Teen Voices: How should we improve our schools?

by Jim Lang

In my final week with my AP Language and Composition students, I asked them to participate in a voluntary activity. I wanted to share some of my students’ viewpoints – their voices – here in the hopes that we can entertain and value their opinions and ideas, too.

The task was simple. I asked them to answer five open-ended questions on a survey:

  • What is the biggest misconception about your generation?
  • What one book should every person read, and why?
  • What is your generation’s biggest challenge?
  • What makes a great teacher?
  • How should we improve our schools?

The rules were simple. Participation was completely voluntary. They could choose to respond to all, some, or none of the questions. They did not indicate their identity or grade. They knew that some of their responses would be shared here.

Student Views

“Test students less.”

“Less testing. More focus on promoting the creative habit. Less memorization. More support to the arts.”

“Less emphasis on grades and competition with grades. Not only valuing academic achievement. I don’t understand why being good at math is so much more valued in society than music and creativity and expression.”

“Less testing and have a wide range of classes for everyone to explore new things.”

“Cut out all the testing, man. Teach the power of knowledge, not the power of the GPA (grade-point average).”

“Make teacher reviews more serious. Teacher evaluations seem to be done just as a formality.”

“We need to have a strong public education that students look forward to going to. The schools need to work on being supportive, which is what we students really need.”

“To improve our schools, we must break out of the box we have surrounded education with. We must allow creativity of teachers and students alike to flow naturally. We must find teachers devoted to improving their students’ lives.”

“Well, I would say we should imitate other school systems that are the academic leaders of the world, like Finland, but I know that would never work. We have too many students from too many walks of life. So, how do we fix it? That’s definitely about to be a problem that plagues my generation, so I hope we deal with it by creating an entirely new system that pulls aspects from other systems together to create something unique that works for Americans.

“All I know is the bell system makes me feel like an animal. We can read clocks. We don’t need bells ringing to tell us when to switch classes.”

“Do everything Finland does.”

“Finland. But really: all public education; don’t tie funding to test performance; pay teachers like they deserve to be paid; live in a country where education actually matters.”

“Get rid of standardized testing. Make sure the students learn, not just memorize.”

“Do not give kids who are failing the opportunity to quickly recover the credit with minimal effort. This encourages failure. The kid should have to deal with the consequences or try harder.”

“Some of us are actually curious and intrinsically motivated to learn. Do not destroy that by trying to extrinsically motivate us.”

“Start teaching a foreign language in elementary school. It’s much easier for us to learn it then.”

“Don’t get me started.”

My View

My students researched education as part of a second-semester research project that required them to synthesize information from a variety of sources and propose a solution to a problem in modern education.

It’s interesting that so many of them were compelled to compare American schools to Finnish schools in their responses. Finland offers a very different model to educating students than America. Truthfully, in many areas they are far more successful in educating their children than we are.

Improving American schools, in my view, requires us to commit to all of the following:

  • A recognition that we can only improve schools by first addressing poverty and income inequality, the defining problems of our nation
  • A commitment to hold more fully engage parents in our schools and to more fully hold them accountable for the academic success and behavior of their children
  • A complete rejection of market-place education reforms that have increased standardized testing and have contributed to the inequality hindering our schools and communities while reducing funding, effectiveness, and local control
  • A return to the American principle that our nation’s success depends on the vitality of our public schools (This, by the way, is a conservative principle, contrary to what many narrow-minded, intellectually challenged political “leaders” will tell you).

We have been reforming education for over thirty years. The reform movement has become the status quo, and it hasn’t improved anything.

Only by finally meeting the four challenges listed above can we truly begin to once again ensure that America is the world leader in education.

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