09/06/2013 03:13 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

It Lies Within: The Key to Education Reform


As the nation shifts its focus from the short-term economic and military crises that have seized the American political debate for the past decade to long-term development goals, the necessity for serious education reform comes to the fore once again. The American education system has been widely criticized as subpar when compared to similar developed countries. A commonly cited report, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), compares over 70 countries based on survey data and an international standardized exam. As cited on Bloomberg Businessweek, "[PISA] finds that the US ranks behind sixteen other economies including Poland, Estonia and South Korea in terms of student literacy" and that the "student rankings on mathematics are even lower."

The mere necessity of reform is insufficient, however; a methodology must be developed. Considerable efforts have been made in the United States to improve the public education system. The onus of the problem has been placed on every factor imaginable: the parents, the teachers, the students, the politicians, and more. Several programs, proposals, and acts have been discussed and implemented over the last decade, from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to the Race to the Top program of 2009. America is investing considerable effort to improve its education: a USC study finds that the United States is the clear leader in spending-per-student. Yet, the same study reveals an American education system that delivers far poorer results than those of its counterparts; students' scores in literacy and math fall far below countries like the UK, Japan, and Finland.

America's efforts have not delivered because they focus in the wrong areas. As the aforementioned statistics reveal, simply increasing education funding isn't the answer. Throwing money at our schools will not bolster their performance. The underlying issue lies in the structure of the American school system. Especially after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), American education has focused on standardization. NCLB required annual standardized testing from grades 3-8. Finland, however, the nation that repeatedly attains the highest scores in the PISA and has a 100 percent literacy rate, only administers one mandatory standardized test, taken at age 16. Although over 33 states have received waivers that liberate them from the Act's stringent requirements, the culture of narrow objectivity and standardization persists in the United States.

The reforms made so far have focused on motivating schools and students to improve their performance. However, this motivation has been almost exclusively extrinsic. Merit-based pay, stricter grade requirements, and a barrage of assessments and exams have been proposed to stimulate a system that seems to be slacking. Extrinsic motivation, however, only helps in the short term, and even then it focuses on a very narrow objective. The "teaching to the test" mentality that defined No Child Left Behind, and still permeates most school districts does not encourage learning, cognitive development, or practical problem solving; it encourages skilled test-taking. The essential flaw in this approach is that augmenting test-taking skills does not provide students with the ability to apply knowledge. Students are left drastically unprepared for the practical world of work and higher education; SATs are not a holistic representation of higher-level skills. Standardized assessments are essential in their own niche, for they are relatively accurate measures of basic factual knowledge. An education system that aims to succeed, however, must offer more than the bare minimum.

The key to successful education is a focus on intrinsic motivation. People are naturally curious, and this drive to learn and discover is especially strong in children. Education reform must focus the curricula of schools and classes on application of skills in addition to basic knowledge. The outstanding education systems of the world all employ active learning. The human brain learns best through experience and practical strategy; a system that encourages simple memorization of rote facts fails to utilize the full potential of its students.
The concept intrinsic motivation is applied in the majority of excellent educational systems in the world, including the highly regarded university system in the US. The top schools in the nation offer unique research opportunities on campus, where students can interact with leaders in their field of choice and apply their knowledge. Hands-on lab experience is offered by many institutions, including the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), which offers research internships to high school students. The top 10 national universities, as ranked by U.S. News, are all research institutions that offer opportunities for students, even undergraduates, to not only learn about their subject, but to contribute to it.

Of course, there is a significant financial disparity between public schools and private universities. While K-12 schooling in America cannot afford the same resources, however, the concept of applied learning can be easily integrated into basic education. Many high schools across America already mandate laboratory activities as part of the science curriculum. The challenge, now, is to foster such applied learning in every school in America, and to expand this system to improve every single subject, not just science. History classrooms have often hosted field trips to historical museums, which work well to immerse students in the historical atmosphere at early grade levels. High-school level history courses can include more engaging activities that foster critical thinking skills, using innovative strategies such as Socratic learning and harkness table discussions to reinforce basic textbook knowledge. Language arts curricula can include a compilation of students' works or similar innovation that applies the basic skills learnt throughout the year. Mathematics classrooms, while covering a "pure" subject, can still transcend basic learning by encouraging students to apply mathematical techniques to real world problems; the Moody's Mega Math Challenge offers a unique example of an innovative mathematical experience. Many of these innovative techniques exist and thrive already. Reform, then, depends on the application of these successful teaching practices across all schools in America.

Real education reform will not occur as a result of some extraordinary political or economic program; it will occur when the nation as a whole realizes the true worth of knowledge. Reform will occur when America accepts that excessive standardization and narrow perspectives fail to foster natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation, that real engagement in our children's futures is necessary.

Too often, students complain "When will we ever use this?" and "Why are we learning this?" The key to success is not to tell them why, but to show them why.