
A large student to guidance counselor ratio prevents counselors from developing personal relationships and meeting the individual needs of each of their students. Guidance counselors are essential resources for high school students, helping them stay on track academically and develop career goals while providing emotional support when needed. Cuts towards guidance counselors and other important school programs, such as special education, don’t allow these resources to be fully utilized in the way they are needed to.
Levy concludes his own article on America’s failing education system with a shocking revelation, stating the following regarding our current path of educational funding:
Allowing this alarming trend to continue by starving public schools, colleges and universities of the money they need to offer the world-class education our children and young adults require will have dire long-term consequences. These include a weakened economy, higher unemployment, and, most importantly, a lower American standard of living and reduced national security.
These are problems that need to be addressed in order for America’s future generations to continue the long-lasting economic success that America has been able to sustain over the last 100 years.
Current funding barely allows school districts to stay afloat, let alone take on the drastic changes that need to be made to the education system as a whole in order to properly prepare students to take on the problems of the modern world.
A Major Economic Shift:
Over the last 20 years, the global economy has undergone major changes, which has opened up a new array of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math related fields. As the global economy continues to shift into an age dominated by technology and its expansion, it is up to the public education system to evolve alongside it in order to give American kids the opportunity to thrive in the 21st-century workplace.
STEM skills are useful in almost any line of work and are proven to translate well into a variety of career choices, even if the direct knowledge may not. A spokesperson for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that the organization must invest in “a surprising variety of STEM specialties” and that “[The NIH] uses all of the scientific specialties you might imagine being involved in medical research (doctors, nurses, microbiologists, geneticists, etc.) and also many specialties you might not imagine (mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, medical artists).” 
This example conveys the fact that STEM is relevant in almost all fields of work, even in areas where it might not seem to be. Knowledge in STEM and the skills that are built through learning it are so important in careers even when it might not seem to be so from the surface level, emphasizing the importance of all students having STEM experiences before they enter the workforce.
Businessmen are now learning to code in order to create programs that quickly graph company data. Pastry chefs need to have an understanding of the chemistry behind their cakes and breads. Lawyers can use knowledge from an introductory engineering class to site the problems of faulty construction and get their clients to receive injury compensation. Athletes can use information from a high school physics class to research the science behind their sport.
The list goes on and on, but it is proven that a basic understanding in all areas of STEM is something every American should have, so why is it still so undervalued in America’s public school systems? The shortcutting of STEM classes and programs in schools around the nation has led to kids not taking interest in the aspects of STEM that could be crucial to their career later in life.
The United States ranks 52nd in the world in STEM education , and enrollment in STEM courses is at an all-time low . This is evidence of the fact that schools don’t make STEM topics engaging to students from a young age, and does nothing to recapture interest when students are older.
The correlation between low STEM enrollment numbers and a low ranking compared to other developed countries is one that cannot be ignored. The lack of interest generated from American students from elementary school all the way through college is a huge reason why America is falling behind in STEM fields, and it is the fault of the education system for not doing enough to spark interest in these subjects among student’s young minds.
Expert Tyrone Taborn, the CEO of the Black Engineer of the Year Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Global Competitiveness Conference, stated the following regarding our STEM future:
Statistics show that science, technology, engineering and mathematics enrollments are declining in our country exactly at the moment when our global economy is driving up demand for STEM professionals. The future of America rests in the sharing of your narrative with our nation’s youth. 
It is up to the education system not only to improve the quality and quantity of STEM education, but also the amount of interest that it can generate with young students. Without changing the way that STEM is taught, America’s school systems will continue to fall behind the rest of the world and fail to give its students opportunities for success later in life.
Modern Teaching Practices for a Modern Economy:
Too many American students perceive STEM subjects as “dull” and “boring,” which can be largely attributed to the way that they are being taught in school.
As the need for an increased focus on education rises, new teaching methods must accompany it so that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can all be taught in ways that are both engaging to students and effective to their development of skills in these areas. “A good learning experience should make you think, and teach you something you’ll remember and use again”  says Mark Grayson, the executive director of STEM learning at Six Red Marbles.
Six Red Marbles is an award-winning company that specializes in creating innovative digital and blending learning programs. The work Grayson has done for the company has helped grade schools, universities, and other foundations revolutionize teaching techniques to go along with the revolutionizing economy.
For over 100 years, American schools have used the same methods for educating their children, consisting largely of memorization of fact rather than development and application of skill. The majority of learning in subjects such as math and science have never been focused on the skill development that is associated with these subjects, but rather asks students to memorize information which they tend to forget after it has been assessed.
“The learning model is very passive and based on regurgitation of facts” Grayson cites, compared to an active approach to learning that enables students with “the ability to figure out what you need to teach yourself to solve a real-world problem.” 
Passive learning does not help kids develop the skills that allow them to think outside the realm of textbooks and facts, and is what Grayson cites as the main cause in the negative perception American students harbor towards STEM subjects.
In the new global economy it takes skills to solve problems, not necessarily having memorized the periodic table in an age where this kind of information can be googled on your phone, so why haven’t school shifted their focus from fact teaching to problem-solving?
Studies, particularly in STEM subjects, should orient around understanding and applying knowledge rather than memorizing facts. Changing this teaching style would benefit students tremendously when they enter the workforce, as the skills learned from STEM subjects can be applied to almost any field of work, even if the basic knowledge is not necessary. Grayson says that by the time students enter the workforce, they’ll need to use their education to “solve a problem that didn’t exist when they went to school.” 
It’s been shown that drilling young kids with information isn’t what gets them interested in subjects, it’s solving problems that they can see applied in the world that provides the most intrigue in young minds (and old ones too, the same way adults want their work to be meaningful).
When students see that their work is important, no matter how far into their education they are, it makes them take pride in it. As good as it is to know 20 digits of pi, memorizing this information isn’t what’s going to solve the problems of the real world, and students understand this even from a young age. Without knowing the proper application skills it is hard for students to apply knowledge to a complex setting or scenario outside of the classroom.
Real-world application of the topics students are being taught makes their education more interesting and useful for later in life. Facts are often quickly forgotten but skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, and innovative thinking become ingrained in students for life and can be applied to a wider array of fields than just the subject it is taught in.
In Agbogbloshie, a community in Accra, Ghana people go to a scrapyard where they turn thrown out technology into new products. While most of them have no formal training, these “miners” have experience in taking apart and building, which has given them the knowledge to create new technological devices.
TED Talk speaker and designer DK Osseo-Asare shared with the world what allows the people of Agbogbloshie to do what they do, and he shows us what we can learn from them:
What’s really cool as well is that there’s a transfer of skills and knowledge across generations, from masters to apprentices, but it’s done through active learning, through heuristic learning, learning by doing and by making. And this stands in sharp contrast to the experience of many students in school, where lecturers lecture, and students write things down and memorize them. It’s boring, but the real problem is this somehow preempts their latent or their inherent entrepreneurial power. They know books but not how to make stuff. 
What the people of Agbogbloshie have done with the resources they have is truly fascinating, and shows the unmatched value of hands-on experience. The way that these people learn to build computers, 3D printers, and drones all out of scrapes with no formal training should be a lesson to all that underestimate the value experience provides.
This story should make every American wonder why the majority of their students can’t do the things these people can, especially when you compare the resources each are presented with.
Osseo-Asare says it best when he claims how American students “know books but not how to make stuff.” Books are not what made the people of Agbogbloshie world-renowned recyclers of old technology, but it was the experience that they gained and the interactions that they had with the people who were more experienced than them that has allowed these people to become successful at what they do.
The American education system needs to redefine the balance between knowledge and skill. Of course books are still important to provide a general understanding of a subject, but they should not be the sole focus of education like they are today. STEM is about creating solutions to problems, as illustrated by the people of Agbogbloshie, and it is these kinds of skills that should be taught and built upon in American schools.
Grayson’s ideas regarding how STEM should be taught follows these same ideas, and came up with the following examples :
- For elementary school students: Find out who in a class, or what group in a class, can build a bridge that could hold the most weight, or create a paper airplane that could fly the furthest. From here, students can be taught the engineering principles that went into building these basic structures, the physics behind why one structure performed better than another, and finally figure out how to make the structures better.
- For high school students: Embark on solving problems within their own communities. Example problems that students could tackle include testing local watersheds, monitoring the migration of local animals, identifying areas in their school’s auditorium where sound may be lost, or analyzing hot and cold spots in a building. Tackling problems like these would allow students to put their knowledge of a subject and transferable skills to use in a way that is productive to their community.
It’s activities like these that would engage students in STEM subjects starting at the elementary level, while also teaching them lifelong problem-solving skills.
Not only do these kinds of activities develop the skills that young Americans will need to take with them into the workforce, but they also establish a connection between all STEM subjects through interdisciplinary problem-solving. Making a connection between STEM subjects is difficult when chemistry, algebra, and physics are all taught in separate classrooms and by separate teachers who may not even know one another.
Rarely will students enter a career that only requires one aspect of STEM, and being able to make connections with the other subjects of STEM is another skill that our education system simply ignores. All of this on top of the fact that almost every school doesn’t have any required classes in the engineering or technology aspects of STEM.
The traditional learn, test, and forget method of American schooling is one that now more than ever sets us back in the world. By failing to teach our students the basic skills needed for the modern workforce, America is falling behind in the global economy and preventing its students from thriving in it.
How to Increase Educational Opportunities:
As America’s education system continues to fall behind other developed countries, it is time that more educational opportunities are created to help all American students receive a first-class education built towards preparing them for the future. A focus on STEM education and an overall improvement in educational quality is something that needs to be done in curricula around the country, but too many school districts have been drained of the funding and resources they need to properly educate their students.
It’s not a secret to Americans that certain towns and cities have better public schools than others. Geographic location is a huge factor in the quality of education American children receive, but what if it didn’t have to be.
In addition to making technology a more important aspect of school curricula, technology can provide students with services and information that may not otherwise be available to them. The North Carolina Virtual Public Schools system (NCVPS) is a program built off of helping students individualize their learning no matter where in the state they live:
The original vision for NCVPS was that a student’s address did not determine their access. No longer did they have to live in a large metropolitan area to have access to advanced placement classes, computer science, Latin, Russian, a range of world language. They could live in the more rural places in our state and still have access to these courses. 
Programs like NCVPS implement 21st-century technology and learning styles into something that is accessible to students of all different geological backgrounds. By giving students classes, written resources, and teaching programs that they may have never had access to, NCVPS and other programs like it have transformed the education process.
Online education can be used as a complete or partial alternative to traditional schooling, depending on the needs of each individual, and if done properly can help so many American students that live in areas with poor school districts. Online learning opportunities can provide access to dual enrollment in classes, credit recovery programs, summer school classes, advanced placement courses, and honors courses to students whose school districts may not offer them . In its article “Use of Technology in Teaching and Learning,” the US Department of Education Office of Innovation and Improvement states:
Technology ushers in fundamental structural changes that can be integral to achieving significant improvements in productivity. Used to support both teaching and learning, technology infuses classrooms with digital learning tools, such as computers and hand held devices; expands course offerings, experiences, and learning materials; supports learning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; builds 21st century skills; increases student engagement and motivation; and accelerates learning. 
The idea that education can now be mobilized is something that should be taken advantage of on a wide scale in order to provide students with educational opportunities they otherwise would not have. While individual school funding may be low, if funding for an elite nationwide online education program was given, it would transform the ways in which students learn at their schools.
Online courses disregard geographical barriers and can help bridge the educational gap between the rich and poor. These courses would help students take classes that otherwise may not be offered at their public high school, lessening the need to live in a good school district to still take important classes, and providing better opportunities for students from low-income backgrounds.
Even as the coronavirus forced school districts across the country to move classes online, it has been poorly implemented in many places and still has the same inequalities seen with in-person schooling. Had larger scale online education programs already been available, this transition would have been much smoother while still holding the aforementioned benefits towards students in low-income school districts.
Technology is the present and the future, and it needs to appear as such in our education system. We have the ability to help students of all backgrounds have a fair shot at academic success. A student’s address no longer needs to determine what classes they can take, yet it still does.
Helping to integrate technology more into America’s school systems can help to fix the problems that cost some American students the opportunity for success later on in life, and can create a higher quality of education that all American students can benefit from.
It is time to remind American lawmakers that the future of this country rests within its youth. As America’s education system continues to fall in the ranks of global counterparts, we as a nation are failing the prepare our future generations for success in the modern workplace.
For too many American students, the dream of being better off than their parents is a goal that no longer feels achievable. The competition in the modern economy is one that puts American students at a disadvantage if the education system continues to undermine their development, particularly in STEM fields where the demand for work is only increasing. The lack of funding and modern teaching practices is what has, and will continue to hold Americans back in the workforce of the present and future.
Due to poor schools in America, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, the talent of too many American students is not being properly utilized and as a result is going to waste. This human potential could be used to fuel America’s economy , however because of the state of our education system, many American students are not given the opportunity to use their talent and skills in the workforce to the best of their ability.
Without focusing on increasing funding, the importance of STEM, and access to online learning, America will continue to shortcut its students and prevent them from reaching their maximum potential for success later in life.
The solutions to these problems are available, yet the focus of those with the ability to implement them is elsewhere. The results of shortchanging America’s youth will become more and more prominent if we continue down the path we are already on, one that is dropping the US education ranks and overall economy behind those of other modernized countries.
By closing off quality education to the majority of our nation’s students, the youth of America will continue to be marginalized in the workforce, hurting their ability to achieve the economic success that living in America promises.
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