Damaging Priorities

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, but ask yourself what makes you come alive, for the world needs more people that have come alive.” –Howard Thurman

(This is part 5 of a 5 part series on why our school system is horribly broken)

Schools claim to be trying to prepare kids for the future.  You see all sorts of inspirational slogans hanging in hallways, and cute little sayings about these students being our future leaders.  Lets be honest, most schools are not designed to develop future leaders.

Think about what kids do at school and more importantly how they do it?  It seems to me that schools accomplish two primary things:

  1. Free day care for millions of american families (very useful).
  2. Teach students to memorize and follow directions (sometimes useful).

Think back through your high school days.  What time did you start school? What did you spend most of your time doing?  What would get you in trouble?  What would get you praise?  What did you look forward to when you went to school?

Not every school situation was the same, but if you went to a traditional school you probably answered the questions as follows.

  • What time did you start school? Way to early (everyone struggling to stay awake).
  • What did you spend most of your time doing? Sitting, “listening” to a teacher lecture.
  • What would get you in trouble? Not following instructions properly (talking in class, not turning in assignments, improper attire, failing tests, and actually illegal stuff).
  • What would get you praise? Correct answers and following instructions.
  • What did you look forward to when you went to school? Hanging out with your friends.  If you didn’t have friends, then high school was probably some of the worst years of your life.

To summarize, most high schools in practice prioritizes following direction, knowing the correct answer, and being able repeatedly do boring tasks.  The ultimate pinnacle of this is to be able to repeatedly get enough correct answers so that you can get into a “good” college.

If you have worked any length of time you know that these are useful skills for college, McDonald’s, and a factory floor.  However, they are actually pretty harmful “skills” to have for many of today’s most important jobs.

Side Note 1 – I am not picking on teachers.  They are not the problem.  Good teachers use their time with students to teach kids important life skills in addition to their subject.

Side Note 2 – I am not saying all content taught in class is useless.  Basic math, writing, and reading skills make it easier to be successful at life.  However, test scores show we are not teaching these well to the students who need it most?

Despite what the slogans say schools are not preparing “future leaders” or teaching students to “love learning”.  For me school really dampened my love of learning for several years, and only indirectly taught me skill I needed for leadership roles.

The Real Priorities:

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In my opinion the primary purpose of public schools should be to increase the number of healthy and productive citizens in society; and a private schools primary purpose should be preparing the individual to be as successful as possible.  I wish schools actually believed the quote above.

If those were the real priorities would schools make the following decisions?

  • Prioritize biology and physics ahead of useful life skills (budgeting, cooking, and shop class).
  • Prioritize calculus ahead of statistics and understanding investing.
  • Teach subjects instead of teaching students how to teach themselves.
  • Allow sports schedules to be more important than class schedules.
  • Reward memorization much more often than problem solving.

Are the choices above helping create more productive citizens or increasing the chance of future success for most students?  In a vacuum yes, but all humans have finite time and energy for learning.  Are we using that time wisely.

If we are not focused on creating health and productive citizens then what is the real priority?

From my observations you have three main priorities in most schools?

  1. Get Students into College
    • A “good” school system has lots of college graduates.
    • A “great” school has lots of Ivy league graduates.
  2. Day Care
    • Keeping kids occupied all day is helpful to many families.
    • Also seen as a way to lower crime by keeping teenagers occupied much of the day.
  3. Athletic Achievement
    • It’s America.  We LOVE sports.

There is nothing wrong with getting students into college, day care, or athletic achievement.  Problems arise when we make these our primary goals.  Below are just a few of the negative outcomes that are created by incorrect priorities.

  1. Parents and coaches flipping out over sports results.
  2. Teaching students who are unlikely to go to college classes that have no practical application outside of college.
  3. Moving on to the next section in math even when half the class failed the last test, or “graduating” students who can barely read.
  4. Limiting the speed of learning for students who find a subject easy.
  5. Saying that physics is a more “important” class than art or music.
  6. Cancelling recess and physical activity so students can sit in classrooms longer.
    • Seriously? Can school administrators not read?  Study after study shows that physical exercise speeds up learning.
    • Here’s a great idea: lets reduce recess so little elementary age kids can have less fun, less exercise, and learn less.
    • In a very real sense, schools are torturing and medicating high energy kids so the rest of the class can learn less.

These are just some of the moronic consequences of politics and incorrect priorities.

Do those choices really have the best interests of the students at heart?  Are they creating productive citizens?  Are they teaching students to think intensively and critically?

We spend billions of dollars and years of our lives on education.  We should expect much more from this time.  The amount of waste and sheer stupidity that goes on everyday in schools, in my opinion, is borderline criminal and unacceptable at best.


My goal with this series was to convince you that our schools are so terribly bad that making huge improvements is a real possibility.  My hope is not that you would be discourage by taking a look at these issues, but that you would be encouraged that real improvement is possible.

I feel our current school system is creating of wasteland of under-performing and demoralized students piled up behind the few students who succeed.  I know we can do better.

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If you have comments or feedback please email me (peter@iqlie.com) or send me message on twitter (@theiqlie).




Tests, Tests, Tests

“Some recent philosophers seem to have given their moral approval to these deplorable verdicts that affirm that the intelligence of an individual is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be augmented. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we will try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing.” – Alfred Binet

Tests, Tests, Tests

(This is part 4 of a 5 part series on why our school system is horribly broken)

We have an entire elementary and secondary education system designed to get students into college.  To get into college you need to do well on the SAT or ACT.  This philosophy of testing then trickles back through the entire education system (Common Core testing, etc.).

Because of these priorities, standardized testing is at the very core of modern American education.

Alfred Binet invented the first standardized test for schools (and the first IQ test) for the French government in the early 1900s.  Even when making the tests Binet saw and clearly stated the limitations of his test:

 “Our purpose is to be able to measure the intellectual capacity of a child who is brought to us in order to know whether he is normal or retarded. … We do not attempt to establish or prepare a prognosis and we leave unanswered the question of whether this retardation is curable, or even improvable. We shall limit ourselves to ascertaining the truth in regard to his present mental state. ” – Alfred Binet

To save you reading time I have given a quick summary below of a bunch of studies on standardized tests.  I also recommend you watch the eye-opening video at the bottom of this post from the always entertaining John Oliver.  The video takes a look at the emotional toll these tests take on students, the low quality of many of these tests, and several more of the darker aspects of standardized testing.

Quick Standardized Test Summary:

Picture of a Standardized Test
Picture Via: Flicker – Timlewisnm

Research shows that standardized tests are good at measuring how good you are at that standardized test (or maybe how rich your parents are).  They are not good predictors of college or career success.  And they do not provide an accurate picture of a student’s full talents or potential.  Sounds like a great basis for an educational ranking system right?

“The scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of the intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.” – Alfred Binet

It is insane on an epic level that we continue to put so much importance on these standardized tests after 100 years and study after study showing that Alfred Binet was correct about the limitation of these tests.

If we have scientifically proven that standardized tests are very limited why do we put so much weight on them?  Why do we put so much pressure on kids to do well on these tests?

I believe standardized testing is so pervasive primarily because it gives decision makers a number that makes tough decisions simple.  It is much easier to use a number from a test than it is to admit the truth:  Each kid is unique and their potential cannot be measured on a standardized test.

The messy real world requires tough judgement calls and taking the time to get to know students to make those tough decisions.

“Comprehension, inventiveness, direction, and criticism: intelligence is contained in these four words.” – Alfred Binet

To Summarize: 

We are in essence telling millions of kids they are “stupid” because we are too lazy to treat them as unique people with unique talents.

By implication we are also telling kids that only one kind of intelligence matters (being good at tests).  We know from our jobs that there are skills that are much more important than being good at tests.  Maybe we should put more emphasis on the skills that really matter in the workplace and in the students’ personal lives.

This thought leads me to wonder … Are our schools actually hurting our chances of being ready for the challenges of the 21st century?


Here is the John Oliver video referenced earlier. (Warning: there is strong language in the video):

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Recommended Further Reading:   Joel Patterson – Obliterating Our Humanity: The True Costs of Public Schools (Medium Post)

A few excerpts from the above article:

“…If I had to choose, now my super power would be this: I would choose the ability to magically replace all of the countless hours that have been wasted in school memorizing trivial inconsequential, useless facts…”

“In addition to coming out of public schools lacking many valuable skills, [many] people come out of public schools severly traumatized, with their curiosity, spontaneity, and creativity all but destroyed.”

View story at Medium.com

Infantilization of a Generation

Desk Banner

Infantilizing of a Generation

(This is part 3 of a 5 part series on why our school system is horribly broken)

“Something about this struck me deep down in that moment.  I couldn’t put my finger on the specifics at the time, but something just seemed horribly wrong.  And I just snapped.  ” – From my story below (I know quoting myself = classy)

 In the book “When Helping Hurts” the authors talk about how treating people like a charity case makes them more likely to act like a charity case.  In other words – by addressing physical needs without addressing someone’s worth we make people feel worthless.

When Helping Hurts Banner

I believe schools are making a similar mistake with a majority of their students.  Day in and day out most students are constantly reminded that they are not as smart as “those” kids.  In addition to this they are reminded by school policies that they can’t be trusted.  Stay inside the box and stay on task because we can’t trust you to use your own judgement.

Would you feel like an important person with real value if you sat through that message 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, year after year?

I Just Snapped

I still vividly remember this negative messaging in action during World History class.

I went to a small Christian school and there were basically two groups of students: the “smart” class and the “other” class. Due to scheduling these two classes were often separated from each other even for non-honors classes.  I took Art instead of Band, and I ended up being grouped with the slower students for a few classes.  One of those classes was World History in 10th grade.


About two-thirds of the way through the school year our teacher got frustrated that we were not covering as much material as the “smart” class.  She started talking down to the class and complaining about our short-comings.  I noticed a bunch of heads start to drop and just accept this criticism.

The problem was her criticism was not justified.  Our class was twice as big and students did current events at the start of class, so we spent twice as much time on current events.  The school didn’t have enough money to buy all new textbooks so she was actually teaching out of a textbook that the “smart” class had and we didn’t.  This teacher also regularly showed up 2-5 minutes late for the start of class.

We were behind mainly because of these factors – factors outside of the students’ control.  Yet many of the students in the class were just accepting the teacher’s criticism as another example of their shortcomings.

Something about this struck me deep down in that moment.  I couldn’t put my finger on the specifics at the time, but something just seemed horribly wrong.  And I just snapped.

For reference you need to know that I was usually a model student and very polite to my teachers.  But something about this moment just broke through all of my filters and restraints.  Before I realized what I was doing I had started to tell off our teacher listing all of the reasons I listed above as the real reasons for our slow progress.  When I was finished I was sure I was going to get detention.

Instead there was an awkward silence and the teacher just started teaching the lesson.  I guess she realized I was right and figured it was best to let the subject drop.

I still think about that moment regularly.

Now that I have had time to process it I realize that I was so angry about this because I could literally see people whom I knew were very bright drop their heads and believe that they were a problem.  They did not believe that they had caused a problem, but that they were a problem.  And I knew that this was just wrong.

This teacher was usually a good teacher, but she and many of the students had subconsciously bought into a lie.  The lie is that the “other” students need help and aren’t as able as the smart students.

These students may have been worse at school, but there were a lot of bright and talented people  in that room.  School is set up so that students who don’t do well on tests and struggle with traditional learning are problems.  It is set up so that even good teachers often have to treat valuable talented people as problems.

If you were these students would you think you had a lot to contribute to the world?  Or would you want to escape the world by watching TV, playing video games, or smoking pot?

Picture via: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crazysphinx/4081596290
Picture via: flicker – Al Ibrahim 

The process of demoralization and infantilization is insidious because it is self-reinforcing.   Students are given negative messages because they do poorly (comments, looks, grades, etc).  This negative feedback often negatively impacts the student’s future performance which in turn invites more negative feedback.  And then the process repeats itself.


The Alternative

“What makes a child gifted and talented may not always be good grades in school, but a different way of looking at the world and learning.” – Chuck Grassley

Instead of spending 8 hours a day telling students who aren’t good at school they are “other”, why don’t we spend 8 hours showing them how they can help people and add value to the world?  Every student should know he has the power to drastically improve the lives of people around him if he or she chooses.

We need to stop treating students who don’t do well on largely meaningless tests as less valuable.  Instead we need to let them know they can add immense value to the people around them.

Next Post: Tests, Tests, Tests

Education Tunnel Vision

Blinder Vision

Education Tunnel Vision

(This is part 2 of a 5 part series on why our school system is horribly broken)

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.”  — Peter Drucker – Men, Ideas & Politics

With education reform initiatives we keep focusing on improving our schools.  Having better accountability, better testing, better teachers, and around it goes.  These initiatives like to pretend that student issues can be fixed simply by fixing schools.

In my opinion this approach is the equivalent of trying to fix a car with a broken engine by cleaning the car and replacing the tires.  Yes it looks nice, but it still isn’t going anywhere.

Bad Grades – More Than Just a Classroom Issue

For many students the biggest issues affecting their grades are outside of the classroom.  Life is connected.  Poor health, absent parents, and crime ridden neighborhoods can destroy a student’s academic performance.

Trailer Park

“Much of new information about childhood and poverty uncovered by psychologists and neuroscientist can be daunting to anyone trying to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children.  We now know that early stress and adversity can literally get under a child’s skin, where it can cause damage that lasts at lifetime….The effect of good [or bad] parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical.” – Paul Tough – How Students Learn

“[ACE scores compared to adult health] The correlations between adverse childhood experiences and negative adult outcomes were so powerful that they “stunned us”… The adversity these patients had experienced in childhood was making them sick through a pathway that had nothing to do with behavior” – Paul Tough – How Students Learn

The research continues to mount that the parenting and the home environment are more important than anything that happens in the classroom.  Many students do not have supportive “community” outside of the school.

For most students this need for community support is not being address.  If you don’t at least address the root causes of the student’s issues it will be very difficult to help them.

Eliminating Tunnel Vision

While I am not advocating a nanny state.  Schools do need to take a big picture view when trying to improve underperforming students and schools.  Schools should be more active in partnering with organization who provide support and development outside of the school.

For example: Instead of increasing school funding, maybe we need to increase funding for prison job training and anti-recidivism programs.  This would help more men in poor communities stay out of prison, find jobs, and provide a positive influence on the community instead of a non-existent or negative influence.

Prison Entrepreneurship Program

The best solution will be different for each city, but trying to improve student outcomes by only focusing on schools is a fool’s errand.  We need programs that engage all parts of the community.  Programs that strengthen the community not infantilize the community.

In the next post we will look at how schools infantilize many of their students, and encourage them to be less self-sufficient.

Next Post: Infantilization of a Generation

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Recommended Further Reading:   Matthew R. Morris – Students are People First (Medium Post)

A few excerpts from the above article:

“Almost always, these judgements are based on the narrowed and limited views of a “student”. But students are people first. When you are stuck teaching students day in and day out, it is easy to forget that your students are more than pupils existing in your class from 8:30 a.m until 3:30 p.m from Monday to Friday.”

“Teachers often forget that school is just a portion of a student’s lived experience. Teachers place homework, tests and attitude towards school on a pedestal while forgetting that kids spend the majority of their time away from school — at home, with family, tending to situations that do not require a pencil and paper.”


Schools are a Wasteland

“When I was in high school, I felt like I was in a vacuum, biding time.  I was curious, but bored.  It was not an atmosphere conducive to learning. Once I had the means to effect change in this arena, it became my passion to do so.” –  George Lucas

WW1 battlefield 1

I am just going to come out and say it.  Most high schools and colleges are ridiculously bad.

Before you get in a huff thinking about all the good teachers you know, notice I said our schools are ridiculously bad, not that our teachers are ridiculously bad.  We can talk about bad teachers another day.

Or you may be thinking that I need to take a historical view.  If you look back in history our schools are pretty amazing.  Everybody can go to school up through high school for free.  That is actually quite remarkable. However, just because our current schools are better than not going to school does not make them good.

I started with the quote from George Lucas above because that is exactly how I felt in school most of the time – bored.  The whole point of school should be to learn things that are useful, or to make you a better person. Learning should not be boring.  Learning should be challenging, exhausting, difficult, and stressful at times, but not boring.

School Ruins History

Take history class for example.  Real history is amazing.  There are amazing stories and mind boggling connections between events that can be debated for eternity.  Instead of focusing on these aspects, we treat history as a list of facts to be memorized.

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”

For example: What is more interesting, that WWI started on July 28th, 1914 or that the trench warfare battlefields turned into horrific moonscapes that inspired Mordor from the Lord of the Rings (See picture above)?

If you understand a little bit about how horrific the battlefields of WWI were, it makes it a lot easier to understand why the allied powers appeased Hitler for so long to avoid the Second World War. As young men, the leaders making the decisions to appease the Nazis listened to the screams of their friends as they slowly bled to death in no man’s land, or slowly drowned in mud. I might be a little hesitant to send my kids to war if I had experienced that.

Drowned in Mud

Understanding how horrific war can be can help create more informed voters and army recruits.  In contrast, does knowing that WWI started on July 28th, 1914 really help you with any big decisions?

So why do we make history class boring?  History class is both less valuable and harder to teach when it is boring.  And we all know what happens when students get bored.

History class is just one tiny example of what is wrong with our schools.  The obvious problems with how we teach history are nothing compared to the absurdity of how the system is setup.

We should be teaching history better and we could find ways to train better history teachers.  But compared to the systematic absurdities baked into our schools fixing those things is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Broken Framework

I don’t have the knowledge to design the perfect school system. However, I do hope to convince you that our school system is so radically absurd that it needs to be changed.

Over the next four posts I am going to look at how tunnel vision, infantilizing students, testing, and damaging priorities are doing a lot of harm to our current students.   Our current school system is creating of wasteland of under-performing and demoralized students piled up behind the few students who succeed.

My goal for this upcoming series is to convince you that our schools are so terribly bad that making huge improvements is a real possibility.

Do you feel your school experience did a good job of preparing you for life after school?  Did the most important lessons you learned in school have anything to do with course material?

In the next post we will look at how schools take a view that is too narrow to lead to success for most students.

Next: Part 2 “Education Tunnel Vision