The Trouble with Education

Written by: Arlo Dolven, Student

December 15, 2017

So, What is "Smart?"

When I was fourteen, my soccer teammate and I were talking about school. I told him about my weird alternative school with no classes, grades, or tests. He talked about his junior high school, tests, and homework. After about a half hour of weird looks and confused questions, he turned to me and asked, “Do you know what eight times six is?” I didn’t know the answer, and I felt like a complete idiot when I replied, “No.” Now, four years later, I feel pretty smart. I’ve passed the Washington State soccer referee certification test, both written and driving portion of the Washington State driver’s test, and having never taken a class before, I have a combined 4.0 GPA in my college classes. However, one thing remains. If you were to ask me what eight times nine is, I’d still have to take my phone out. So, what is “smart?”

To answer that, first we have to look at the United States’ (US) education model. Upon first glance it looks fine: free public schools, tons of students in college, and academic exposure from an early age. However, as you look more closely, it becomes clear that our education system is riddled with flaws. Take, for example, Common Core. The idea behind Common Core is that if everyone is tested at the same level, there will be a truly even playing field, and you will be able to see exactly how smart everyone is. Because Common Core is designed to accommodate everyone, it has the effect of holding fast learners back, while also not teaching slow learners appropriately. Today if there was a fifteen-year-old in college, people would think, “boy genius,” and “gifted.” The idea that people of a certain age should be at a certain level is relatively new. “Until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all,” writes John Taylor Gatto—a retired three-time recipient of the New York City Teacher of the Year award and graduate of Columbia University (610). On the other side of things, for students who consistently get Cs and Ds, giving them more bad grades will not help, it will only label them as stupid. It’s a very realistic possibility that they simply can’t handle the US’s education model. As a result, thousands of potentially “smart” people are labeled as idiots.

Another clear problem with education in the US is standardized tests. Not only do they encourage mindless education, but they hardly judge the actual knowledge of a person accurately. “This is because it is harder to recall an answer than to recognize it,” Boris Korsunsky states in his article, Multiple-Choice Tests: Why the Controversy? If asked, “do any African countries speak Spanish?” most people probably wouldn’t know. However, when provided options, the question becomes much easier. Is it (A) Egypt (B), Ghana (C), Equatorial Guinea, or (D) Bolivia? Now it’s a simple process of elimination. It can’t be Bolivia because that’s not an African country, it probably isn’t Egypt because they were never colonized by Spain, and before you know it, someone who previously had no idea now has a fifty percent chance of getting right. This only gets worse with more complex questions. See, multiple choice questions can only have very simple answers, so the question itself has to map out what it’s asking. By doing this, the question usually gives away part of the answer. Just in the example given, by taking away multiple choice and simply asking, “do any African countries speak Spanish?” you first have to answer “yes” or “no” and “how many” before you can finally answer the question: which one. 

On top of the unfair playing field that is Common Core, which hugely benefits those who excel at STEM based subjects (i.e. math, science, physics, etc.), and the mindlessness of multiple choice testing that fails to accurately judge the academic capabilities of a person—one of the largest problems is the workload students are given. Even in elementary school, students are forced to complete rigorous amounts of homework. One first grade boy was required to “research a significant person from history and write a paper of at least two pages about the person, with a bibliography” (Wilde). This is absolutely ridiculous, especially considering the fact that studies have found “hardly any relationship between how much homework young children did and how well they were doing in school” (Wilde). It begs the question, why even have homework, or classes for that matter, for such young children? The obvious answer is that if you don’t start them early they’ll be left in the dust. However, this is not the case. The Clearwater School—a K-12 school where the rate of post-graduation success is higher than public schools, despite the lack of required classes—is living proof that standardized testing and huge amounts of homework yields no benefit to their education. Furthermore, the amount of homework assigned to high school students is hardly necessary. A recent study found that high school teachers assign as much as 42 minutes per class per day, so if you have five classes, that’s 3.5 hours per day. This number does not seem too ridiculous, but when compared to Finland—the world’s top ranked education system—who’s students spend around 2.8 hours per week on homework, it becomes clear that we are doing something very wrong. Because grades are so heavily based on homework, people with less time and privileges have a much harder time doing homework. Take people in poverty for example. Students who do not have money for a computer, a car, or textbooks are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to school. Usually, high school students in poverty will have to work long hours to provide for their families, and even then, they will have to do all of their homework either at school or a public library. This makes it almost impossible to complete every assignment, labeling even more perfectly smart people as dumb, only because they simply do not have the time to spend 3.5 hours per day hours on homework.

Despite the fact that poor students are at a disadvantage, that multiple choice tests aren’t great, and that Common Core has flaws, it can be argued that education in the US works fine. Some say, “Common Core prepares students to succeed in the 21st century economy” (Donohue). While others argue that standardized tests are an “objective measurements of students’ achievement” (Phelps). However, the fact is that neither of these statements are true. James Bascom writes, “Common Core standards themselves never actually define what they mean by ‘twenty-first century global economy,’” and “America did pretty well dominating the 19th century global economy, never mind the 20th century global economy, all without the help of…Common Core.” Along with Lynn Olson, who explains, “Studies suggest that 50-80% of scores from standardized tests show a merely fluctuated ‘window’ of a student’s progress” (qtd. in Vivian).

What we can all take from this is that the US needs to update its education system. To truly recognize the potential of our youth, we need to give kids more freedom to make decisions on their own, sculpt curriculums around people rather than sculpting people around curriculums, give students time away from school, and get rid of Common Core and standardized testing. So, if we want to find out what “smart” is, we must look past grades, test scores, IQ measurements, and degrees, and look at what really matters. So, what “really matters?” The truth is that I don’t know. No one does. I can tell you what matters to me, but I can’t say for anyone else. This is because smartness is completely subjective. This idea that there is an objective way of measuring someone’s smartness is nothing less than false, and our schools need to recognize that.

Arlo, Graduating Student

Works Cited

Bascom, James. “Why Is Common Core Bad for Children's Education?” TFP Student Action, 20 Jan. 2016, education.

Donohue, Thomas J. “Dispelling Common Core Misconceptions.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Jan. 2014, misconceptions/2014/01/17/2b8ee28a-7ef2-11e3-97d3- b9925ce2c57b_story.html?utm_term=.5bca65bd6cc0.

Gatto, John Taylor. “Against School.” The Writer's Presence: a Pool of Readings, edited by Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan, 8th ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2016, pp. 607–615.

Goldhill, Olivia. “Homework around the World: How Much Is Too Much?” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 6 Mar. 2015, much-is-too-much.html.

Korsunsky, Boris. “Multiple-Choice Tests: Why the Controversy?” Multiple-Choice Tests: Why the Controversy?,

Phelps, Richard. “Estimating the Costs and Benefits of Educational Testing Programs.” Education Consumers ClearingHouse,

Stainburn, Samantha. “High Schools Assign 3.5 Hours of Homework a Night, Survey Estimates.” Education Week - Time and Learning, 28 Feb. 2014,

Vivian. “The Case of Standardized Testing.” Teen Ink, 28 May 2014, Testing/.

Wilde, Marian. “Do Our Kids Have Too Much Homework?”Parenting, 21 July 2016,