6 Problems with School According to a Valedictorian

Back in high school, I graduated at the top of my class. I maxed out my schedule with as many AP classes as I could squeeze in, settled for nothing less than an A, and received multiple academic awards and scholarships.

But now as an adult and parent, I see very little value in those academic accomplishments.

Research seems to agree with me.

TIME magazine recently published an article about a study of high school valedictorians and salutatorians. While generally accomplished in their professions, none of the participants in the study went on to become leaders or innovators. They all stopped short of achieving exceptional success or influence.

Karen Arnold, the Boston college researcher, gave this assessment:

“Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries . . . they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”


Cue Pomp and Circumstance while I walk down the valedictorian hall of shame.

I loved school. I was good at school. I even taught in schools.

But I can think of at least 6 problems with school:

1. Compliance

Traditional schooling reinforces and rewards compliance. A child receives attention and accolades when she meets the teacher’s expectations; and a note home to the parents, detention, or trip to the principal’s office when she does not. Kids learn to be rule-followers and people-pleasers.

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Students who excel in the controlled environment of school don’t know how or when to break the rules. They have a hard time thinking outside the box when they’ve been trained to fit everything neatly into that box. They don’t know what to do with freedom because they’ve been taught to simply obey.

2. Conformity

Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk addresses this problem of a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all education. Traditional schooling aims to standardize and systematize education. It prepares kids who know how to read textbooks and do well on exams. But not all of us were created to be academics… even if we are Asian. Our society needs people with all sorts of skills: firefighters and florists, chefs and chiropractors, entertainers and engineers.

Sadly, schools are ill-equipped to train students for anything other than more school.

In school, students lack the freedom to pursue their own interests, at their own pace, according to their own learning style.

  • A student may be a social learner, but is told to be quiet and do her own work.
  • A boy may need to run around and be active, yet is punished for getting up out of his seat and labeled as having ADHD.
  • A child may skip ahead in a book, but is ordered to follow along with the teacher.
  • A teenager may find world history irrelevant, but is still required to learn what’s in the textbook.

Schools are simply unable to nurture the individuality of each of child when the whole system is set up to conform children to arbitrary standards.

3. General Knowledge

Traditional schooling forces students to learn a little bit of everything, regardless of interest or aptitude. Perhaps this is to give kids a taste of different subjects in order to whet their appetite. But even if they did want to delve deeper into a particular area, they’d have neither the freedom nor time to do so within the classroom. There’s so much set curriculum to cover that teachers can’t really afford to stop and smell the roses.

In the real world however, those with expertise are the ones who get hired. Having a breadth of general knowledge that is only surface deep may help you win a trivia game or even bolster your college application, but it rarely helps you to excel in your field or land a job.

4. Test-Based Knowledge

This summer, I shared my plans to unschool with many of my friends. Although most of them were fellow Asian Americans who thought I was crazy for unschooling, none of them disagreed with me that their education was generally a waste of time. As kids, we all memorized facts, brain-dumped the information onto a test, and then promptly forgot all we had “learned.”

When students learn for the sake of tests and grades, they rarely see the value of the content itself. I saw this firsthand as a teacher. When I handed back tests and homework, the only thing the kids cared about was the grade. They didn’t care about understanding the material they had missed, or about correcting their mistakes. They simply saw their grade as a metric of intelligence and comparison, rather than a tool for feedback.

Tests and grades are not good indicators of actual learning, yet that is how schools gauge success.

5. The Classroom Setting

In traditional schooling, learning is arranged behind desks, limited to the classroom, divided into periods, and parsed into individual subjects. But what else in the world looks like that? I can’t think of a single thing. Such a setting is divorced from context and real life.

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Schools compartmentalize and confine learning, misleading students into believing that education only happens within a school building and through a teacher. It makes students dependent upon the classroom environment to drive their education instead of discovering learning opportunities through real world experiences.

Classroom learning may have its merits, but it’s still manufactured, abstract learning that is too often disconnected from the rest of life.

6. Extrinsic Motivation

Compulsory education, whether in the form of tradition schooling or even homeschooling, relies on extrinsic factors like rewards and punishments to encourage learning. While this may be effective in the short run, overemphasizing extrinsic motivation actually reduces a child’s intrinsic motivation. Many studies, including this experiment, have shown that kids who received an expected reward for a particular activity lost interest once they were no longer promised an incentive.

Alfie Kohn, a psychologist, researcher, and author of the book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, had this to say about extrinsic motivation:

“The more we try to measure, control, and pressure learning from without, the more we obstruct the tendencies of students to be actively involved and to participate in their own education.”

When a child is driven by external factors, it leads to passivity rather than passion.

As a valedictorian, I reaped many benefits from attending school and having amazing teachers. But I also reaped the negative consequences of succeeding in an education system that rewarded me for complying and conforming, cramming and compartmentalizing.

Now, as an adult I’m learning to undo some of that conditioning.

I’m getting curious again.

I’m discovering my own passions.

I’m learning new skills in ways that are joyful, meaningful, and integrated.

I’m finally learning to unschool myself.

Click here to read how unschooling answers these 6 problems of school.




  1. KusKatStudio

    September 17, 2017 at 2:10 am

    I am so with you on most of your points! It’s about time that the traditional form of education evolves to more a personal traject learning. So much things and time that gets wasted over expecting everyone to be good at the same thing! And this begins at an early stage (baby-kids). This might be an interesting read for you, if you manage to google translate https://decorrespondent.nl/7075/waarom-onze-kinderen-steeds-minder-spelen-en-wij-met-een-burn-out-thuis-zitten/271998375-cddd5d81 About playtime and burn out 🙂

    1. Iris

      September 17, 2017 at 5:40 am

      Thanks for the article recommendation! I did google translate it and got the gist of it. I also agree that kids need to play more! Kids learn so much through free play.

  2. RicardoOrtiz

    September 21, 2017 at 7:26 am

    I graduated salutatorian and missed valedictorian for one point but that is not so important. In my case I went to a public school, AP classes graduated 4.5 GPA and the only problem I have is going to the university I was not prepared, failed and came back but the point of top students not being shakers it could be, most of my friends who were valedictorian are conformist, failed out in life too or mediocre. The only thing that keeps me from failing is I do want to be a mover and a shaker because I am not giving up so easily. But the points you share here make sense.

    1. Iris

      September 21, 2017 at 8:25 am

      Thanks for stopping by, Ricardo! I do think there is hope for those of us who did well in school. We aren’t destined to be conformists forever! But we need to recognize how school has influenced us (people-pleasing tendencies, need for external rewards to stay motivated, etc.) so that we can become more self-aware and take steps to change.

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