Discover more from The Elysian
Here's how we should fix the education system
A vision for a more utopian future of learning.
Note from Elle: I am currently on vacation so I invited a few authors to write guest posts on utopian topics while I’m away. This week, I want to introduce you to, author of , who wrote this essay about our education system. I’ll be back December 19th!
My family tends to maximize the celebration of Thanksgiving, which this year took the form of a semi-peaceful invasion of my home. It included no less than 20 people residing on the property1, and resulted in all of the expected chaos that comes with large family events, but it also featured many long discussions on a topic of conversation that is something of a Thanksgiving tradition at this point: the US education system.
While probably not the typical turkey-day talk for normal families, it makes sense for this group: my mother started working as a substitute teacher while my siblings and I were still in school, then transitioned to a full-time middle school position, before finally making the move to high-school classroom. My grandmother was a Catholic school teacher for almost 40 years, and her other daughter (my aunt) was a math teacher. My housemate currently teaches middle school, and many other holiday guests over the years have been involved in education to some greater or lesser degree. And while I haven't held any official teaching position, I've spent hundreds of hours volunteering in elementary and special needs schools. These varied experiences have fueled endless conversation, engaging any and every (mostly) willing guest in dinner conversations and wine-fueled fireside chats.
Our historic dialogues have run the gamut, touching on all sorts of topics like teacher pay, standardized testing, charter schooling, socialism, the development of genius, aristocratic tutoring and quite a bit more. The usual consensus is that everything is broken, unfair, untenable, and probably actively harmful to all parties involved. But in the spirit of utopian ideals and building better futures, I want to leave behind any unproductive cynicism or blanket nihilism. As an extension of our peculiar tradition, I'd like to share the holiday discussion with the very nice people in this corner of the internet.
In line with Elle's focus on imagining utopian futures in here in The Novelleist, what I’m trying to do here is an attempt at imagining something more, something greater than our current state. What follows are my high-level takeaways, my favorite ideas and provocations, the 'rules' I think could help lead us towards more perfect systems of education. Think of these as the start of a discussion, rather than a set of perfectly formulated solutions. My hope is to spark conversation, to provoke and inspire, and perhaps to be a small push in a better direction.
With that, let's dive in:
Education must be equitable
Education has to be free to be equitable. I don't mean conditionally free, or mostly free, school has to be absolutely free at every level to be truly equitable. This applies to all levels of the education system, including universities. And it has to be free for everyone, including the teachers. There's no good reason why a teacher should ever have to provide course material using their own money. And yet, this is currently an incredibly common situation for teachers all over the country.
Equal opportunity should really mean equal. There's a difference between formal equality of opportunity and substantive equality of opportunity, and we need the latter to consider our system truly equitable. In large part, we’ve completed the necessary groundwork of formalizing equality of opportunity for everything directly related to schooling itself. Schools in the US are no longer concretely inequitable places, as they were, codified in law, as recently as 1954. However substantive equality of opportunity, what could also be considered ‘genuine’ equality of opportunity still does not exist. Tactically, I think this means introducing and/or normalizing things like free school food, transportation, before and after-school care, and in-school tutoring for students who struggle with the baseline core curriculum.
Education should be treated as a basic human right. Choice leads to inequity, especially when you factor in capitalist dynamics. Offloading the responsibility for selecting a good school onto parents is inherently unfair, and incredibly taxing even for the parents who are able to navigate the process of choosing a school. Treating education as a base human right and providing an abundant supply of high-quality schools is more just than letting a child's learning be contingent on the work their parents are able (or willing) to put in.
School shouldn't be damaging to students. Education can't be considered equitable if any significant portion of students seriously suffer through the process. We don't yet have a good evidence-backed idea of how school can potentially negatively affect some students, but anecdotally it seems that is the case for some kids. Bullying, severe anxiety, psychological abuse by teachers, social ostracism, all of these are issues that students potentially deal with during the journey from kindergarten to at least high school2. And that's before we consider the fact that school attendance is something forced upon virtually every young person, with high barriers to finding exceptions. At its very worst, school should be boring, but never actively harmful to its participants.
Teachers must be great
Teachers should be highly skilled. Teachers in Finland (to use a pertinent example from the book The Nordic Theory of Everything) usually have a Masters degree in their subject area. They also, more importantly have formal academic training in pedagogy if it's not their main area of study. The idea that subject-area knowledge suffices to become a teacher is bunk. Students are hardly blank-slates, empty vessels into which we can pour knowledge, and teaching is itself a skill that needs to be learned before it can be properly applied. This is truer the younger the student is: up until a certain age, the only relevant things that can be taught are the skills needed to effectively learn in the future. Individualism, curiosity, growth mindsets, these are foundations that can be built on later. To help young students unlock these skills requires pedagogy that you don't necessarily learn while mastering specific subject areas.
Teachers need to be paid well. The corollary to the above is obvious: you can't expect to have highly skilled practitioners in any field if you don't pay them accordingly. This seems obvious to us in other areas of social service that require high skill and extensive education; we hardly expect quality firefighting, legal defense, or surgery performed by underpaid practitioners. And yet we currently put the full weight of our expectations on teachers to facilitate educational miracles for a pittance.
Teaching needs to be a high-status profession. Something that seems unique to the US is that we don't really value teaching as a profession. Status is often more important than pay when talking about attracting highly-skilled practitioners: to use Finland as an example again, Finnish teachers have relatively average salaries, but it's considered to be a very high status profession.
Teachers need to own the educational material. The fact that we outsource most of our educational content and curriculum to companies fully removed from the process of actually educating is a tragedy. Teachers should be able to create their own content and curriculum, or at the very least choose what content is best for their specific situation. The separation of teachers from what they teach seems to me to be a lack of trust, which should be solved by making sure teachers are highly skilled and well paid. With those prerequisites, schools can benefit from talent density and enable context over control3. Talent density refers to having lots of talented individuals in the most important parts of your organization, which for education is obviously the teachers themselves. When you have a group of talented individuals working together, you reap benefits beyond the talents of the individuals in those positions, because dense talent are able to support and enable one another. Context over control pertains to the idea of giving your individual contributors the freedom to make tactical decisions to carry out the vision of the organization. Once you are able to attract talent and foster talent dense teams, the best course of action is to give those teams the flexibility to execute based on the specific circumstances they face.
Education is the sole end
Standardized testing misses the point. When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure, and this applies perfectly to testing in US schools. Standardized test scores and college admission rates directly affect teacher pay and school funding, and thus are the ultimate focus for the vast majority of teachers working within the system. There's an orthogonal problem here, namely that a university degree is a signaling tool necessary for better career prospects, which forces a focus on things like SAT scores. However education should be undertaken for its own sake, and judged on its own merits.
Not every student is the same, and our system needs to support that. Academic performance is highly correlated with genetics, and even in a system with total substantive equality of opportunity, not all students will perform at the same level. Part of the problem here is that we need to leave behind the idea that a person's value is intrinsically linked to their performance in school. We need to enable both students with high academic performance and those without. De-stigmatizing and expanding polytechnic schooling, and including it under the umbrella of free education is one step we could take, and would bring us in line with the systems of other developed nations.
Education must be available at any point in life. We presuppose that education systems will only cater to students between childhood and young adulthood, but an ideal system wouldn't have those practical restrictions. The last decade has seen a huge increase in the availability of learning material for self-learners of all levels through platforms like Coursera, KhanAcademy, Harvard edX, and MIT's OpenCourseWare, not to mention the wealth of learning material generally available on the internet in places like YouTube. This of course only currently applies to material that can be learned in a digital format, and only caters to students who can facilitate a self-learning project, and for those reasons we still have much that could be improved for those who want to continue their education.
Education should be the only purpose of schools. Extracurriculars should be just that -- extracurricular. Activities and organizations that dilute or distract from the goal of education should be excluded from schools. The main and obvious one is sports within schools. They create inequity in the form of special treatment of athletes, conflicts of interest for schools trying to attract athletic talent, leniency for teachers who are actually just coaches and can't teach anything, not to mention the massive non-sequitur that is college sports.
These 'rules' are rough, incomplete, and potentially just outright wrong. There are undoubtedly improvements that I've totally missed, and other ideas that I never could have considered given the particular set of experiences I'm drawing from. The idea is to spark conversation, provoke disagreement. In the future, my goal is to expand on each of these topics in, incorporating new voices, arguments, and ideas.
Like any good fireside chat during the holidays, I want to learn something new, to be wrong in unexpected ways. Sadly, there isn't yet a fireplace in the Substack comments section, but nonetheless I can't wait to continue the conversation with you all there.
A huge thank you to Elle for generously featuring my thoughts in her newsletter. If you’ve enjoyed this, or if it’s made you think, or if you totally hated it and think every point is completely wrong, consider following my newsletter . Thanks for reading!
As usual, thanks to Evyn Tindle for reading drafts of this post.
This included a gigantic RV parked in our driveway to supplement the sleeping space inside the house.