How Public Schools Fail This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

April 9, 2008
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Random House defines education as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” This seems like a basic foundation for what the U.S. public education system should be. It certainly would be nice if our public schools taught us general knowledge, helped us develop the powers of reasoning and judgment, and prepared us intellectually for a mature life. Unfortunately, they do none of these things.

Currently, the U.S. education ­system accomplishes three things: teaching us irrelevant information, preparing us for the bureaucracy of the college system, and destroying our intellectual curiosity.

The saying “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” is not far off. As students approach high school, the information they learn goes from necessary, like addition, to slightly applicable, like intermediate geometry (while I may use the Pythagorean theorem sometime in my life, I have yet to encounter that time), to just plain unnecessary. For example, sophomore year we were taught the law of cosines, which allows us to find the length of one side of a triangle when we are given the degree of the opposite angle and the length of the other two sides. This is as useless as it sounds, unless you plan on going into mathematics or engineering, and it’s only one of many useless facts today’s high school students are forced to learn.

It’s sad but true that many students are more focused on getting into ­college than on their academic development. College graduates make ­substantially more money than those with only a high school diploma, and though there is no direct correlation between money and happiness, a college degree also increases your chance of having an enjoyable job, financial security (different from wealth), and the respect of your peers. This is all well and good, but our public school system has been so focused on getting students into college that it has completely screwed them over.

For one thing, schools now place more emphasis on preparing students for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. ­Only recently have colleges begun to ­realize that these tests don’t actually measure intelligence, and it’s common knowledge that these tests only determine students’ ability to take standardized tests. This is bad for both the students who do well and those who don’t. Bad for those who do well, because their hard work preparing for the test is an investment that won’t help them in the future; bad for the students who do poorly, because most receive a low score simply for not being good at taking these tests.

The college application process also skews students’ priorities when it comes to extracurricular activities. The concept of selfish giving has ­already been discussed in the Teen Ink article “Acts of (Selfish) Kindness” ( To sum it up, author Daniel R. claims that many students are motivated to do ­volunteer work and community service only because of their desire to get into a good college.

As I was growing up, I struggled to come to terms both with my gender identity and my mild Asperger syndrome. As a result, I didn’t get involved in activities like church groups and community service until I was 15. By then, it was too late to develop a track record. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t do any extra curricular activities. I did karate for seven years, I was involved in Webelos, I was the vice ­treasurer of my middle school’s Rotary Interact Club, and I am currently the president of my school’s Anime Club and an active member in its Gay-Straight Alliance. I even have a part-time job. Still, I was denied initiation into the National Honor Society (NHS) because of “lack of service.”

I wouldn’t tell you that personal ­anecdote if there wasn’t a point. Our school’s NHS advisor said that many applicants were rejected because of lack of service and if we did more we might be admitted next year. The NHS considers service important because they believe it shows selflessness. But if I did more service between my ­rejection and the next initiation, I would only demonstrate that I wanted to get into the NHS, not that I had ­suddenly become a better person.

Colleges have also messed up high school education by turning it into a competition. Your chances of getting into a good college often depend on your class rank, regardless of how smart or dumb your class is. Or it may depend on your GPA, regardless of how hard or unfair your teachers were.

These two statistics merely provide a glimpse into the complexity of the college applicant. Luckily for some of us, the better colleges emphasize students’ essays, but even that can be risky. Some people just aren’t that good at writing, even though they may excel at other things, so their essay could decrease their chances of getting into a good school.

The final failure of American public education is the destruction of students’ intellectual curiosity. When we are in elementary school, we look forward to school because what we are learning is relevant and practical. This fades as we enter middle school, and by high school the subject matter is both uninteresting and impractical. This combination makes high school students view school as something that they have to trudge through every day until the final bell rings and they can “have fun again.”

Where did it all go wrong? When we started focusing on the competitive aspects of education and how well our students did compared to other countries, we forgot about the people who really matter: the students. How can we fix it? It may be too late for our generation, but the next one could be improved with a few adjustments. First, we need less emphasis on the “core classes” like science, math, and social studies. We all need basic backgrounds in these subjects, but by the time students reach high school, they know what they like and should be ­allowed to choose which classes to take. This will allow students to learn what they enjoy while still preparing them for life.

Secondly, we need more emphasis on elective classes since they help ­develop academic curiosity. While some teens view electives as easy ways to fill up their schedule, they ­actually help students grow as people while teaching them practical skills
for life. And since students choose these classes, they will not lose their academic curiosity.

In the end, the biggest change needed in the U.S. public school system is ­listening to students. While some ­psychologists would have you believe that teenagers shouldn’t be in charge of their education, our input is critical if we are to flourish in high school. Many students are surprisingly knowledgeable about their educational needs, and if our voices are heard, then the education system could get back on its feet and accomplish its purpose: to impart general knowledge, develop the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally prepare us ­intellectually for mature life.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

Join the Discussion

This article has 27 comments. Post your own now!

Melvin08 said...
Mar. 25, 2015 at 6:07 pm
I am even able to find myself reflected somewhere in this article. As I grow older, there seems to be this looming pressure to join a laundry list of extracurriculars. It makes me question what I'm even truly interested in.
JCoak said...
Feb. 10, 2015 at 4:59 pm
This essay informs me that most of things I learn will most likely not be encounter in my adult life. Should schools in general let the students still take the necessary classes, but make the student more involved in their career interest or keep the students in the classes regardless of what's important, such as their high school diploma?
Anonymous said...
Apr. 4, 2014 at 8:49 am
I think that your critiques apply not only to public school, but to private school as well. Do you have any evidence that it is only the public schools that stress the importance of college and required students to take four years of math and English classes? I think you will find that private schools behave like this as well.  You mention that the type of mathematics taught at the high school level is "useless unless you plan on going into engineering or math."  While I un... (more »)
RedDaisy said...
Jan. 31, 2012 at 7:33 pm
Agreed with almost everything. Very nice essay.
Rhinos said...
Nov. 26, 2011 at 10:41 pm
utopia and dystopia...and i do have to say that CAS (community and service) should be on a voluntary basis, not so much for entire credit. I would rather say schools are quantifying a bit too much, CAS is supposed to be an abstract figure, while teachers are asking for quantified hours =.= and of course, multiple reflections.
browneyedcat said...
Nov. 26, 2011 at 5:43 pm

very well written. I am homeschooler for these very reasons. 

btw president of the anime club? what is that? Do you talk about naruto or what? it sounds interesting. :D Great job.

selenagfan said...
Nov. 4, 2011 at 6:36 pm
You are very right. School becomes more boring as you get older because we are forced to learn things that we know we won't need in life. I want to be a hairstylist, how is knowing the order of operations of math going to help me in that? How is knowing that their are 435 represtitives and 100 senators going to help me in life other than knowing what's going on? You proove a good point.
babygirlinthetardis said...
Oct. 5, 2010 at 2:25 pm
Same over here - my school keep persuading us to do things with the whole 'it looks good on your CV' thing and they're so obsessed with GCSE results they'll fast track us and then race through another - most of the stuff we're doing is just stupid and pointless, my maths teacher gets sick of trying to teach us stuff when all we want to know is 'where on Earth are we gonna use this and why do we have to learn it?' As soon as I hit GCSEs (Year 9/10 given my school's idiocy) I completely lost all d... (more »)
AnneOnnimous said...
Sept. 27, 2010 at 4:35 pm

I agree with a lot of what you said, but you clearly think that what we learn should be more practical. I'm sorry, but like you pretty much already said, we learned everything we needed to learn in kindergarten. What's left is the interesting stuff. While a comprehensive understanding of literature may not help you in daily life when you work at Wal-Mart, it will help you understand people and why we do the things we do better, the same as the law of cosines may not seem practical but can be ... (more »)

futurerousseau said...
Sept. 5, 2010 at 3:20 pm

the point of learning math is learning how to solve problems. Public schools should stop giving the answers to kids (it's boring if you're given steps on how to solve the problem), and give more word problems. I go to a private high school where everything is discussion based - the classes are small and the kids are focused so it works. I actually thought about dropping math (we're allowed to drop it before PreCalc) because it was so difficult but realized that a class that not... (more »)

poetry_addict said...
Jun. 13, 2010 at 4:11 pm
I have tried both public school an homeschool. Compared to my friends, while I am in eight grade I am learning subjects that high schoolers are not learning. I have more attention on me. I do not have the high loads of drama to worry about. An I do not go to school with drug dealers an drinkers an people that our going to be our future criminals. When the students in a school go down so does the education. Because our government, not wanting to "hurt any ones feelings" lowers the education for t... (more »)
sambo said...
Jun. 1, 2010 at 5:48 pm

You've raised some valid points there, but I'm not sure if I completely agree.  Yes, our public school system is much below what an ideal one should be, but the things they strive to teach us are reasonable.  You may think that the Law of Cosines is unnecessary, but somewhere out in the world, someone is applying it.  Our schools are merely trying to open up our opportunities.  I think the problem with our society is that people only consider getting ahead.  I think o... (more »)

rcjr. said...
May 11, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Thank you!

Finally someone understands!


izzib1202 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 11, 2010 at 7:37 pm
I agree with almost everything you say except for at the very end when you call for less emphasis on core classes. I have my favorite class as much as the next person, and although I would drop math in a heartbeat if I could, I still believe that having no knowledge of algebra or developing math skills would screw me over in the long run. Other than this, though, I think that this is a really well-written piece and that you bring up several good points.
goddess_of_the_moon_123 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 11, 2010 at 1:12 pm
Although I agree with most of your article, there are some things that I don't quite see eye to eye with: while a lot of what we are taught in school may seem irrelevant to us, the wide range of information we are forced to learn is for a purpose-- to help us figure out what we're good at, what we want to pursue as a career, and what professions we won't be coming within a 100 ft of after high school. And while this does lead to a lot of 'irrelevant' info, it also teaches us to know ... (more »)
Zora O. said...
Feb. 21, 2010 at 5:54 pm
Oh, my agreement is so very, very.. existent. I'm in Britain, though. Our education system differs marginally, but nothing said here is irrelevant.
silentpeacock replied...
Jan. 31, 2012 at 4:57 pm
omg i love ur name!
betwixt_11 said...
Feb. 21, 2010 at 10:24 am
This is all so true. It's why I took myself out of public school after my freshman year and now I teach myself at home. I felt like I was being cheated. Great work! Everyone who feels the same should read this.
crawfordkid This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 3, 2010 at 7:53 pm
Very nice article - many valid points...kudos!
Carrie said...
Aug. 10, 2009 at 2:39 pm
Hi! *waves* Up above is the story of my life! Have you ever seen TedTalks? There is one video about public education that addresses exactly what you wrote about and ways to fix the problems. I can't remember the speaker but he's a fabulous speaker and is right on with each of these problems. (except he's british so he doesn't talk too much about standardized testing [i think]). Anywho! I'm applying to colleges and I agree with most everything that you've written here. And altho... (more »)
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