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School Problems

School Problems

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify current problems in education, such as student passivity, grade inflation, tracking, and functional illiteracy.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for joining me. In this lesson, we're going to discuss some school problems, or social problems that are related to the school system and to the educational institutions in American society. One of the major problems right away with schools is assessment, or the measurement of skills, knowledge, and abilities.

In modern society, we need to be able to objectively display our learning, and we need to be able to rank ourselves. So what are we going to put on a resume? Well, we got a B in this. We got an A in this. We need to be able to differentiate ourselves, because society is anonymous, and we don't know each other. So we need to be able to put our skills out on display.

So how do we assess our learning then? This is a problem that society has to solve. There are different ways to do this, but in the US, grades, scores, and percentile ranks are commonly employed to assess students' abilities. Standardized assessments are designed to ensure that people have basic reading, writing, and math skills, the skills necessary to function in society, such that no child gets left behind, as the policy is called.

So we've got assessments in place in elementary schools and in high schools to make sure you can do this at this standard. And if you can't, well then you can't move on. In order to move on, you've got to be able to pass this test and make sure we know that you are learning and you have the skills necessary to succeed and you're not left behind. So this is the goal with standardized assessments.

In doing so, we want, as a society, to avoid functional illiteracy, which is the absence of basic, reading, writing, and math skills that are necessary to function in society. Functional illiteracy is, hopefully, then mitigated by this idea of No Child Left Behind. We've got to make sure nobody slips through the cracks without being able to do this. That's the goal.

But assessment does have some associated problems. So first-- the standards themselves. And then tests are created to teach to the standards. So often, teachers complain about having to just teach to the test. We can't be spontaneous and more varied with our education. We've got to focus it on this test if this test is going to be so important.

So teachers teach to the test. And often, as we've seen, there's been policy put in place so that teacher's pay is tethered to the performance of their students on these standardized tests. So teachers then have an incentive to fudge the scores of their students to hopefully then make themselves look better, get paid more, advance. And this has been documented in a pretty good economics book, a pop economics book, called Freakonomics, where he shows that teachers were fudging their students' standardized test scores because there was an incentive structure in place for them to do so.

And also, because cultures are varied in the United States and the test is created by somebody-- the standardized test measures some standardized knowledge-- it has been argued that standardized assessment can even discriminate against certain students because of their culture. And the culture of the test creators is the dominant American culture that might not necessarily be as easily understood by somebody from a different culture. So it has also been argued then that the assessments are biased against some students.

Standardized testing can also be used to track students and engage in tracking. You can separate the gifted from the average, the exceptional from everyday. When you assess students, then you could put them on different educational tracks-- so courses for the gifted or regular courses.

But research shows that students actually do better when everyone is present in the same classroom. Students that are not as far advanced as other students can see how they are using the concepts and learning. They can copy the way that more advanced kids learn. So everybody benefits from being in the same classroom. And likewise, if you can teach, they say you remember much more of what you have to teach. So it's beneficial for more advanced students to engage in discussion with less advanced students as well.

So if we've got standards and everybody has to achieve a certain level to get by, we can have what's called grade inflation, which is a related problem. Grade inflation is the tendency for work of similar quality to get rewarded higher. So I do work that's a B+. Well then, over time, that same work becomes an A. The standards, in effect, get lower when this happens. So if everyone's got to make the standard, well then maybe we can push the standard down a little bit over time. And this has been a hotly debated public topic, even at universities as well.

Now let's shift gears a little bit and look at another problem associated with schooling. And that's student passivity. We don't want students who just go through the motions and are disinterested in their education. Ideally, the student is passionate about learning and invested in their future and their educational achievement, and they care. They want to be there.

But disinterested, passive students is a real problem for schools. Schools struggle to sometimes make students care about their education, such that they can connect it to their future and invest the time, energy, and effort into learning. So we want to work against student passivity.

I was this way in high school. I didn't mature quick enough to care about high school. I knew I could just show up, go through the motions, and I would get a B, and that would be good enough. I wasn't really that concerned about putting any effort and trying to get better grades.

Fortunately though, at college, I turned it around. But because I was passive in high school, I got into kind of a lousy college. But then when I got into college, I turned that student passivity around, worked hard, was able to connect to my education to the future, and then got into a better school for my MA.

So the potential was there, but passivity prevented me from realizing that potential right away. Often, students don't realize that their education matters for their future life chances, so they are passive and non-committal. And so this is a school problem, student passivity.

This was a lesson on school problems. We discussed areas of student engagement and assessment, as well as grade inflation and student passivity. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Functional Illiteracy

The absence of the basic reading and writing skills needed for everyday life.

Grade Inflation

The tendency to give work of comparable quality proportionately higher marks over time.

Student Passivity

Bored, disinterested students who are passive about their educational success.


Separating students by virtue of their scores on standardized tests.