Buss: Do kids need school?

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

That Michigan’s third-grade reading scores continue to decline is a problem for several reasons, not the least of which is because we spend a significant amount of tax dollars on an education system that is clearly and repeatedly failing students.

But that seems selfish when you stop to think about who is actually suffering most: the kids.

The scores indicate a problem with our classrooms, yes. But are they really that much of an anomaly? Or are they part of the broader problem with how we educate our kids today and the bubble we now call childhood?

Increasingly kids go to school environments at younger and younger ages. They’re stripped of most freedom to be outside and explore, unless they have parents and caretakers who enjoy doing those things with them. (And they’re introduced to smartphones, tablets and other overly stimulating, depression-inducing devices before they even learn to walk.)

We have fundamentally redesigned childhood in 21st century America to center around school, despite the fact that it fails to teach basic skills. Worse, it’s obviously not inspiring students to love learning.

I’m no education wonk. But I do have kids, and even though they’re young, there has been pressure around the topic of what kind of education they’ll receive since before they were born. I know parents who have felt that conception isn’t too early to put baby X on wait lists for early education programs, especially in more densely populated areas of the country.

Why this pressure?

Research indicates that preschool has no positive effect on lifelong learning or career development. In fact it might be detrimental. But policymakers and parents continue to press for earlier education.

Research also indicates individualized learning is better, at least for math and reading. After all, those are the most critical skills elementary schools should be teaching. But too often, they’re not.

So if traditional school isn’t teaching what it should, and it’s not necessarily best for kids, why do we structure childhood around it?

One argument is that it’s easy for parents, and maybe for employers (although a college degree means much less than it did 25 years ago). School provides babysitting. With double income families the norm, that benefit is hard to overlook.

But that means we’re schooling children ineffectively all day for the first 18 years of their lives so that we adults have freedom.

Additionally, American society today has conflated systemic, academic achievement with lifetime fulfillment, productivity and prosperity. The two can be related, but they are not one in the same.

It’s hard for parents today to even think about their kids’ future outside the standard education system. But doing it for the sake of doing it, or putting kids in school because “that’s what everyone does,” isn’t a good reason.

If we would lift the pressure for everyone to go college, we might see students follow career paths that better suit them and also alleviate credential inflation, which has cheapened the value of everyone’s education for no good reason.

Bryan Caplan argues in a new book, “The Case Against Education,” that education today is simply about signaling to society that you have some basic competencies and perhaps moral decency.

“A lot of the payoff from education is not for useful stuff, but just for showing off and getting stickers on your head,” Caplan told me.

His words might be hard to digest. But with dismal school performance and achievement year after year, it’s worth challenging the assumptions we make about the education systems that now envelop childhood.

If our kids’ happiness, fulfillment and learning are truly our priorities, these questions are critical. And the answers shouldn’t be ignored.