How to Fix the Rich World's Failing High Schools

The weakest and most vulnerable element in education, particularly in the developed world, is the education of adolescents in our secondary-school systems. Relative economic prosperity and the extension of leisure time have spawned an inconsistent but prevalent postponement of adulthood. On the one hand, as consumers and future citizens, young people between the ages of 13 and 18 are afforded considerable status and independence. Yet they remain infantilized in terms of their education, despite the earlier onset of maturation. Standards and expectations are too low. Modern democracies are increasingly inclined to ensure rates of close to 100 percent completion of a secondary school that can lead to university education. This has intensified an unresolved struggle between the demands of equity and the requirements of excellence. If we do not address these problems, the quality of university education will be at risk.

To make secondary education meaningful, more intellectual demands of an adult nature should be placed on adolescents. They should be required to use primary materials of learning, not standardized textbooks; original work should be emphasized, not imitative, uniform assignments; and above all, students should undergo inspired teaching by experts. Curricula should be based on current problems and issues, not disciplines defined a century ago. Statistics and probability need to be brought to the forefront, given our need to assess risk and handle data, replacing calculus as the entry-level college requirement. Secondary schools and their programs of study are not only intellectually out of date, but socially obsolete. They were designed decades ago for large children, not today's young adults.

In much of the developed world, including the United States, England, Israel and Russia, math and science instruction remains dangerously inadequate. Some nations score well on tests that demand rote preparation, but as all research scientists understand, science isn't about facts and memorization alone. It's about innovation, which requires nurturing the scientific imagination at the onset of adulthood, well before higher education begins. And literacy in science is indispensable to an individual's preparation for citizenship. The analysis of our most pressing political issues, from the environment to health care, depends on it.

The situation is not much better when it comes to reading and writing. The skills of interpretation and close analysis of complex texts are not sufficiently cultivated in high school. Most adolescent students do far too little analytical writing, which results in passive learning: the ability to recognize and recall, but not generate ideas. Such skills of interpretation are equally crucial in the study of history and society. The need to understand world history in the broadest sense is far greater for the rising generation of the 21st century than for any previous cohort.

Education is linked in the mind of the public with economic competitiveness. Quality and standards have become political issues. In the United States, the response has led politicians to turn to old forms of standardized testing as a nearly punitive, fear-inducing instrument of "objective measurement" to inspire public trust. But these tests are foolish. They are designed to drive an oversimplified and standardized curriculum. They do not diagnose what and why the student doesn't know something. The transformation of testing into a useful tool for understanding success and failure in teaching so that classroom strategies and curricula can be improved is an important step in raising the standard of adolescent education.

Yet the prospects for improving education in the United States are particularly bleak, even on the eve of the presidential election. Neither candidate has a persuasive platform on the subject because the tradition is for presidential hopefuls to use education as a rhetorical issue while hiding behind the time-honored notion that its funding and administration is ultimately a local matter. In the United States most local school boards are as interested in high-school sports teams as in what is learned in the classroom. Education becomes a nostalgic relic of direct local democracy that leads to a rapid turnover in local school boards and therefore the tenure of superintendents. There is not enough stability in public-school leadership for effective reform to take place.

In this sense, Europe and the rest of the world are ahead of America. Most advanced nations have a constructive national presence in educational policy in the setting of national standards for teachers and schools. For the United States to improve the education performance of its adolescents, it must make education a national priority in terms of funding and expectations, just like health care.

The overriding concern in the United States is how to recruit better-trained teachers and reward them more adequately. A first step is to return a measure of autonomy to the classroom teacher. High-school teachers should be held to high standards in the same way as university professors, whose professional autonomy and responsibility for quality are managed together. School for the adolescent should be engaging and inspiring in a way that shows that securing power, success, and wealth are wholly contingent on knowledge and the use of the intellect. The most successful strategy is to put an end to our ambivalence about adolescence. This means ending compulsory standardized secondary schooling at least two years earlier than is now commonly done. University-style education that treats students as adults should begin at 15 or 16, not 18.

What universities offer, particularly for 18- to 20-year-olds, is instruction by individuals who are more than teachers but practitioners and experts in their fields. Just as adolescents in the eighteenth century apprenticed with master artisans, we need to offer adolescents a comparable opportunity in the classroom. Through education, our democracies need to find ways to cultivate among the young the admiration of elites in learning just as we do in sports and entertainment. Teachers of adolescents should be professionals in science, the arts, social sciences and humanities.

The university is characterized by a combination of more freedom and higher expectations than exist in secondary schools. Ironically, in secondary schools there is a demand for uniformity and regulation of behavior that results in less autonomy and the dumbing down of academic expectations. The young adult needs to experience the desire to know, and to recognize the intimate connection between knowledge and the conduct of life. Motivating a child is far easier than motivating an adolescent. Learning can inspire new goals. After all, in the future we will need fewer lawyers and managers, and more engineers, scientists and inventors.

The most successful strategy for solving the problem of inadequate education for adolescents is the burgeoning early college movement in the United States. The quickest way to introduce university-type education at an earlier age is to provide incentives to universities to take over public secondary schools and assume responsibility for their curricula, staff, and management—in other words, to step in where direct state and local control has failed.

Educational reform is akin to planting a fruit tree where the first harvest is many years off, well beyond the normal cycle of elections and political careers. Therefore, let us put politicians at bay. Education may not be a science, but we ought to give its practice proper respect: we don't determine medical treatments by free elections, and we don't permit patients to manage hospitals. The reason the university is essential to solving the problem of secondary schooling is because the public accepts that true scholarship and learning are legitimate areas of expertise for the university. The same assignment of control and responsibility needs to be ceded to teachers in the arena of secondary schooling.

Education for citizenship and the development of civic virtue are best realized by placing the joy and obligation of a serious education onto individuals during the early years of adolescence. The overwhelming and deadening uniformity of mass culture, the thoughtless appropriation of language and opinions through instruments of mass communication, and the increasing inability to distinguish truth from fiction need to be counteracted. The most powerful and egalitarian instrument for counteracting these great dangers to freedom and its voluntary abandonment through elections in mass democracies is a rigorous college-level education that instills pride, ambition and confidence in young adults that can lead them to love, protect and exercise the freedom to dissent and think independently.

Our current approach to the education of adolescents now does the exact opposite. It cultivates passivity, uniformity, imitation and the lowering of aspirations, even among those whom we deem gifted. At minimum, the economic well being of the United States is at risk if we fail to reform how we educate our young adults. What is really at stake, however, are freedom and individuality in a world defined by complexity and interdependency on a global scale—factors that dwarf the importance of liberty and each human life.