problems with public schools

7 Hidden Problems in Public Schools

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Last Updated on October 10, 2023 by Sarah McCubbin

When we think about problems in public schools, we aren’t usually thinking about reading, writing, and math. Most of us who send our children to school are familiar with traditional core academic subjects (reading, writing, math, science, etc.), few of us have observed a different “curriculum” being taught. According to John Taylor Gatto, author of “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and award-winning teacher, there is a national “curriculum” being taught from Harlem to Hollywood. And sadly, it has nothing to do with teaching core subjects.

Upon teaching for 30 years and receiving Teacher of the Year for 3 consecutive years in New York City, John Gatto famously announced in the Wall Street Journal ”I Quit, I Think.” After leaving the public schools, he went on to begin a successful writing and public speaking career and became a huge proponent of homeschooling.

He outlines 7 things taught in our national curriculum that every parent should be aware of. The thoughts shared below are a brief summary from his book that should challenge every parent’s thinking on what their child is REALLY learning!

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7 Problems in Public Schools

1. Confusion

In most schools, the learning children receive isn’t related.It isn’t taught in a context that children or students can relate to and apply. In a single day, students might cover a new math concept, an event in history, a random science topic, an excerpt from a literature book, a music lesson, a school assembly or a party, instruction in how to behave on the playground, and any number of other lessons. It isn’t necessarily wrong, but the way the information is taught can be very random and much of the content has nothing to do with each other.
I remember when I realized that about my own education. I had been homeschooling for a couple of years when we started using a 4-year history curriculum. It started with the Ancient World and progressed through Medieval History, the Industrial Age, and then into the Modern Age. This was completely different than how I learned history. In school I had learned certain parts of American History multiple times but never Medieval…and if the others were covered, it was only single important events that were talked about. As I sat down with my son to read his history book, I was surprised at HOW MUCH I was learning. For the FIRST TIME, I was learning history sequentially and it was amazing. Random events in history weren’t random. They made sense in the context of the causes and effects that surrounded them.

One only needs to read math words problems in many textbooks to see how deeply confusion is rooted in our system. Life is made up of natural sequences like learning to walk, making a meal, getting dressed or learning to drive. Yet this is largely removed from the learning students do in school.

problems in public schools

2. Class Position

In school, children are often ranked or numbered and then grouped with people like them. It’s a virtual filing system of people. I remember being in school divided into reading groups. There were the slow learners, the average learners, and the advanced students. At the time, I accepted it as normal, but looking back, I can see how the students in the lower group never seemed to move up. They always seemed to struggle while the advanced students were the first chosen for new and exciting opportunities. School teaches you to know your place and accept it.

My Favorite Homeschool Books!

3. Indifference

A school day is broken up into mostly even increments punctuated by bells. While a teacher may prepare engaging lessons and work to create something that teaches meaningful content, it all STOPS when the bell rings. Students’ ability to engage in meaningful learning is interrupted over and over again as they are conditioned to follow bells instead of working until learning’s natural completion. Gatto argues that this also prevents students from having a complete learning experience and limits their schooling to more of an installment plan.

4. Emotional Dependency

Students in school can easily develop an emotional dependency on their teachers. Because the range of freedoms is largely restricted in a school environment, teachers can easily (even unintentionally) manipulate emotions based on how they favor student requests. This student gets a pass….that one doesn’t. This student is allowed to speak their mind and that one is not. School can easily be a place where students learn to say the “right” things to get what they want and where they can become emotionally dependent on their teachers and peers to accept them.

5. lntellectual Dependency

Students in school must wait for the experts to teach them what to learn next. Education is not based on independent study which follows a child’s curiosity. Instead, it is based almost exclusively on what the school tells the teacher to teach the students. Everyone is waiting around to do what they are told. The good students do what they are told but the “bad” students are more difficult to conform because they don’t want the education being offered. They don’t want to do what the experts tell them to do. Once they are labeled as “bad,”of course, then they are subject to discipline or loss of privileges which does nothing to encourage the student but only reinforces the negative behavior. All around us in our society, we have people who do not take initiative to solve a problem but instead wait until someone tells them what to do or how to do their job or solve a problem. Our education system is a direct contributor to this problem.

6. Provisional Self-Esteem

Gatto suggests confident people are simply difficult to control. So our education system has developed a system of grading and reporting on students that assign points and percentages to student performance. Over time, those points and percents can make a person feel like their value and how others perceive them is somehow related to those numbers. Eventually, people believe they are worth what they are told they are worth.

7. One Can’t Hide

The last lesson teachers in school teach is that students are always being watched and their time managed. Having so many students in a building necessitates that they are kept in groups and that no one goes off by themselves. The time between classes is kept sparingly short to prevent unwanted behaviors and even when students are at home they are given homework to do which prevents them from having too much time to pursue their own interests.

How Do We Solve This Problem?

Whether you agree with all of these points or not, it is absolutely clear that the structure and format of school do control the flow of information to a child and their ability to freely interact with information and pursue their own interests. As you consider your own homeschooling model, these observations on school are helpful to create a better learning environment for your children.

The solution begins with awareness. As a parent, it is your responsibility to look at your child’s education and see what is working and what isn’t. All of these problems may not be as prominent in every school or in every classroom. Some teachers have developed ways of teaching that promote more independent learning with integrated subjects. And that is great!

But where there are problems, you as a parent have several options. You can of course talk to the teacher and see if things can be improved. You can modify your expectations at home and intentionally try to support your child’s interests when they are home. You can find another school (public or private) that has programming better aligned to your child. Or, you may indeed want to consider homeschooling as the best option to allow your child to pursue their interests while learning time management at home.

If this is a topic of interest, I highly recommend John Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

When parents step up and accept the responsibility of their child’s education, everyone wins…., especially the children!