07/02/2012 10:45 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

Losing the Olympics

The trouble with schools is they always try to teach the wrong lesson (thank you, Stephen Schwartz). As English teachers, we so often devolve into discussing books that we teach, rather than students, or even ideas. Science teachers struggle to cover "content" that, like my freshman biology class, is a laundry list of amoebas and anemones and aardvarks.

It's no wonder why we struggle, as a country, to funnel more students into STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. These are the subjects that Sputnik strengthened, back when we actually competed with other countries instead of slowly becoming indebted to them. Even at the Olympics this year, the U.S. is predicted to lose the gold medal overall lead to China. And China already passed us in total medals back in 2008.

It's easier to visualize these global issues with a single group of kids. I have the great privilege of working this summer with a program that helps low-income, potential first-generation college students not only get into college but graduate with a four-year degree. They are starving for educational opportunities. So our director enlisted the help of enormously-talented STEM professors to develop a project that you couldn't look up on Wikipedia or slap on to a posterboard.

We decided to create a Robot Olympics.

The weeklong course (more information at completely changed the way some of these students perceived learning. During the school year, these students attend some of the worst-performing high schools in the state of Massachusetts, where authentic, project-based learning often takes a back seat to test prep, where four-year graduation rates are below fifty percent.

At first, the students balked at the size of their task -- to create Olympic-themed robotic sculptures complete with both programming and décor, both brains and beauty. But some students who struggle in traditional classrooms lit up at the possibility of bringing their own robotic creations to life. Learning by doing, through trial and error, made a world of difference.

Additionally, many students had no previous exposure to any of this technology -- students mentioned how even their last few computer science classes had been cut. But by Friday, they had made stunning tributes to athleticism and pomp -- simulated track-and-field events, rotating Olympic flames, and mechanized medal ceremonies -- all while overcoming their own personal circumstances.

So much of school reform focuses on elevating test scores. While it's disgraceful that we are unable to perform on reading comprehension tests that, honestly, are rather basic, it's equally disgraceful that we think the problem can be solved by more test preparation. Having zero prep is ridiculous, but pounding our neediest students with the same boring lesson, over and over again, is failing to yield results. It's as though we are trapped in some collective, cyclical national lunacy, trying to re-quantify our failures year after year after year.

The metaphor most commonly used to describe education is that our system is "broken." There's nothing broken about it -- it chugs on, day after day, like a mindless automaton chewing up children and spitting out inmates through sheer attrition, sheer boredom. It's ruthlessly efficient.

If we spent time really imagining what we wanted our children to do as adults -- imagined them as engineers, doctors and physicists -- it would be much easier to figure out the kind of education they needed to get there. Instead, we imagine them as "proficient," as merely getting into college, without knowing anything about what lies beyond. And trust me, colleges don't have it figured out any better than high schools do.

So now that Obama has a Supreme Court victory (finally) under his belt, perhaps we can actually get back to the long-term root of our economic problems -- our under- and mis-educated youth. We can start designing apprenticeships and internships and programs that motivate our students with high-paying and highly-satisfying careers in STEM. And I can even dream that these changes will be federally funded. Why not though? We have Race to the Top money just itching to be spent.

So yes, we can take back the Olympics, literally and metaphorically. We can create an educational system that champions innovation and creativity over memorization and repetition. Yes, we will still need to test, to prepare students for the pressures of real-life, to make sure they have a solid foundation in essential skills and facts.

But why did we start seeing our children as merely numbers?