Our society confuses schooling with education. That is a particular shame now because misapplied deep budget cuts will make schooling worse, while a lot of money is neither necessary nor sufficient to provide good education. There could be a less expensive, far better way to educate students.
The problem with schooling is that what is taught and tested in schools is trivial. Standards which only appear to be important and meaningful, but which are actually neither, are established only because they are objective and easily measured for large quantities of students. The standards chosen are also ones that can be taught to students in institutional settings because they do not require personalized or individualized instruction or monitoring for student understanding. Students and schools are then graded on how close they come to meeting these pseudo standards. If we coached football in the same way we teach academic subjects, everyone would be graded on written knowledge of proper technique, and no one would care if anyone actually played well. Multiple choice football exams would replace games on weekends.
Moreover, schooling, as opposed to education, is particularly harmful to inner city kids and to brighter children who justifiably find that what is typically taught and tested in school is a boring waste of time, and who are less likely than the average suburban child to passively learn something just for a grade or a higher test score.
Some, usually private, schools have taken the old approach of motivating minority students by fear and rote drill. While that can improve grades and test scores, it would be better for all students to give them a better curriculum taught in better ways.
When most students finish high school or even college today, they will not have learned in school how to build anything, manufacture anything, repair anything, grow any food, understand anything very well, make wise and responsible decisions, or communicate ideas clearly and logically. They normally will not know how to operate in the world of business or even how to establish and wisely use credit. We ought to be able to do better with 13 years of public school. By graduation, students ought to be able to speak and write clearly, and even eloquently. They ought to be able to read, analyze, and think about what they have read. They ought to be conversant with important social and scientific ideas. They ought to have an understanding of math and science and how they work and what their power and limitations are. Within the limits of safety, they ought to have learned to grow things by landscaping school grounds, learned to help build, paint, and decorate classrooms, and learned how to repair and take care of equipment. They ought to have learned to effectively and humanely coordinate work with others. They ought to be more mature and responsible than they typically are now.
The human mind is an amazing tool. It can learn without being taught, and it can learn even more and even better with the right teaching. But poor teaching stifles it. If you are going to teach young children to catch a ball, you don't begin with technique. You begin by rolling a soft, somewhat large, ball to them while they are sitting on the floor. They will soon be able to catch it with their hands without being taught specifically how to do it. You may then eventually toss it slowly and gently from a very short distance. And they will be able to catch it. You may need to bounce it to them first. You progress to farther and farther throws with smaller and smaller balls. At some point you may need to show the child something technical to improve their catching or throwing. But you don't teach technique from the beginning or dwell on it for long because people do not normally learn or need to learn that way, and normally cannot learn that way. What is necessary for proper learning is exposure to something interesting and worthy to know that is presented in whatever way best allows the mind to learn it.
But schools and education systems are bent on teaching techniques and minutia instead of exposing students to the best that civilization has produced. Most children don't hear great speakers or read great speeches in school. They aren't exposed to great music, masterpieces of art, challenging scientific or engineering or social problems, or great ideas. Instead they are taught parts of speech and mathematical recipes. And they are supposed to guess what teachers want them to say about contrived pieces of fiction. But these will not produce articulate writing or speaking, nor an understanding of math and science or history. They won't even produce interesting conversation or entertaining letters. Children need meaningful exposure to great speech and great writing and then they need to test their own words and ideas with each other and with adults who will respond rationally to them. This needs to be done for the intrinsic value of the material, not the extrinsic punishment or reward of a grade.
But students do not generally get the opportunity in their assignments to discuss or read about the things that mean anything to them -- issues of fairness and what is important in life. If they ever are exposed to great ideas, it is in such a dry and irrelevant way that they cannot see them as important or meaningful. Children study democracy historically and in the abstract but are powerless in school, without free speech or practice in decision-making and group accommodation to individual needs. They are not allowed to seriously discuss issues that are meaningful to them, and then everyone wonders why they have no ideas and cannot communicate clearly. Teachers often do not even respond to what students write other than to give it a grade or criticize the grammar.
Learning requires active engagement but students in schools most often have to be passive. Students are to be quiet and listen carefully. There is no serious or sustained disagreement allowed with teachers, no chance to hone thinking skills or to learn something beyond the surface. There is no intellectual excitement. Deeper issues are not even generally allowed to be raised for discussion.
Students, whether minority or otherwise, need exposure to inspiring, knowledgeable, talented, skilled adults who have the desire, ability, and patience to impart their wisdom. Schools need a massive infusion of voluntary adult participation to mentor kids about all things great and small. Educated adults need to help nurture and sharpen children's speaking and reading abilities but they also need to show them that knowledge and understanding are wondrous things and that there is far more in the world than the state course of study.
Yet today's schools are becoming more and more isolated from those adults with the most interesting and diverse educations in their communities. Instead, narrowly educated teachers are poorly paid to teach large numbers of students boring things in tedious ways, often all at the same pace, for high pressure, high stakes pointless tests. Yet Sunday schools, community sports leagues, and scouting have all figured out how to let more adults volunteer to help children learn without jeopardizing their safety and without giving them grades. Schools need to take a lesson, so that children can be exposed to the best communities have to offer, not just to what the institutionalized system has to offer on a limited budget. Many volunteer mentors need to be in schools, especially, but not only, in those areas where students are at a severe cultural disadvantage from the start.