Students Claire Schroeder and Simon Roth talk about assignments in class. (Madison Lester )
Students Claire Schroeder and Simon Roth talk about assignments in class.

Madison Lester

The problems with America’s educational system

November 25, 2019

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Four writers from the Clarion express their thoughts and feelings regarding various aspects of school.

What school doesn’t teach us: happiness and spontaneity

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From as early as four-years-old to as late as eighteen, (most of us) attend school. School— defined as: “an organization that provides instruction: such as an institution for the teaching of children” by Merriam Webster’s Dictionary— in America is used to shape the minds of young children and mold them into valuable members of society blah blah blah. 

If you ask me, school fails to teach one specific thing: how to enjoy life. Not to sound overwhelmingly pessimistic, but as much as our society has changed over the centuries, our way of life has remained underwhelmingly rigid; We go to school and graduate just to go to school again, and then we work ourselves to death. In simpler words, the structure of today’s society doesn’t support spontaneity, and there is no room for experimentation. 

Before you label me as a morbid drama queen, allow me to explain how and why I have come to this conclusion. I am currently a high school senior and I’ve spent 65% of my time this semester doing college-related things–essays, supplements, visits you name it. Admittedly, I didn’t start the process as early as I should have, so the anxiety created by my procrastination has only added to the paranoia regarding my near future. As expected, every application I filled out asked for the major of my interest. Since June (when I started this process), I have changed the answer to that question at least three times. Finally, I decided that I want to study both Environmental Science and International Relations.

Even though I’ve chosen majors that seem “interesting” to me, my indecisiveness before making this decision worried me. Not only that, but it got me thinking. I started thinking about college/school itself and the purpose of it all anyway. Why am I going to college? So that I can get a degree. But why do I need a degree? So that I can get a “good job”. Well, what if I don’t like that job? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that last question. I can’t help but worry about my life after college. I have this fear that after putting an overwhelming amount of money and time into creating the mold for the rest of my life, I’ll somehow end up unhappy. Let’s be realistic; There’s no trial and error in the real world and I won’t be able to spend another 4-6 years at college attempting to find another career interest of mine.

What even defines a “good job”? Most people would say it’s a job that pays well, and they’re not wrong. What is wrong is the way society has brainwashed us into thinking that there is only one path to achieve our common goal (making enough money to live a comfortable life). For centuries we have been force-fed the idea that college is the only way. This idea is not only discouraging, but it is also classist and exclusive. What about the families who can’t afford to send their children to college? Or what about the people who just don’t want to go to college and have goals and ambitions they can accomplish without higher education? Not to mention, this outdated belief continuously keeps negative stigmas surrounding people in the trades or those who start work right away alive (ex. They’re lazy, not intelligent, etc.).

That being said, the school that is required (kindergarten to high school) fails to help us explore these other options or anything related to life after high school for that matter. At least we’re able to add a few electives into our schedules that give us a taste of non-core subjects like photography, debate, foods and nutrition, and dance. But even then, our options are limited because our schedules are stocked up with irrelevant required courses–courses we have to take in order to graduate, yet none that have to do with learning how to do taxes or anything actually valuable, but I’ll save that rant for another time. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 80 percent of college students in the United States end up changing their major at least once (which costs money by the way). If you ask me, we should start asking kids about job interests as early as 5th grade and we should teach them that the things they truly enjoy, even if they’re unconventional, can be turned into a money-making career. This would give children ample time to experiment with their likes and dislikes, eradicate the crushing feelings of indecision felt by high school seniors picking a major, and decrease the number of students that switch their majors. Additionally, high school students’ schedules should be more flexible, and senior year should be completely dedicated to preparing students for life after high school, along with necessary core courses–including things like interview preparation, classes about bills and banks, entrepreneurship, lifestyle, etc. This way, the curriculum would be inclusive and not just targeted to those who want to go to college. 

To me, a “good job” is also defined as one that you enjoy. In a 2014 survey conducted by the Conference Board, a New York-based nonprofit research group, they found that 52.3% of Americans are unhappy/dissatisfied with their jobs. That same survey mentioned how dissatisfaction with work also affects how fulfilled we feel in life. So, you could say my fear of ending up in a line of work that disappoints me is not irrational at all and in fact, is supported by statistics. 

I always joke around with my friends and ask “What if one day, I woke up in my mid-thirties and had the sudden urge to drop everything and go backpacking around the world for three months and write a book about my adventures?” As outlandish as that theoretical situation is, let’s think about it earnestly for a second. Financial burdens aside, would this even be possible in our static society I’ve been criticizing throughout this whole article, considering it would not be related to my already chosen career? I won’t say no, but it would be extremely difficult not just because of the technicalities of making it happen but because of the discouragement of being spontaneous. As kids, we also need to be taught that there is more to life than work and school. As idealistic as this sounds, we should learn about the numerous and unique ways we can enjoy life. This way, happiness and fulfillment wouldn’t be heavily dependent on school and work–two institutions that usually induce stress and anxiety. 

Hopefully, you now see that there is definitely a method to my madness. I don’t expect everyone to understand my views on this subject because it’s just something I overthink about often. Honestly, I think my feelings on the matter are currently heightened because of the current phase of my life. I have a few big decisions coming up, and I can’t help but feel like there’s an element of finality surrounding me–and finality scares me. But I’ll be okay. I just wish I had this revelation earlier in life because I also wonder if this college path is genuinely the right path for me or if it’s just what everyone expects from me, but it’s too late to find out now. But don’t get me wrong; I am unbelievably excited about college and the new experiences it’ll bring me. The only realistic way to find out if this is the right thing for me is to live it out. 

 

The special education system sucks

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My lifelong dream is to become a special education teacher. Since meeting a little girl with Down Syndrome that I quickly became incredibly close to, I have known special ed is what I am meant to do. I am very lucky to be pretty heavily involved with the special education department at RB and having close relationships with the teachers and paraprofessionals. 

Our special education department at RB is full of passionate and motivated educators, however, that is far from reality at many schools throughout the nation. 

Just last week, a 13-year-old boy with autism was killed after being restrained face down for nearly two hours. The school, specifically for students with disabilities, has taken no responsibility for his death and claim it was protocol. That so-called protocol, however, broke multiple state regulations. After thirty minutes of being held down, he stopped moving and was told to stop fake sleeping. They did CPR over an hour after that. 

Special education students are often neglected by everyone working in the school besides those in the special education department specifically. It is totally fair to say that not everyone has experience with people with special needs and not everyone knows how to “act”, but it’s easy. You just have to treat them like a person! It is also a lot better to ask than assume. Many people that have friends with special needs want to advocate for them and if you ask the best way to interact with that person, they would LOVE to tell you. 

The disconnect between special education students and mainstream students is, in my opinion, the biggest issue. No, I don’t find it charming when you say my sixteen-year-old best friend is cute in the same way you would say it about a puppy. It is not funny to agitate or tease her like you would someone neurotypical because she cannot verbalize her feelings like someone neurotypical. I know it’s odd when you walk into a bathroom and hear someone talking to themselves even though it sounds like they are speaking a different language, but it’s not cool to laugh or ask me who’s in there. 

I am not a saint for having friends with disabilities, and I am NOT their babysitter. I am so lucky to aid with incredible teachers and paras and am heartbroken to know that kids won’t reach their full potential because the special education system is failing them. 

Every day in our school, kids in the special education department are doing a million jobs to help prepare them to be independent and get a job once they leave the transition program. In other states and schools within Illinois, kids with any sort of disability are looked down upon and not given a chance to show their worth. The issues with mental health and self-esteem many kids experiences are constantly on the rise. 

A job like teaching, especially special education, is emotionally draining and there are very few resources for teachers. The majority of teachers spend hundreds of dollars out of pocket, without getting reimbursed, to provide their students with what they need to thrive. Nearly every single person in the world has some sort of interaction with a teacher, and they are NOT valued as they should be. 

Something needs to change within our society surrounding people with special needs and the special education department.

The impossible balance between school and personal life

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Your level of intelligence should not be defined by the grades on your report card or the classes you take. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses; however, we continue to judge and get judged based on how we perform in class. It is not a matter of understanding the material, but instead, it’s about receiving an A or an F. 

Students who typically receive A’s are expected to continue receiving that grade. When students do not receive their desired grade, they often feel like they have let themselves down, as well as the people around them. In high school, we are trying to gain knowledge for the future, but we are so concerned about our grades that we fail to connect the material we learn to real life. Since colleges see our transcripts, we prioritize our letter grades over the desire to learn. In other words, we care more about the grade we receive than actually wanting to learn and be educated.

As a high school student, it can be hard to manage time. Society has decided that students should be obtaining good grades, involved in multiple clubs and activities, taking difficult courses, and finishing all of their homework in order to get into college and be successful. The recommended amount of extracurriculars to become involved in is 4-6 by college advisors, which can often leave other students without free time whatsoever. Anyone who decides to take another path in school will find themselves struggling. Everyone hopes to one day live the American Dream, but it seems like there is only one way to do so. I guess spending all of my days at school or at my desk stressed out is the only way to achieve “the dream.”

There are many times a week I spend hours working on homework and studying. I do believe homework is necessary for education, but it comes to a point where it is too much or redundant. There are also times when I have homework that does not benefit me at all, yet I am required to complete it. This year I have a couple of teachers who make the majority of their homework optional. Students are expected to work on it but only until they understand the material. This way, no one is stuck working on a worksheet that will not help them improve in any way.

Long school hours and extracurriculars can be very draining, and, on top of that, students have homework that is mandatory to complete. With all of these obligations, students do not receive a sufficient amount of sleep. Not receiving enough sleep can affect your mood, reaction time, memory, and performance in the classroom. Even if a student stays up late studying, they have to wake up early the next morning to go to school. 

It is well known that school can take a toll on your mental health. It can lead to stress, depression, and anxiety, which are all very common for high schoolers to experience. Allowing students to take mental health days seems like it would be beneficial; however, I see both sides of the debate. They would allow students to take the time to regroup and relieve some of the stress weighing on them. On the other hand, they would be missing a day off of school which could set them farther back, potentially increasing their stress. 

From a personal standpoint, there have been many times where I felt mentally drained and wanted to stay at home. It is one of the worst feelings to be at school given that I got no sleep the previous night, having three tests, more homework to do, and practice after school. However, finding time to make up for the tests and classwork creates additional stress that I try to avoid at all costs. Missing school can easily damage my grades, and I have to get good grades in order to get into a good college. I have to get into a good college because that is the only way to be successful in life–at least that is how it feels.

Suicide rates are at an all-time high, yet I fail to see any changes being made within our school. Students are unaware of the resources offered and are unaware of how to cope with anxiety, stress, and depression. At this point, I am disappointed with authority figures at all levels for not improving the way mental health is discussed and made aware throughout all schools across the nation. It can not be argued that mental health is improving as a whole because the statistics prove that suicide rates are only increasing withing the adolescent age range. 

Required courses limit students’ creativity

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I believe that required classes affect the future of students’ careers and the path that they take. When we are told to take a class, we tend to think, Why am I even taking this class? And that’s a good question because… why do we take these classes? 

There is something I have realized in high school, and that is that students are only being graded on their intelligence in classes that we are forced to take. Students are required to learn a curriculum that might not even be worth having the knowledge of in the future and if they don’t meet the requirements needed, either they can’t graduate, or they are not able to take a class that they are actually interested in because it cannot fit into their schedule. 

If students are always told that getting a bad grade in a class like art is “normal, and not required for your education,” how does that make it any different from getting a bad grade in math?

Besides, not every student is able to reach the same level of brilliance, but how is an “A” in music any different from an “A” in science?

Growing up, students are made to take classes like math, science, English, and history, but there are also electives to choose from that push us to branch out into different types of hobbies and interests. As a kid, I thought that going to classes like music and art was just for fun, so I never thought I would have to worry about “learning” in those classes like I would in my required classes. But that’s where I was wrong. 

At RB we have an AP class for Studio Arts, and from what I have noticed, a ton of students are registered or recommended for that class. This is an idea of what kind of work or style of work you can be doing in college and gives you the chance to choose what type of path you may want to take in the future. But if there isn’t enough room in a student’s schedule, they won’t have the chance to work on their talents and see what they are able to obtain. 

I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of students who feel that they are not “smart” enough in the classes they are taking because they have not obtained the grade that they wanted, the teacher wanted, or that their parent(s) might have wanted. Even after they put in hours of work, they still haven’t received a sufficient grade and blame themselves for not being able to get the grade they “need.” But if they receive a good grade in a class they are more interested in, like for example ceramics or photo, that’s because it is something they understand more and can handle the work because that is what their brain is able to handle. Just because it isn’t English class does not make it any less important to a student’s education and the path they want to follow.

Sometimes a student isn’t allowed to take a class because they still need to meet the basic requirements the school wants every student to take, but this affects their future and what path they decided to go down. This can confuse and also conflict with their idea of what school is and affect what type of career they actually want to go into.

Graduates go into college thinking they know what they want to do, and then realize that it is not what they wanted, and end up changing their majors which they lose money from and leads to more debt both in student loans and just in general.

Because of the shortage in students’ schedules, they are not able to take classes that could help their careers in the future. 

I know that I want to be able to make a career in journalism, but if I didn’t have the room in my schedule to take Clarion, would I even still be interested in furthering my skills in writing?

I am stressed for virtually no reason

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There is so much stress around picking classes for pretty much no reason. Are students really going to be unsuccessful in life if they decide they don’t want to take Spanish, or if they take more than one study hall? Are no colleges going to accept students that don’t have five AP classes crammed into their seven-period schedule? No. It is not the end of the world if students decide to take some study halls, or if they decide not to take that AP class that they’re dreading. So why are people putting so much pressure on the students?

Students usually start talking about picking classes for the next year around the end of the first semester/beginning of the second semester, and I think this is too early. I do understand that creating a schedule for every student at RB is difficult, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect students to know what classes they want to take after only one quarter of school. What if they thought they were going to like Honors Chemistry, so they signed up for AP Chemistry, but then discovered that they really hate chemistry?

Another issue is the internal struggle with taking a class where you can have fun, make friends, and take a hard, stressful class that might make your college application look a little better. Sacrificing social opportunities to improve your academic appearance is something students do regularly, so it is no surprise that about 30% of teens struggle with depression or anxiety. 

It’s no secret that the majority of students are extremely stressed, and some of this stress comes from the number of assignments and tests we have to do. Some students go to sleep at 1 a.m. because of all the schoolwork they are assigned the day before. This lack of sleep can cause a number of issues for the student. To name a few, students can have difficulty focusing, lack of motivation, and mood swings. These symptoms can have a huge impact on students, from their social life to academic life.

In addition to loads of homework students have to do every night, they also have to find time for their extracurriculars and interests of theirs that they want to pursue. Sometimes students have to give up things that they love doing to have more time to focus on school, which can, in turn, affect their mental health.

On top of all this work from school and extracurriculars, students also have to juggle social issues, like family or friend problems. Usually most teachers do not concern themselves with the personal lives of their students, and usually, they assume their students are okay, but this may not be true. Family issues can weigh very heavily on the minds of students and make it very difficult for them to concentrate on school. 

In addition to the family stress, the pressure from the students’ teachers can make them feel unheard and alone. When students are going through something difficult like divorce, or a death in the family, having no leniency from teachers can make the students feel belittled and pushed aside.

There are a lot of great teachers who make their students’ well being their top priority, and there are also some teachers who don’t really think about their students and what they might be going through. All us students ask is for some teachers to take a step back and look at everything from our perspective, so maybe we can be understood a little bit better.

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