How Public Schools Fail | Teen Ink

How Public Schools Fail MAG

April 9, 2008
By Owen Welsh BRONZE, Nahant, Massachusetts
Owen Welsh BRONZE, Nahant, Massachusetts
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

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.

Similar Articles


This article has 27 comments.

Melvin08 said...
on 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 BRONZE said...
on Feb. 10 2015 at 4:59 pm
JCoak BRONZE, North Charleston, South Carolina
1 article 0 photos 5 comments

Favorite Quote:
" Expect The Unexpected."

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...
on 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 understand that not everyone desires to go into these fields, they are two of the fastest growing fields. What you fail to acknowledge is that a large amount of students DO find the mathematics taught at the high school level to be useful and relevant to their career and college plans.  In the modern age, writing, while it might not be essential, is a vitally important piece of the workplace. People across all fields are required to write in order to competently perform their job. It should be no surprise then that colleges desire to accept good writers into their freshman class. Furthermore, most college admissions processes are holisitc, so a bad college essay is unlikely to impact your application as seriously as you have indicated.  I do agree that the competitiveness of modern education does more harm than good. And I agree that more electives would be beneficial for all of the reasons you provide. Students should have a big say in their edeucation. Just realize that other students might desire the type of classes that you despise, so cutting back on these classes does not actually help everyone. 

RedDaisy said...
on Jan. 31 2012 at 7:33 pm
RedDaisy, Guayanilla, Other
0 articles 0 photos 19 comments

Favorite Quote:
"It's not just having the courage; you also need the strength. What's the point of having courage if you lose and can't get back up after the first fail?" -Me-

Agreed with almost everything. Very nice essay.

on Jan. 31 2012 at 4:57 pm
silentpeacock BRONZE, Whitney, Texas
1 article 1 photo 80 comments

Favorite Quote:
all it takes is all youve got

omg i love ur name!

Rhinos SILVER said...
on Nov. 26 2011 at 10:41 pm
Rhinos SILVER, Saigon, Other
5 articles 0 photos 8 comments
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...
on Nov. 26 2011 at 5:43 pm
browneyedcat, Melbourne Beach, Florida
0 articles 0 photos 47 comments

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.

on Nov. 4 2011 at 6:36 pm
onedirectionlover GOLD, Hampton, Virginia, Virginia
16 articles 3 photos 37 comments
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.

on Oct. 5 2010 at 2:25 pm
babygirlinthetardis BRONZE, Snaith, Other
1 article 1 photo 14 comments
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 drive because we're just getting taught to pass these tests. None of it is useful, other than it looking good on college and university apps.

on Sep. 27 2010 at 4:35 pm
AnneOnnimous BRONZE, Peterborough Ontario, Other
3 articles 0 photos 146 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Saying 'I notice you're a nerd' is like saying, 'Hey, I notice that you'd rather be intelligent than be stupid, that you'd rather be thoughtful than be vapid, that you believe that there are things that matter more than the arrest record of Lindsay Lohan. Why is that?' In fact, it seems to me that most contemporary insults are pretty lame. Even 'lame' is kind of lame. Saying 'You're lame' is like saying 'You walk with a limp.' Yeah, whatever, so does 50 Cent, and he's done all right for himself."
— John Green

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 very interesting, and is occasionally useful.

Also, not all public schools are like this- in fact, even in the United States, some of them have learned to teach properly. I am in the International Baccalaureate programme, an internationally- focused, comprehensive school system that runs in public and private schools and teaches students to be well-rounded, as well as teaching them more comprehensive subject matter.

on Sep. 5 2010 at 3:20 pm
futurerousseau BRONZE, Vienna, Virginia
3 articles 0 photos 6 comments

Favorite Quote:
Not all those who wander are lost - Tolkien

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 only prepares you for the SAT but also prepares you for real-life problem solving is not worth giving up on even if it's exhausting.

There's so much more to say about this topic, but the truth is that people with money shouldn't have more of a right to a good education than people without.

If only we had more teachers to a single public school class, that would at least be a start to giving students the individual help they need.

on 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 those who cant take it any higher.  THey are highering not so decent teachers, they are having over crowded buildings an they our lowering the moral we have always set for a student.

sambo SILVER said...
on Jun. 1 2010 at 5:48 pm
sambo SILVER, South Burlington, Vermont
7 articles 0 photos 8 comments

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 only a minority really appreciate their education.  I agree, our public school system is screwed over with the notion of getting kids into college.  Though it may seem unfair that colleges are just a competition, it makes complete sense.  Life is a competition and it's unfair.  If our schools didn't teach us this simple lesson, we would suffer a lot later in life. 

In your last paragraph, you bring up a substantial point. 

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.

You are absolutely right.  For people like you and me, this stands correctly.  But consider those kids who are rather irresponsible.  Placing their education in their hands can go array.  Our schools need to create a base that will guarantee certain knowledge.

You've taken on a tough topic with an interesting viewpoint.    Both your arguments and commentary are incredibly written.  Kudos to you!

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

Thank you!

Finally someone understands!


on Apr. 11 2010 at 7:37 pm
Isabella_B. GOLD, Cranston, Rhode Island
14 articles 0 photos 6 comments
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.

on Apr. 11 2010 at 1:12 pm
goddess_of_the_moon_123 SILVER, Beaverdam, Virginia
5 articles 0 photos 70 comments

Favorite Quote:
'To unpath'd waters, undream'd shores' ~ William Shakespeare, A Winter's Tale

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 ourselves-- so while you may never use the law of cosines, in my exciting career as an architect (not that I want to be an architect, this is just an example),  I may use it every day. It's all about perspective.

Wanttodelete said...
on Feb. 21 2010 at 5:54 pm
Wanttodelete, London, Other
0 articles 0 photos 11 comments
Oh, my agreement is so very, very.. existent. I'm in Britain, though. Our education system differs marginally, but nothing said here is irrelevant.

on Feb. 21 2010 at 10:24 am
betwixt_11 GOLD, Pembroke, Massachusetts
13 articles 23 photos 10 comments

Favorite Quote:
The privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only. ~Thomas Hobbes

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.

on Jan. 3 2010 at 7:53 pm
Karma_Chameleon SILVER, English, Indiana
8 articles 0 photos 236 comments

Favorite Quote:
To be able to say "I love you" one must first be able to say "I" - Ayn Rand

Very nice article - many valid points...kudos!

Carrie BRONZE said...
on Aug. 10 2009 at 2:39 pm
Carrie BRONZE, Riverside, Connecticut
2 articles 0 photos 2 comments
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 although I don't have a generous amount of community service "hours," my sister is in the range for Aspergers, and I'm continuously helping her daily... And I enjoy helping people, but I'm so busy with too many extracurriculars to actually go and clean up the beach or work at a soup kitchen and keep my grades up and keep myself sane. (I usually don't keep myself sane due to our absurd school process). I currently attend private school, but I went to public school for 9 years. I can confirm that, like public schools, my private school literally "trains" us for getting accepted into colleges and being able to do the workload necessary in the top schools. I am considered to be in the bottom 10% of my class, GPA wise, and yet, I'm part of the top 15% in the nation, which is pretty ridiculous. The education system is flawed, you've got that right, and before I write a novel here, I want to say that it's not what they teach students... but how they're taught.

Ps. This would be an excellent college essay, I know this is not the point of the essay, but it's very well written and I think colleges would like it. just saying. :) keep up the good work!