Americans typically learn a lot of things in school -- spelling, math, why plants are green -- that are actually useful in our day-to-day lives. But they also learn a lot of other things -- cursive, long division, how to play "Hot Crossed Buns" on the recorder -- that are probably not.
No, we didn't waste our time with those lessons. Learning something new isn't ever a net loss. Playing the recorder provides building blocks for understanding music, and writing cursive has been shown to increase reading comprehension, for example. But it is worth reconsidering what we teach in the classroom and figuring out which lessons could better prepare students for life after graduation.
What if, instead of wondering whether Section B of Form 828364375 applies to you -- or alternatively just paying a stranger to care about that problem -- you could file your own taxes with confidence, because someone taught you when you were young? Sure, traditionally it's a parent's job to teach civic responsibility. But taxes befuddle even the most well-intentioned adults sometimes. (What, that's never been you? You're a certified bundle of public accounting knowledge? Liar.)
As proof that tax forms are actually easy enough for teenagers to fill out when given the right instruction, a Georgia high school teacher has been offering a crash course in the subject for over a decade. After passing a tax preparer's exam, his students spend the rest of the semester volunteering to prepare taxes for some of the community's low-income residents.
See? We all need some help with taxes...
2. Budgeting and finance
According to a recent survey of high school students, 44 percent said that stress relating to money had impacted their performance at school. Charles Schwab's 2011 Teens and Money Survey revealed that 86 percent of 16-to-18-year-olds would rather learn about proper spending in class than screw things up later on. So imagine a math teacher that didn't focus on making students calculate the speed of a train from Point A to Point Nobody Cares, but rather put the lesson in a more relevant context, allowing students to learn about the budgets of people and organizations, or how loans are priced. A few groups such as Jump$tart and MoneyThink already advocate for better financial education in schools.
3. Computer coding
Coding skills lead to well-paying jobs in a market that's only going to keep growing -- outpacing numbers of students in the field -- but still only one out of 10 schools in the U.S. offers computer science courses. And only 33 states let those classes count toward math or science credit, despite evidence that it boosts those scores. What gives?
If the trends experts are correct, soon we're all going to be wearing our computers, becoming more attached to them than we already are. In the very near future, your foreign language requirement could be fulfilled by programming languages -- arguably far more useful than Latin or Greek. Being able to not only use technology, but also understand how it works and manipulate it opens up far more opportunities in today's cutthroat job market.
4. Emergency medical training
If the American Heart Association had its way, every high school student would undergo mandatory CPR and automated defibrillator training at school to help prevent one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. -- sudden heart failure. Many states have enacted laws encouraging CPR training in schools, which, if implemented, would add millions of trained people to respond in time-sensitive emergency situations. Like when people stop breathing, for example.
Some also argue that teaching medical care could promote compassion, a skill that any high school grad knows is sorely lacking in the teenage population.
5. No-bullshit sex ed
In the so-called Information Age, misconceptions about contraception and sexuality are entirely too common. Some students have been told that non-virgins are basically chewed bits of gum, birth control will make you sterile, and sex inevitably leads to STDs. And death. Alone.
But despite the fact that comprehensive sex ed has been shown to decrease risky sexual behavior, still only 40 percent of young adults are given the facts straight. Of the 22 states that require sex ed lessons in schools, only 19 of them mandate those lessons be factually or medically accurate -- which is how chronic misinformers like Pam Stenzel get away with giving "the talk" to unfortunate groups of high schoolers. The United Kingdom's Sex Education Forum argues that schools should teach teenaged students foundations for "pleasurable, equal and safe relationships." We shouldn't have to add that this information should be "based on fact," but this is apparently the world we live in.
(Nope, not true.)
6. Cover letters and resumes
School prepares students for life, and in life, people need jobs. We get jobs by applying for them. You see where this is going. Yes, it's really easy to Google "cover letter," cut out a few sentences of generic bragging, and paste them into a Word document with your name on it.
But if you write your own job application materials without copying from an About.com site or hiring a professional writer, you'll get a lot further -- especially when potential employers can't catch you in the act of plagiarizing from the Internet. Oops.
7. Sustainable living
As climate change denial continues to be boxed out by real scientific debate and data, a number of organizations are advocating for better environmental education programs that teach people to make eco-friendly lifestyle choices from early on. The Alliance for Climate Education provides in-school programs, and the No Impact Project provides educational materials inspired by the No Impact Man, who lived a zero-waste lifestyle in New York City for a year with his family.
To help combat "widespread scientific ignorance," educators involved in writing the Next Generation Science Standards recommend climate change be taught as early as middle school.
Bonus: Splitting checks at a restaurant
Splitting the bill as a large party is a multidisciplinary problem. Inevitably, some unfortunate soul will end up having to write down who ordered how many of which drink, paired with what entree, all while determining whether sharing a few fries off the appetizer plate with your friend justifies splitting that cost evenly with her. Half the group brought cash, others only credit cards and one dude wants to pay with Bitcoin. Should you ask the waitress to take the cash and split the balance on the cards? How does gratuity work? Should you all leave the same percentage amount?
There are apps for us, sure. But again, shouldn't we focus on real-world applications of classroom lessons? Nine out of ten waiters would likely agree.