What’s Wrong With Education in the U.S.?

The Oct. 18 episode of the radio program “This American Life” was devoted to superpowers and superheroes. In one of the segments, reporter John Hodgman told people they could have a superpower, and then asked them to choose between invisibility and flying, explaining that they couldn’t have both.As an educator, I’m curious about human motivations and was interested in what people’s responses would be.

If you’re like me, the responses from those interviewed on “This American Life” may surprise you. One of the first people interviewed said she’d choose invisibility so she could steal cashmere sweaters. Another said, “I think that a lot of people are going to tell you that they would choose flight. And I think they’re lying to you. I think they’re saying that because they’re trying to sound all mythic and heroic. Because the better angels of our nature would tell us that the real thing that we should strive for is flight. And that that’s noble and all that kind of stuff. But I think actually, if everybody were being perfectly honest with you, they would tell you the truth, which is that they all want to be invisible so that they can shoplift, get into movies for free, go to exotic places on airplanes without paying for airline tickets, and watch celebrities have sex.”


I’m one of those people who’d choose flight not for any heroic reasons, but because I’d just love to be able to fly all over the world without burning fossil fuels and get to experience this amazing planet expeditiously. But it would never occur to me or, I’d like to think, to the vast majority of the people I know to choose invisibility for the sake of shoplifting or becoming a peeping Tom.

But this woman really did say this, and in fact, many people interviewed chose invisibility for the reasons she suggests, so perhaps I don’t have my finger on the pulse of mainstream human motivations.

Which makes me all the more committed to transforming and redirecting our motivations, which is why I’m a humane educator whose goal is to provide all students with the knowledge, tools and, yes, motivation, to be conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a peaceful, just and humane world for all people, all species, and the environment that sustains us. Which makes me sound like a superhero wannabe.

I’d also like to think that readers of this post are superhero wannabes, too.

Happily, we actually do have a superpower, not in the traditional sense, but within the most mundane venue of all: classrooms. It is in schools that we may have the greatest power to achieve the greatest good. It is in schools that we have the potential to seed a generation with the motivation to be solutionaries.

When my husband and I were listening to “This American Life,” he pointed out that real superheroes don’t actually have superpowers. He said that if you have superpowers if you can fly or scale walls, if bullets can’t harm you and you can leap tall buildings with a single bound then you’re not risking much if you spend a little time doing some good in the world. The real superheroes are people without superpowers, like Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who’s been advocating for the education of girls and women, at great risk to her own life, and who, after being shot in the head by the Taliban and recovering for the better part of a year, is still speaking out despite continued threats to her life. She’s speaking out about the power of education, identifying it as the single most important path toward peace, justice, and a humane and healthy world.

I agree with brave Malala. But right now, the focus of school reform, at least here in the United States, has little to do with producing solutionaries for a better world. The goal of education, as articulated in the U.S. Department of Education mission statement, is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.” This concept of preparing students to compete in the global economy has become such a buzz phrase, echoed by policymakers, politicians, school administrators, educational reformers, and in numerous books and articles on education, that it’s become an unexamined good.

But I question this goal. I believe we should embrace the great power of and hope for education: to graduate wise and capable people who are not simply literate and numerate, but who are also brilliant critical and creative thinkers and eager collaborators, whose goals include ensuring that the systems within production, agriculture, energy, transportation, protection and economics are just, healthy, restorative and humane. In other words, to produce graduates who, unlike some of the interviewees on “This American Life,” want to speak and heal rather than sneak and steal.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

public school is a waste... it's a broken system. kids learn through play.. rote memorization is all they want out of our children. this is unacceptable.. they train mindless, obedient followers who care little about the goings on in the world, or even in their own backyard. we ought to be raising aware, compassionate, kind individuals who have a passion for knowledge and a healthy curiosity about the world around them and how it works

Russell Parkinson

I think that the education system of US needs to innovate its structure by providing students with better opportunities that can help them explore frontiers in setting educational standards as per contemporary requirements. One of such areas is the development of online education and
virtual education prospects through which students can enroll in effective and efficient ways of acquiring education

Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian4 years ago

I think this is at least partly about what's so much better about "six" than "half a dozen". People pay money for solutions to their previously unsolved problems. It's certainly far from perfect, but economic competitiveness is an objective measure, arguably the only one we have, for how well a person contributes to solving problems. Many schools fail miserably in preparing students for this.

Connie O.
Connie O4 years ago

I agree Lauren B and Kamia T.

Ellen Gaston
Ellen Gaston4 years ago

The NEA admitted they aren't interested in educating kids, but the power they derive from union dues. So that might be where you should start if you want to know what is wrong with education. And lest you succumb to Media Matters's, et al contention the speech was "taken out of context," the full video and transcripts are readily available all over the internet. Those in charge of education are corrupt. Common Core, anyone? So there ya go.

Alex H.
Alex H4 years ago

From my experience,the US education system's major problem is it mostly teaches kids about everything "USA",as if that is the only country on the planet.What American kids don't know about the rest of the world is appalling! It's one thing to love your country but when you blindly think that it is the major superpower of the world and can do no wrong,because that is what has been drummed into you at school,then there is a serious problem! How many universities teach philosophy and critical thinking?How many Americans can cop criticism and actually laugh at themselves?Broadmindedness is critical if one is to survive happily in today's mean old world!!?

Suzan F.
Suzan F4 years ago

And an afterthought...public schools are nothing more than high-paid babysitters these days. Too many kids are being graduated just because they show up for classes every day. Half of them can't properly write a sentence, or even read a menu.

Suzan F.
Suzan F4 years ago

And now, thanks to the Common Core, cursive won't be taught anymore? That's one of the worst ideas I've seen come out of public education lately. The only ones who will suffer because of this are the kids. I really hope they re-think this one. My son is homeschooled, & he is learning the fine art of cursive.

Natasha Salgado
Past Member 4 years ago

Thank you

Kamia T.
Kamia T4 years ago

I grew up with a grandmother who was an old-style Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmatic and practical skills teacher who advanced to school superintendent. She made sure that every student graduating knew how to take care of themselves, make wise decisions, feed their families, etc. Now all that the schools focus on are test scores and college prep. Unfortunately that's a complete waste of time & money. We have millions of graduates thinking they're "should" be making six figure salaries and can only find jobs at McDonalds, while every single trade that we need to keep our country running, from construction, to welding, to ... is crying for people to work. If new farmers aren't created soon, there simply won't be any food left to eat but the junk corp farms produce.