How to Improve Schools’ Course Offerings

One of my biggest pet peeves is the inadequacy of the US educational system.  Unfortunately, we seem to be stuck training young people for an Industrial Age society well into the Information Age.  (Unless we’re in a new age by now; it’s been a while since I’ve learned about the ages of man.)

There are any number of ways to improve the US educational system, some of which I’ve already discussed.  But today, I’d like to take some time and suggest a few course additions that could help the United States to do better in preparing its students for the professional world they face today.  Let’s start back where the whole thing got started:

Elementary School

While elementary school is pretty good at teaching reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic (at least for the most part; I know that books have been written about where the school system or some portion thereof has failed even basic education processes), there’s quite a bit more that people need to succeed in a modern society.  And that type of education should begin in the earliest years of elementary school, with courses like:

-A Foreign Language: Another area where I wish that my education was more substantial (and want to improve my knowledge now that I’m a graduate student myself) is being able to communicate with foreign language speakers.  My school didn’t even offer foreign languages until Junior high school, which puts the US at a disadvantage to many countries that start this education when the students first enter school.  As for the choice of language, Spanish seems like a pretty obvious one, given the demographic trends we face, but depending on the demographic traits of the region where the school is located, French, German, Italian, or Portuguese could make options, as well.

-Basic Computer Skills: I might actually be too late on this one; perhaps every 3rd grader is more proficient at using computers by now than I am.  But a course on typing, using spreadsheets, and other computer usage skills would help to ensure that everyone is on the same page and has the essential skills of the information age.

-Skepticism: Alright, this one might just be my personal hope, but I’d love to see more effort put into teaching students how to ‘Trust, but Verify’, as Reagan put it.  Teaching students how to evaluate research, consider evidence, and determine the motivations behind statements that are made by public figures would definitely be a good thing.  Admittedly, there is something to be said about not crushing childlike dreams, so perhaps this course will have to wait until…

Middle School

Ah, middle school (or junior high, in at least a few more places); not quite old enough to start a part time job, too old to spend all day playing around.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the perfect time to add a few new courses to the curriculum!  A few that could be good include:

-A Second Foreign Language: Yup, that’s right, I’d like to see a world where students have to be tri-lingual to graduate from high school.  While the first round of foreign language education should, I imagine, focus on European languages that are at least somewhat similar to English, given the increasingly global economy and rising importance of non-European countries, language offerings like Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic would seem more helpful to students’ future prospects.  (Goodness knows, I’d almost be willing to go back to middle school for the chance to learn some of those.  Almost.)

-Personal Finance Basics: Another one of my pet causes, one I’ve written about here and on the Yakezie website, is trying to spread the importance of personal finance education.  Admittedly, the trick is trying to find a curriculum that a majority of parents would approve of, given how much variation there is in the approaches to money management.  As a result, this might be another one we have to move to the next highest school level, in this case…

High School

Ah, the culmination of your years of education (at least up to this point; there’s still a long, long way you could go).  Now, at this point, things start to get more complex; you start dividing up the people in vocational technical and pre-college groups, as well as allowing students more choice in the courses they take.  So, these are more suggestions on courses to add to the curriculum, including:

-Business and Entrepreneurial Basics: Another of the complaints laden on the school system (there are more than a few) is that it is designed to funnel people into the positions as workers, whether white-collar or blue-collar.  There isn’t much (formal) education provided to those who want to be business owners rather than working for others.  If we hope to encourage the future business leaders of the country, providing more information they find useful would be a great start.

-Public Speaking and Expression: One area where people seem to especially struggle is public speaking, and other methods of expressing themselves in front of other people.  Combine that with the nature tendency of many high school age students to be (overly) concerned about what other people think of them, and you have a group that needs public speaking help more than any other.  (A side note: one thing I learned as a public speaking club member in college is that when you are speaking in public, the ones who want to listen to you and hear what you have to say will support you as you talk; the ones that don’t care, simply won’t listen or react.)

There you have it, seven courses (well, six, if you count the foreign languages as a single course suggestion) that would make the US educational system more useful to those getting an education (and more helpful to the country in general).

What courses would you like to see added to an elementary, middle school, or high school curriculum?  What courses do you wish YOU had when you were younger?

12 Responses to How to Improve Schools’ Course Offerings

  1. I am a high school teacher who teaches application software to grades 9 through 12. They learn Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Internet research. I also teach a higher level Information Processing class where my students can be certified in IC3. In addition, I teach Personal Finance Management, Introduction to Careers, Wall Street and Entrepreneurship. The two computer classes fulfill a technical arts requirement for graduation. All classes should have a critical thinking component. Teaching is a second career for me after some success in the business world so I try to really prepare my students for the real world.
    krantcents´s last blog post ..Bringing Up Financially Smart Children

  2. @krantcents: I’m glad that you are doing such work. It’s good that there are people teaching all of this to students, and that you are helping them to be successful in the real world. Thanks for sharing all of that.

  3. I’m definitely with you on the personal finance course option. I would also like to see courses on “getting along with others”. That’s an important art that far too many people take for granted.

    I’m a teacher. And I’m doing my best in both areas. But I’d like to see some broad changes as well.

  4. @Andrew: I’m glad to see that teachers both read my blog and seem to approve of the changes I’d like to see in schools; it’s good to know that I’m not too crazy with my suggestions. ‘Getting along with others’ does sound like something that many people could use a refresher or two on after kindergarten; maybe a regular, across the grades course reminding people of how to cooperate with their classmates (and eventual coworkers) that shifts its focus as the students as might be appropriate.

  5. I am with you all the way. I didn’t have most of the learning outlets you describe, more specifically, the foreign language classes. The high school I graduated from had all this and more but there is too little time in four years to take full advantage of all a school has to offer.

    Like you said, the earlier we can start our youngsters out the better. Case-in-point, I am teaching my 3 and 4 yr old nieces to count to 100 in Spanish. Simple ideas like this can open their minds, so learning other parts of the language come easier. I wish I had someone take the extra time to make sure I was bi-lingual at that age.
    Kent´s last blog post ..By Choice or By Default – Why Do People Buy White Vehicles?

  6. @Kent: Very true; high school is definitely not the best time to start with foreign language education. Besides not having that same youthful ability to simply absorb a new language as young people, high school students typically have any number of distractions and other commitments on their time that limit how much energy they can put into learning a new language. Putting more time and energy into helping younger people get beyond the basics definitely seems like a great idea to me.

  7. You know, Roger, I think the problem is that in America is that there is essentially a monopoly on K-12 schooling. As everyone knows, monopolies tend to provide lower quality services at a higher price, but it’s especially sad because it’s something this important.

    What I’d like to see are individual kids (and their parents) having more choice as to what exactly they want to study. I certainly wish that I had more computer science or engineering opportunities in school, but it would be foolish to have every student do that. So, another problem with the current system is that instead of creating educated graduates, it creates standardized minds.

    • Fair points, Tate. Giving children (and for the younger ones, their parents) more choice would definitely be an improvement. Being able to follow several different educational paths would make school much more useful. I remember that my school offered ‘vo-tech’ courses, allowing the less academically and more mechanically inclined students to be able to get useful skills for future positions. (Most of whom are earning more than I’m likely to earn, but that’s another story.)

      As for academic monopolies, that is certainly an issue as well, although it seems like more efforts are being made to correct that issue. How successfully they will work remains to be seen, though.

      • I really believe that if innovators were free to experiment and offer radical alternatives to traditional public schooling, we would barely recognize education in relation to what it means today.

        Think about this: the current pedagogical methodology in America dates back to the Prussian system. It was primarily designed to give kids all they need to be good factory workers: the three Rs, obedience to authority, being responsive to bells, and performing repetitive tasks well.

        Now think about the progress already made (and continuing to be made) in computing technology and the Internet. Without it, I’m not sure how I would otherwise be able to read what “The Amateur Financier” has to offer. But, as it is, I can read it just about anywhere with a mobile device. Twenty years ago, to do something resembling what we’re doing now, I might have had to have ordered a print publication you offered, wait for it in the mail, write a letter responding to it, and then wait for your response, and so forth. Who could have imagined then what we’re doing now? Yet here it is because people were free to innovate.

        Just imagine what possibilities there are in terms of personal and social development if such freedom were allowed in the K-12 sector. Kids spend thousands of hours in school. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the figure of 10,000 hours of practice to master something. What if every child had the choice to master something (whether it be a musical instrument, painting, coding, constructing, cooking, designing, etc.) instead of being forced to take subjects she has no interest in and will retain nothing regarding after the final test?

        And not only this (and I credit Michael Strong’s book “Be the Solution” for opening my mind to the possibilities), but what if there were curriculum designed to help enculturate kids to help them reach their greatest potential? As I understand it, peer groups will have a much greater influence than most teachers on kids’ behavior. No matter how many times the health teacher says, “Smoking is bad for you,” it will likely make no difference if a student’s peer group chooses to smoke. Likewise, if learning is stigmatized among a peer group, it will present a giant barrier to learning for anyone in such a group. If education innovators recognized this and were allowed to work out a solution, how many of our greatest social problems would be reduced? Thus, considering the time spent in classrooms, innovation in education would mean more than learning academics more efficiently but also allowing kids to develop productive alternatives to things like drug trafficking, petty theft, etc.

        • I agree completely about allowing schools to experiment. Things have changed so much since the dawn of our current system, but there hasn’t been anywhere near the adaption of new technology, and new approaches to education. I’d love to see how different schools would respond if given the chance to develop their own curricula, with no more oversight than to give their students the best education possible.

          Your idea to give every child a chance to master something sounds interesting. That said, I’m not sure that it would be possible for any child to master any skills (or at least, the complex sort of skills you describe) in the time they actually spend in school. At 180 days each year, for 12 years, and for (let’s say) 7 hours a day, kids are in school for 15,120 hours from 1st through 12th grade (I know, it felt like much, much longer). Take into account the time spent doing the traditional school things (like teaching the Three R’s, which I don’t think anyone is arguing should not be taught in school), and you suddenly have relatively little time for learning other things, from musical instruments to coding. Now, I don’t disagree that we should inspire such skills in children, but trying to give them all 10,000 hours while in school is impossible.

          As far as the idea to enculturate the kids, that does sound quite interesting. I’m curious as to what sort of methods such innovators would recommend; it seems that there’s only so much that be done to keep peer groups from leading to bad choices by the students. Influencing children’s behavior seems like an incredible task, particularly with all the influences that the typical child faces.

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