If it were possible to choose, what level of education most urgently needs reform: primary, secondary, or college?

I hear a lot of criticisms of each stage of education, but I wonder if fixing one of them would make a bigger difference than the others.

Answers

Manya Whitaker, PhD, Developmental/Educational Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Education; Educational Consultant

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Each level of schooling is in need of desperate reform but because education is cumulative, it makes the most sense to start at the beginning while also enacting structural changes. Because students begin school with varying level of readiness, I would suggest making Pre-school required as opposed to optional as it is now. Parents with high education levels are much more likely and able to enroll their children in high quality preschool programs. As a result, their children enter Kindergarten academically and socially ahead of students who did not attend academic preschools. This is the beginning of the achievement gap.

I would also suggest universally high standards for teacher licensure. At present, each state decides on their own qualifications creating a lot of variability between states. More importantly, I would eliminate the loopholes that allow people to become teachers without having gone through accredited teacher preparation programs through which they learn about child development, pedagogy, and curriculum. Every teacher needs to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to be adaptable, responsive, nurturing, and competent.

Finally, I would suggest altering the curriculum in the U.S. Again, this is a state-decided issue so it is difficult to implement reform. Our curricula rarely include physical education, music, art (fine arts and performing arts), sewing,gardening, or other coursework that focuses on skills and not just content acquisition. We are drowning our students in content they deem unrelated to their real lives outside of school so secondary students often disengage. If we can present a more well-rounded and engaging curriculum that is required for everyone (i.e. you MUST take art, PE, music, gardening, etc) throughout K-12 (not just in elementary school), we have a higher likelihood of helping students find an area of interest.

There are of course dozens of more things we can and should do to improve U.S. schools, but these three ideas address a few of the causes of student academic underachievement. I can't wait to see what other people suggest!

Jacqueline Reeve, Library Media Specialist, Writer, and Parent

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I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Whitaker's answer above. I've taught in elementary schools since 2008, and I think that elementary reform is the key to improving performance at the higher levels.

We expect a lot more from our young children in school than we have in previous generations, and it's not always a positive shift. Children have less time to play, to explore, and to naturally develop curiosity and problem solving skills. We give kids homework in kindergarten, and they start taking standardized tests in first grade. A lot of kids in K and 1 don't have the fine motor skills developed for writing, but we're expecting them to take tests and do homework.

I agree that preschool should be free and available for every single child. But I also think we need to move away from this idea that kids should be learning to read and write in preschool. They're missing out on a lot of natural cognitive development by structuring their learning towards future test taking. And I think it hinders natural curiosity.

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