4 big ideas on fixing American schools

Experts agree that the system needs to think bigger than test scores and statistics.
A student in a red graduation gown dabbing
The path to graduation needs to be smoother—and less uniform. Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz/Unspa

In the American education system, the kids are not all right. Recent tests show that high schoolers haven’t improved in math or reading for the past 20 years, and middle schoolers have gone backward in their comprehension skills. All this comes after years of expensive education programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which prioritized standardized test scores, not individual growth, to mark progress and groom students for college.

Expert educators contend that schools need to infuse more flexibility, creativity, and community into their practices in order for a diverse student body to succeed. We asked them to lay out the steps for this radical classroom transformation.

We need to turn away from defining students by deficit, disorder, and disability, which is currently how the system measures neurological conditions, and instead embrace individuals’ interests and strengths. Organizations in countries like the United Kingdom and Russia are building models where an educator can apply a student’s fascination with, let’s say, aviation to real-life mathematics and guide them to a career as a pilot.

—Stephen Shore, assistant professor of education at Adelphi University

The only way to prevent COVID-19 from deepening inequality for an entire generation is to equip families to support learning at home. The most recent study from McKinsey estimates that Black students may fall behind by 10.3 months and Hispanic students by 9.2 months due to school closures. But if we can get teachers to work together with parents to set learning goals, be supportive, and check in with each other more, we can reach a tipping point in changing the system for good.

—Alejandro Gibes de Gac, CEO of the Springboard Collaborative, a nonprofit that trains teachers

[Related: 13 free ways to keep students entertained during the pandemic]

City schools can break down walls with natural and cultural environments and take advantage of the social, emotional, and health-related benefits of learning from rooftops, parks, cemeteries, and museums. Recent research finds that children who experience fresh air and sunshine during or between formal lessons tend to perform better academically. In the pandemic, this may be even more true. Green Schoolyards America and Europe’s forest kindergartens are lighthouses that others should follow.

—David Sobel, professor emeritus of education at Antioch University New England

Each child is uniquely shaped by the conditions of their birth and the consequences of their lives. Estimates hold that around half of US students have experienced trauma. But studies also show that just one supportive adult in a kid’s life can blunt the impact of toxic stress on brain development and behavioral control. Schools that adopt a trauma-informed approach, where they prioritize personal relationships over curricula, can be a safe haven where children heal and grow.

—Jane Wettach, professor emerita of education law at Duke University

This story appears in the Winter 2020, Transformation issue of Popular Science.