Education Is Lagging in America. Is It Because of Bad Schools or Bad Kids?

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Who’s to blame for America’s struggling education system? Is it the schools or the students themselves?

The American education system has been at the center of countless debates for decades. The recent instatement of controversial  Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, has given one debate new life.

Education has been a mainstay for promoting the American dream for centuries. However, both students and teachers seem disengaged from the education process. Because of this, many students are learning less than in previous decades.

Recent studies suggest that American students now rank 38th in the world in math and 24th in science. The United States, once the education capital of the world, is now falling behind many European countries.

Teacher pay in the US ranks 7th in the world with an average starting salary of $44,000 with a peak of $67,000 for more experienced teachers. Additionally, the gap between teaching and other professions is widening. Young people are favoring higher paying careers at an alarming rate.

Lack of funding has left many schools scrambling to hire unqualified teachers. To make matters worse, class sizes are on the rise and students are less engaged than ever. Over the last ten years, the number of K-12 teachers has decreased by .6 percent despite substantial population increases.

Each of these statistics points to a single truth. The American education system is broken, but what’s the cause? Is it due to bad schools? Bad kids? Perhaps, both are at fault.

Funding appears to be a key factor in whether a school’s students are successful. Since 1985, education spending has gone up by 117 percent, totaling about $816 per pupil. However, test scores have barely budged during this same time span. Furthermore, the US spent a total of $809 billion in 2010 on education, an amount greater than France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, the UK, Canada, and Australia combined.

Even more concerning are the states that spent outrageous amounts on education only to yield poor results. New York’s total education spending per student is first in the nation, yet the state ranks 36th in high school graduation rate. Alaska, which ranks 3rd in spending, places a dismal 44th in graduation rate. Washington D.C. is the surest example of spending producing little results. The District of Columbia is second in spending, and last in graduation rate.

There are success stories like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, all of which spend large amounts on education and yield high graduation rates. However, states like Iowa, Alabama, Texas, and Nebraska all rank in the top 5 in graduation rate despite being ranked outside the top 15 in spending (Alabama is actually 38th and Texas is 43rd).

School funding is incredibly vital to ensuring teachers are paid well and students have the necessary resources. However, it cannot be denied that solely tossing more money at schools is a trivial solution to the education crisis.

It seems that there’s something more at play within America’s schools. Even the nation’s best schools struggle to meet the standards set by our European counterparts, but why? Funding is not the sole problem, as many American schools are on par in this category. Rather, Culture is the driving factor behind the American education system’s nosedive.

Students are more distracted than ever. Statistics show that students have perfected the habit of using technology during class. On average, they check their phones 11.43 times per class. This astounding number has likely grown from a lack of restrictions on technology in schools across the country. As a result, students are paying attention less in class and consequentially, learning less.

The education system’s struggles may also relate to behavioral problems in schools. Rising numbers of students are being diagnosed with ADHD, but studies suggest this rise is correlated to doctors who are unaware how to properly diagnose the disorder. The result? Potentially a million students misdiagnosed. In many cases, students and parents may try to use this misdiagnosed disorder as a justification for inexcusable behavior that may occur in school. This behavior directly contributes to the distraction epidemic that is hindering the learning of America’s students.

Kids are no worse today than in any other period in American history. Rather, our culture has changed what is deemed as acceptable behavior for young people. In doing so, we have hurt our education system drastically. While money is helpful for promoting academic success, reducing behavioral problems should be the main focus for both parents and educators.

How can this be done? School districts need to reinforce good behavior and punish poor behavior. Additionally, technology must be used efficiently and not as a tool of distraction for students. Only when these things are done can a school properly assess whether more funding is necessary to improve their students’ education.

Joel Gillison is a student the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill studying public policy.

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