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What are the Fundamental Flaws of High Schools?

Last updated on August 20, 2020

Some naive individuals argue that high schools in America adequately prepare students for the next chapter in their lives. I disagree.

High schools are fundamentally flawed in many ways but the two most impactful on students are the focus on standardized testing and the narrow learning paths dictated by required state standards.

Standardized testing cripples learning by training students to only perform for a test score rather than learn and understand the material. Students then overvalue these test scores and allow themselves to be defined by a number. Narrow learning paths limit a student’s potential by emphasizing the idea that only core classes (especially math and science) lead to success.

The “perform to the test” model and the overemphasis of two subjects produces students who are narrow-minded and lacking skills needed to be successful adults in the real world. Some solutions to combat these two problems are; to make standardized testing optional, especially for college applications, and adding courses that teach life skills, like interviewing and resume writing, budgeting, and financial literacy and valuing courses that require a different type of thinking like literature, philosophy, drama, and social sciences. All this can be accomplished while still including core classes like math and science but finding a balance.

The main flaw in the argument that high schools are an optimal and a great institution for preparing students for the next chapter in life is that when students graduate they are unprepared and lack the skills they need to contribute to society.

Students graduate with narrow subject knowledge, lack basic life skills, and their experience in the classroom focuses solely on the core curriculum. This combination creates students who are unable to think outside the box or problem-solve for unusual or emerging problems.

In China, the education system is similar to that of the United States: specifically, school administration and teachers emphasize the importance of high test scores. Mr. Jiang, a deputy principal of a school in China, stated in an interview that standardized tests, “…creates very narrow-minded students.

But what China needs now is entrepreneurs and innovators.” Further, Mr. Jiang explains to the interviewer, David Barboza, how standardized testing has failed students in their future endeavors. Mr. Jiang further explains that China has “…difficulty finding middle managers who can think creatively and solve problems.”

Mr. Jiang links these shortcomings to the pressure to achieve high test scores, noting that teaching to the test leaves students unable to draw inferences, conclusions or imagine multiple solutions. A student may earn a high test score by studying diligently for the standardized exam but the exams “…fail to prepare them for a higher education and knowledge of economy.”

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, warns that “By the time those who graduate from high school go on to college and realize what is at stake in becoming an adult, too many opportunities have been lost and too much time has been wasted.” President Botstein’s statement identifies a clear failure in the high school education system.

Being identified and then subsequently praised or overlooked based on a number, either standardized test score or GPA, damages students in the long run. The “lost opportunities” and “wasted time” due to the narrow learning paths available to students proves to be a detriment to long term success.

In summary, the extreme focus on standardized test scores has led to teachers teaching to the test and students learning how to produce rather than process. The system needs to be overhauled so that students in classrooms today can develop into the leaders and problem-solvers of tomorrow. 

In order for high schools to benefit students, changes in the way students are taught and tested must be implemented.

One way to transition into a new model for education is to make standardized tests optional. The teaching of subjects that engage the student in a different manner is extremely important to the development of a creative, open-minded, problem-solving student.

Classes in literature, philosophy, social science, and art are taught in a very different manner than math or science. These subjects allow for discussion, differences in perception, and require a student to consider alternative interpretations.

Professor Todd Gitlin emphasizes that “…the need to teach the lessons of liberal arts is urgent…the liberal arts have to say “Take your time.” They have to tell students, “Trends are fine, but you need to learn about what endures.”

Professor Gitlin, advocates for the teaching of the liberal arts because it aids in the development of open minded students and examines topics that help teach life lessons.

Not only is it important for students to be willing to view and discuss issues and challenges with an open mind, but a teacher who is able to present and discuss both sides of an issue greatly also impacts students and impresses upon them unforgettable lessons.

For instance, Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, reflects on her favorite high school English teacher’s approach and philosophy in the classroom, “Clearly she had multiple goals for her students, beyond teaching literature and grammar. She was also teaching about character and personal responsibility.”

Decades later, the English teacher, Mrs. Ruby Ratliff, is still teaching through her former student turned professor. Professor Ravitch’s reflection provides an example of the benefits for students when taught by open-minded teachers.

Through literature, Mrs. Ruby Ratliff taught life lessons that continue to resonate. This form of teaching is rare to see today because, in part, teachers are restricted in their time due to state-mandated curriculum requirements, however, it is needed. Without teachers like Mrs. Ruby Ratliff, students will struggle to become successful and productive members of society.

While math and science classes are important, their value is limited if students only know how to produce answers and facts. Students need to be able to discuss problems and utilize their knowledge to create solutions.

If students are not taught the value of character, hard work, and ethics, then society will struggle to find a path forward as our world becomes more global and we face problems that impact us all.

This is why the high school educational model in the United States must change. Book learning is important but how we apply that knowledge and work together is where success is defined.

Currently, the high school education model produces students who are more concerned about test scores than they are about learning. Further, high schools fail students by not offering a broad range of classes that integrate learning critical life skills into the curriculum. This combination leads to students entering college or the job market who lack the necessary skills to meet success.

In the words of Leon Borstein, “…the American high school is obsolete and should be abolished.” This is an extreme statement, but without changes to standardized testing and a more robust offering of courses that require critical thinking, an open mind and nurture curiosity, we will continue to have many students ill prepared to face the real world. 


  1. Joe Joe October 27, 2019


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