A High School Senior Speaks Out–The Education System is Cheating Me

The Education System is Cheating Me
by a high school senior from southern California

I’m a high school senior now. I live in an urban community, meaning that schools in my town are embarrassingly underprivileged. All my life I feel that I’ve been cheated by the traditional education system. All students do is zone out on lectures, do class activities, and then go home with homework. My younger brother suffered so dearly during elementary school and the family would be up past 10pm shouting criticisms, shedding tears, then leaving the rest for the morning as we ate breakfast. Although the whole system is flawed, homework is possibly the most responsible for failing and loss of interest.

Homework is very exhausting. At my mediocre “honors” school, homework is taken to a whole new and annoying level. We get useless weekly projects that don’t help students understand the material. We are forced to take notes at home in addition to class notes. We do vocabulary…in the 11th grade! Math students have to do power point presentations, essays and research! Physical education students must also do essays and reports. It’s utterly ridiculous. People suffer from back pain due to hauling in a notebook for every subject, that needs to be checked weekly.

My school has no sports team, no library, no stable clubs, poor funding, and the school is entirely composed of trailer classrooms. On top of this, state standards have caused homework and the rest to become even more prolonged. We must write the standard pertaining to the assignment before we begin. So yep, I go to a bungalow school with no school pride, overcrowding, and tedious homework every night.

And then I realized something else. Homework is counterproductive. I remember this past junior year, asking friends what we learned in U.S. History, the most tedious class. No one knew. I asked, “What was in chapter one?” Shrugs.

“What is the encomienda system?” (System Christopher Columbus used to keep captured natives in line.)

“The ‘what’ system?”

It was sad. But…when you asked them to explain the plot of their favorite anime, or to talk about the latest book they read – they’re on it. It’s because homework causes disinterest and doesn’t allow kids the freedom to explore and find their interests. Because it is so overwhelming and in the end irrelevant to class time, students shut off and go into “auto work”. They call friends and cheat. I personally scribbled and faked bad handwriting so that my work would still get stamped. And then the morning after it’s gone. Traditional education is like that across the board. Students text and daydream while the lecture is on.

The monotony of it all is causing a dangerous cycle. The uneventful class time causes students to resent and not care about homework. That causes students not to learn. Then when homework time comes, other activities are missed out on and we can’t just relax, which turns into procrastination to avoid the pain of not knowing the material and leaving your leisure. The procrastination backfires when it’s time to take a useless test or do a project. Then we cram. We pass the test and complete the project. Mediocre results, yet still no one cares. Wash rinse and repeat. That’s what happens to a person’s brain under the traditional system.

I suggest that all schools adopt the free school, democratic, or Sudbury Valley models of education. It allows age mixing, pursuit of interests, allows trial and error, inclusion in the school’s operation and things aren’t needlessly forced onto students.

I’ve even dedicated my time to a blog that covers topics on the problems in traditional education: introvertedwisdom.com.

16 thoughts on “A High School Senior Speaks Out–The Education System is Cheating Me

  1. I’m never sure what’s worse. Putting my daughter in her base school where the homework is primarily tedious soul crushing busy work or the selective school where she’s worked to the bone. It’s either bored to death or worked to death. Is this the best our public educational system has to offer?


  2. Excellent essay. I don’t know whether I agree with your conclusion, though.

    What I’ve noticed is that progressives say, “the school system isn’t working because it’s too traditional!”, and traditionalists say, “the school system isn’t working because it’s too progressive!” My current feeling is that the public schools don’t work because they just don’t do anything well.

    I’d like to see a really well-run progressive school, and a really well-run traditional school. I’m not even sure which one I would choose for my kids (possibly different ones for each kid.)

    I don’t think our nominally high-performing public schools are really traditional or progressive. They’re just muddle-headed.


  3. I agree with you, Fed Up Mom, on the high schooler’s conclusion. I feel large public school systems could never go the way of Sudbury or constructivist/progressive. Those are smaller niche markets with very dedicated clientele. Unschoolers, for example, when finally needing to switch to school for one reason or another, are attracted to Sudbury.

    What could work on a grander mass market scale is what one public school county district (not ours) in my region does. They have Montessori and some other progressive models, even including a high school that is wildly popular, mixed in with the traditional standard issue fare.

    Our district, except for one regional magnet high school, is the same old same old in every school. Yes, there are distinctions but you can’t lose that large bureaucratic procedural institutional test driven feel of the place.

    But I also agree with FedUpMom’s assertion that the problem with public school these days is that they don’t seem to be anything well. Considering what it’s costing us taxpapers and how much staff these systems employ, especially oversized major metropolitan ones, that is not just a crying shame, it is an urgent tragedy.


  4. She pointed to the reason why a show like “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader” is possible. Not many of us remember anything substantive that we learned in 5th grade because we forgot it the moment school was out for the year! People talk about the summer slide as an inevitability of having 3 months off from school rather than the fact that they haven’t learned anything worth remembering!
    I’m not sure about which pedagogy is the “right” answer, but first, more people have to realize that what we’re doing is not working.
    I voted for Obama, but I’m very disappointed in his Dept. of Education’s efforts to improve our education system. It’s too much like NCLB, from what I’ve seen and heard.


  5. If you pay attention more to the young lady’s blog, you’ll see that she argues what FedUpMom and HomeworkBlues argues. She states that you cannot have ONLY independent schools, rather, a mix of independent and traditional. I highly advise that you check out the blog because it’ll help make a bit more sense of her conclusion.


  6. AnAngryStudent:

    Good point, angry student. I have ALWAYS argued that school districts should have a mix of traditional and progressive offerings. I live in an area where the entire county is one mammoth district, unlike New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example.

    Although it’s unwieldy and too large, there is something to be said for the county running the entire thing because I hear of such mismanagement in places like New Jersey where every township runs its own school ship.

    However, I wish my county had more school choices. Other than one selective magnet high school, all the schools seem to offer the same fare, IB or AP and they all function very traditionally with little distinction between the schools. As we know, not all children learn in the traditional auditory sequential lock step method.


  7. AnAngryStudent — yes, the blog is definitely worth a look.

    I’d like to tell you a little about my own journey through the wilderness of educational philosophy. The big crisis in my family was when my then 10 year old daughter became terribly anxious and depressed in our “good” wealthy school district. It turned out she was under way too much pressure in an “accelerated” math class.

    That experience gave me a great deal of sympathy for the progressive approach. I reasoned that if my daughter had more of a chance for following her own interests, and could get away from the constant grading and pressure, she would have a chance of enjoying school and avoiding depression.

    Now, having read up on these questions a great deal, I’m finding myself more and more in sympathy with the traditionalists. For technical subjects like foreign language and math, there is a great deal of material that kids need to get through. I would like my daughter to have a good solid base in these subjects, but I don’t see it happening (in either the public or private school, btw.) That worries me.

    And there you have it. One worried Mom.


  8. FedUpMom, I hear you. I don’t share your sympathy level with the traditionalists, though but please read through, we’re still on the same page.. I completely agree that there is a great deal of material to cover in foreign languages and math. Absolutely. Many people I know hate Everyday math, for example, calling it fuzzy math. As children, we learned those early math algorithms the traditional way and we learned it. Now we are finding that the newfangled math is sending a lot of kids to Kumon for after school tutoring. On that note, I’d agree that traditional education had it right, our kids need to learn these things. Even there, for almost every X, there is a Y. We find that visual spatial right brained learners (mine) don’t learn the traditional way. My daughter did not have Everyday Math but I don’t think the traditional method worked so well for her.

    Another example where I’d agree with you is that New York Times article you posted recently about middle and high schoolers picking their own literature. I used to teach for a man with a very progressive animated approach to imparting knowledge. He was one of a kind and when he talks, I listen. He posted the link on Facebook and noted this new trend greatly concerned him. It concerns me too. I was also annoyed the teacher admitted she hated the classics as a kid. Yet she went on to teach literature in middle school and it sounded as if she still hated those novels!

    Wait, someone here would ask? Aren’t you into all that child-led learning? I am and so much of it that homeschool year was indeed child led. But that didn’t mean we didn’t cover the classics. Oh, boy, did we. We did thirty novels that year. That article had students reading Captain Underpants in 7th grade!

    At home, my husband and I have figured out an excellent way to meld traditional and progressive education and it’s what I would love in a school. I’ve never been able to find it. My formula is very simple. Agreed that it’s easier to pull off in homeschool. But why schools can’t adopt this style utterly baffles me. Good old fashioned serious learning with modern techniques.

    Again, it’s actually quite simple. I hate to use the word “rigorous” because it has been so mangled and distorted but in the pure sense of the word, before it was corrupted, I’d want something serious and challenging. Serious does not mean joyless. It’s what we get at CTY and it’s why I’ve scraped together the money each year. Serious is when the students have lofty philosophical discussions over mashed potatoes. Where my daughter told me she met someone and had riveting conversations about comparative religions. Some kids really want to spend their days like this, immersed in intellect and inquiry. The “best” schools are just college prep warehouses. I’d want a St. Johns Great Books school on the high school level. With a heavy dose of STEM.

    The right school for my daughter would be a place that takes learning very very seriously. Without the incessant pressure of grades, scores and interminable homework that sends my daughter into stages of anxiety and sleeplessness. While we are dreaming, I’d want it to look like Googleplex, a place where ideas and creativity flourish. But not necessarily a Sudbury although I’m extremely supportive of it and we did our share of unschooling too. I love Sudbury but for high school, I’d want to know key areas are covered and covered well.

    What I don’t like (big surprise) is that traditinalists just send it all home. I agree this material has to be covered. But not in the draconian dull tedious way traditionalists espouse today. As Alfie Kohn says, Back to Basics? When have we ever left? My education in the 60’s was more progressive than what we have today.

    In conclusion, I’d want a place that embodies what I described above. That parents and school staff sit down together. This is a pipedream, I know, but maybe if you dream it, they will come.

    Sit down and seriously talk. In this dream, school is respectful and professional, an entity you can trust. Here’s the material we want covered, they inform us. How many hours a day does it take? This discussion has to be serious and it must include the major stakeholders. I consider students and their parents to be major primary stakeholders. And inclusion does not mean, you talk, we listen passively. You tell us your needs, we tell you ours, and we work something out.

    My dream is that NO homework is sent home. That is because our family will pick up where school leaves off. Short of that, I can see some group projects designed for after school. But school should NEVER send home quick and dirty work that can be done at school. Whatever can be done at school should be done at school. We’re told it’s practice. So practice at school!

    So we sit down together. How many hours does it take each day to cover the curriculum? And don’t just add more and more. No matter what you do, our kids will never learn everything. Choose wisely.

    I know a longer school day won’t garner any popularity here and I agree. But if you ask my daughter, she would tell you I’d rather have a longer day and get supervised study hall than what I have now. FedUpMom once wrote in response to that, and you think with a longer school day they wouldn’t send work home? Right now we can’t trust them which is why I DON’T advocate a longer school .day. But in my dream, trust and respect are the order of the day on both sides of the aisle.

    So, no, I don’t advocate a longer school day under the status quo. Again, in my dreamy state, I’d have this very serious meeting. Get rid of the fluff! I was livid when I found out my ten year had spent six hours in school assemblies learning about…smoking. I don’t know about you but most eight year olds I know do not smoke. I want school to teach. I can do the health at home, I want school to get it done there. It’s a school, not a social service agency. You may think you are doing us a world of good. But health is *my* job. Don’t do all that “health” and then send the work home because sleep deprivation is not healthy.

    So, continuing my dream. We have eliminated the fluff. Teachers complain of doing too much paperwork. At the beginning of 5th grade, I dropped off a bunch of forms at the office. I thought I was actually helping! What did I know? In the private school, they loved when I did that. My young daughter couldn’t remember everything and this way, the teacher wasn’t burdened. I got an earful from the new teacher. She told me my daughter must bring in all forms and they must all go straight to her. Control freak? Nah!

    Who knew? This teacher wanted more paperwork, not less. Go figure. We don’t want the teachers doing paperwork, we want them teaching. I’d kill NCLB and all the paper backlog that drains teachers. Less homework, teachers, means less grading, less evenings spent reading all that stuff. Actually, Susan Ohanian wrote last year that teachers don’t actually read all that stuff. Which begs the question, why are our children slaving over it?

    In a perfect world, if you hire good teachers (easier said than done, but if we could gut NCLB, in this economy, teaching may become a respectable profession again), eliminate the fluff and the endless time wasters, I can’t see why most of the material can’t get covered in the six to eight hours of school. I’d want to support teachers in every way possible by eliminating all superflous paperwork, distractions, nonsense and fluff. But the flip side is that teachers have to teach. Now the onus is on you. You cannot waste a child’s day and get away with sending it all home. This plan would not allow you to do that because now there are no more excuses. We give you time and support. You in turn teach and teach well.

    After serious discussions, if we all truly come to a consensus that more time is needed (again predicated on NO fluff, NO time wasters, no nonsense curriculum that wears our children down, saps their joy, yet doesn’t teach them anything for all that blood sweat and tears), if we have decided that more time is needed, then we take it from there. And come to a plan.

    Short of that, FUM, I’m not with the traditionalists. So what to do when you want a solid intense exciting curriculum without garbage and nonsense (sounds traditional) but the traditionalists have mucked it up so much, you can’t trust them.

    On another blog, some parents asserted that schools are so messed up, we need to start from scratch. One teacher asked, is anything salvageable or should we just blow the whole thing up?

    Yes, we should blow the whole thing up. And start all over. With parents in charge. We just might do a much better job. We already are, in the world of homeschooling.

    FUM, I think we are still singing the same tune, just in different ranges. How about traditional education served up the progressive way?


  9. HomeworkBlues — I expect we are singing the same tune. The math that sent my daughter into depression was the “traditional” kind, I guess, where she was just expected to memorize one algorithm after another, and crank through them on high-pressure tests. That definitely didn’t work. So the traditional approach, done badly, is tedious and stressful.

    As I say, I would love to see a school where the traditional approach is done well; with good teachers, who enjoy their subject, and can inspire the kids without overwhelming them. Where is this school?

    Sometime I think I’d like to break it down by subject. The progressive, child-led approach I think is at its best for the subject that a child has a special talent for. For my daughter, that would likely be art and writing. But she still needs the traditional approach to get a solid grounding in math and foreign language.

    And I absolutely agree that the 6-hour school day is plenty of time. It’s shocking how little is accomplished when our kids attend school 30 hours a week. If those 30 hours were well spent, homework would barely be necessary.

    Here’s a fantasy for you: suppose the schools had to account for every hour they spent with your child, and explain why it was necessary to send any piece of work home. What would that be like? And I would include an hour a day for lunch/recess. Even then schools would be able to accomplish a lot, if they threw out everything that just wastes time.


  10. Ah, FedUpMom, we really are on the same page! How about you and I just start a school? Some great schools, albeit scarce, are concocted when a fed up parent, who has spent years researching, listening and reading, takes all that expertise and puts her money where her mouth is. I have amazing ideas. I just need capital!

    I have so much to say on this and thanks, FEM, for reading all of it (you did read all of it, did you not? 🙂 I think it’s my best post yet because it finally comes up with solutions.

    I wish I had more time to digest it today but I’ve already spent too much time “off task.” No, I’m not off task. I complete a major chunk of work and then hit up on my favorite blog.

    Teachers, some of you wonder why we complain so much here. In my case, I no longer feel I have the power to change it. Right now my focus is to just get through the last year in one piece. Complaining is a way of blowing off steam. Cheaper and better than therapy. I suspect I will be more effective when my daughter is out of school than in it. I will also turn my energies to Challenge Success.

    But for those of you with younger children, you still have time. Empower yourselves and go change the world. One little schoolhouse at a time.

    Or get out. But I did that with a heavy heart because many teachers here have suggested that. You don’t like it, get the hell out. You pay taxes. Leaving should be a choice, not a crisis.

    Having said that, my heart still tugs at homeschooling. It is more vibrant, more colorful, more dynamic, more powerful, more real, more viable than it’s every been before. You are standing at the cusp of a major paradigm shift. In the time it takes to advocate at school, you could be finding a coterie of like minded parents. Take homeschooling to a new level and find a way to work and homeschool.

    Heck, get six parents together and each teaches his or her expertise, taking that time off from work. See if you can pull it off. There are support groups for working parents who also homeschool. Sounds impossible yet people do it.

    My advice is to put your resources there. It’s what I would do today if I could Time Travel. Sometimes you really can’t beat a dead horse. No matter what you will do, it will not budge. It’s dead. Cry, scream, and accept that that old horse is just not getting up. Now your task is to figure out a way to stop paying taxes if your old horse isn’t doing the job.


  11. High school students spend 6 hours a day for 5 days a week in school, and they get homework.

    This is an illogical model, because what are they doing “in school”?

    I feel that a lot of the time spent in school is just herding students to their designated seats and babysitting, very little “teaching” and “learning” actually does inside the classroom.

    For example, if a math teacher can teach effectively assigning 30, 40, or 50 problems would be unnecessary. If they cannot teach effectively then they tend to assign lots of problems to make up for that fact they cannot clarify the concept.

    History teachers that engaged the class and taught well, actually tended to assign less homework. If a history teacher, all they do in class is read the textbook out loud, those are the types who will assign book work and pointless projects.

    Basicially, if a teacher can’t teach effectively, they tend to use worksheets, (busywork) just to make up for the fact.


  12. Wow, Homework Blues sums up my thoughts and feelings to a tee in post #9. Coming from a public “great school” in a small, affluent school district (only one middle and high school): I often wonder why we can’t just sit down together and create a progressive (yet formally structured) curriculum for the district. In a district as small as ours, it seems the argument that “you aren’t preparing the kids for middle school” should be eliminated. Obviously, a cohesive, unified, parent driven curriculum seems as if it is possible in a small affluent district. Our school superindendent “talks the talk” regarding a dynamic, creative, humane, thoughtful curriculum but I certainly don’t see this in my daughter’s elementary school. Does he every leave his office (which is about half a mile from my daughter’s school) and take a look?

    Also, the teachers (many of whom live in our small community) seem very threatened by this idea. I’m not sure why…it seems to me that our tense, dysfunctional “school family” (as the principal puts it), isn’t a great place to work. Again, I am struck by the “power struggles” that seem to pop up between the teachers and the mothers re: the students. The condescending, patronizing tone of the school (we know what is best for your children) often floors me.

    Our antiquated school system is a “Sacred Cow” that needs to be tipped over. What private industry has the same business model today it had fifty years ago? I sometimes wonder if school vouchers are the answer. If I were given one tomorrow (to reinburse me for the taxes I pay) I think I would leave our “great school.”


  13. Thank you, Disillusioned. The parents at your school sound like a lot of parents I have encountered in our illustrious county gifted/talented program.

    Your principal sounds like a horror. Can you homeschool?


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