It’s time to bring education into the 21st century

By Alan Shusterman

A record number of high school students are celebrating their hard-earned diplomas this year.

The celebrations won’t last. Despite their hard work, these students will soon find that they’re far from prepared for life after graduation. Academically, they’re worse educated than most of their foreign contemporaries. Occupationally, they’re ill-equipped for the jobs our economy needs. And emotionally, they’re less healthy than any generation in recent history.

America’s K-12 educational system is to blame. Despite huge advances in classroom technology and the science of learning, our nation’s schools remain a relic of another era.

Modernizing our schools isn’t just a matter of changing funding formulas and tweaking mechanisms for accountability. Instead, we must completely reimagine the American model of schooling, drawing on the science- and technology-driven practices that have revolutionized the modern world.

U.S. students are rapidly falling behind their international peers. In a recent report, America’s schools ranked 28th in the world based on the average math and science scores of 15-year-old students.

Even worse, the report found that almost a quarter of American 15-year-olds failed to acquire “basic skills” in math and science. Of the 76 countries evaluated in the study, only Luxembourg performed worse.

This poor academic performance translates directly into inadequate workforce skills, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, industries. Because of a lack of qualified applicants, companies take more than twice as long to fill STEM positions than equivalent non-STEM ones.

What’s more, current school practices are also making students psychologically unhealthy. The incidence of anxiety and depression among American adolescents has reached alarming levels. Nearly one in five high school kids contemplated suicide in 2013, many due to stress from school.

If we’re to reverse these trends, we need to completely change the way we teach young people.

That starts by acknowledging that every student is different. As a result, students need educations customized to their evolving individual needs.

This idea is far from new. Individualized teaching has long been recognized as superior to standard one-size-fits-all instruction. One study showed that individually tutored students performed better than 98 percent of students educated in a standard setting.

The problem is that such tutoring has long been prohibitively expensive. But with the advent of new technology, programs such as Khan Academy and Coursera are demonstrating that personalized, self-directed learning is possible on a large scale.

Once students master foundational core knowledge and skill requirements, they need resources and time to pursue their own projects, internships, and other opportunities for applied learning.

Rather than trudge through unnecessary extra science classes, for example, an aspiring writer should be encouraged to work on the novel kicking around in his head. By the same token, a science-lover should be able to spend her time in the laboratory rather than taking unwanted extra English courses. Apart from academics, schools should address students’ emotional and social growth. Those who embrace socio-emotional learning experience very real, measurable benefits — including enhanced academic achievement.

For example, in January, Developmental Psychology published a study of grade-school students who were taught meditation and mindfulness techniques. After 12 weeks, the students showed a 24 percent decrease in aggression and a reduction in depression-like symptoms — plus a 15 percent improvement in math scores!

Nearly every business model and academic field has been radically disrupted by new research and technology in recent decades. Yet our archaic industrial age model of K-12 schooling persists. For the sake of our future, our economy, and our children, it’s time we brought American education into the 21st century.


Alan Shusterman is the Founder and Head of School for Tomorrow (SFT).

By Alan Shusterman

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