I have often discussed education with my mother, who was a public school teacher prior to her marriage in 1954, and the differences between her schooling, my schooling, and my kids’ schooling, spanning eight decades. She has an interesting theory: that her generation, pre-technology, pre-Information Age, pre-TV, pre-just about everything, was overall better educated in a more functional way than the following generations who had more resources and more knowledge available to more people than any other time in human history.

She might be right.

The Information Age may actually be the Information Overload Age. We have so much to learn in such little time, and so much extra must be factored in now that wasn’t before: special needs accommodations, standards testing, college track prep, gym credits, contact hours, counselors, lunch programs, sports teams, field trips, computers and tech management, helicopter parents, absent parents…and every single day, something new and important gets added into the pile. Even the smallest children have days that are little but constant transitions from subject to subject to subject, and the pressure on everyone to excel is tremendous. We have moremoremore…and it’s not working, no one is happy, and no one really seems to be able to fix things, or enough things, to make at least some people happy. In an unstable world economy, polarized and inflexible government, millions of people who are turned off by the failures and inequities in education, teachers who cannot be everything to everyone, and children who do not believe that education is or ever will be meaningful in their lives, we breed a dangerous situation.

Maybe an answer is to break our American addiction to “having it all,” because it seems like the real outcome to moremoremore is really lesslessless: diluted, ineffectual sets of facts that aren’t helping people to improve their lives substantially or be prepared to deal proactively with hard times. Think about it this way: what are the things you NEED to know? Not the things that are ideal or look good on a resume or college app or that seem important but are not crucial, the stuff that if you were set free upon graduation with no one to prod or help you that would set you up with confidence and skills to make your way.

First, before we get into what those might be, we’ve got to address the real real basics. All the good intentions and educational innovations in the world are useless if we are sending substantial amounts of children into the system who are unwanted to begin with, poorly fed, poorly housed, suffer from abuse or neglect, are unhealthy, or otherwise ill-prepared to learn. No educational system can make up for these things, not the most compassionate of teachers nor in-school free breakfasts. So…
National government campaign: “Child-Free…Until You’re Ready.” Break the social pressures to have kids at all costs, provide information on the financial and emotional responsibilities of parenting, and provide FREE birth control and reproductive medicine services to all. No child should come into the world unwanted, and unplanned pregnancies should become a rarity. 
Quality, low- or no-cost parenting programs and information available to all in as many forms as possible. You can’t turn every lousy parent into a good one, but there are those who simply don’t know what to do or where to turn for answers, and benefit greatly from compassionate instruction. 
There is no reason whatsoever that any child should be without comprehensive medical care or should ever go hungry in America. Whatever it is that lands them in a deprived situation, we must help and protect them until they are old enough to help themselves. 
Let’s now go back to school. What’s important? What do we pick to throw our limited resources at? Here’s another wild idea: stop pushing every single kid in every single school to attend college. This seems counter-intuitive to producing a strong, smart American workforce, right? Well, look at what we’ve done – by insisting that one way or another everyone should attend college, we’ve pushed through generations of students that never belonged there in the first place! We routinely send in kids that must spend their 1st year of college taking remedial courses, have little interest in college, and who attend only because they think they must. Grade inflation in high school and college is now the norm, which makes the degrees given meaningless. We are serving absolutely no one by doing this; it is false education, and on top of that we saddle those students with massive school debt. It must stop.

A good life and a productive life doesn’t have to mean tying into institutions and corporations and a piece of paper that is nothing more the a “Hoop Jumping” certificate. What is more important is discovering and supporting the real strengths and interests of each individual student, whatever those might be. I’d like to see more tech schools, and for that option to lose its stigma. I’d like to see far more in the way of internships and apprenticeships. I’d like to see those students who have the passion and drive to start a small business be supported by the business owners in their communities. I’d like to see young children less isolated from the work that adults do, and given more opportunities to connect with their own communities regularly.

Education needs to become more practical and less idealized. If you can go on to study the classics, art history, micro-economics, high-level computer programming, Constitutional law, modern languages, quantum physics, do it, and more power to you. But let’s get the bulk of our kids solid on the skills they must have, which are…
You have to be able to write a well-organized, grammatically-correct paper. It doesn’t have to be a 30-page opus, but you have to be able to show that you can take information, synthesize it, and communicate what you need to say with few glaring errors. You will be judged all your life on your written communication skills, so clarity here is important. Even the ability to write a good letter and a decent resume will serve you well. You should know how to spell without spellcheck. 
You should be able to competently perform enough math to handle your everyday finances, and to know enough about math to understand why that is important. No one should leave school without years of experience in learning how to handle money, real or pretend. Every school or community should have a working business for kids to participate in regularly – and then why not combine that with other skills, like setting up a bakery or a garden or a thrift store, whatever. There is hardly anything that would give more real-world benefit to kids than this. 
Fewer lectures, more real-world interactions. You could probably learn more about WWII, and remember more about it, from a single visit from an eloquent veteran than from a year of textbook assignments and tests. Hands-on, do-and-see, talking with the people in their communities bonds kids to others and makes education come alive. Find the rich resources all around you. Get kids moving and out of the classroom as much as possible. 
Peer tutoring helps everyone. This is one of the things that my mother felt was one of the biggest positives to the one-room schoolhouse days. The older kids assisted the younger kids, because there was only one teacher for all grades. By doing so, the older kids freed her up to teach as she needed, and solidified their own learning by having to express it well enough to teach another. Again, there was teamwork and connection – everyone was invested in the success of everyone else, and were proud of each person there. Bring in more members of the adult community, too. Children should leave school feeling competent, and that their communities cared about them enough to put in some face time. 
Make all public-school curriculum available in textbooks, online and downloadable, and via On Demand TV, and provide study guides at schools and libraries. Is this as ideal as classroom instruction? No, but there seems to be no way to fit everything in for everyone, and in any case it would be a damn good idea to have all educational content available to all citizens in the easiest possible ways. What cannot be taught in the 8-hour school day could be made available in other ways. 
This is just a start, throwing ideas out there. What I know is that we cannot depend on government nor Big Business to save us. We have to set kids up to be able to deal with whatever they must, whether that’s higher education or running a backhoe, that they can communicate well, take care of themselves, know how to work with others and connect with their communities, and feel hopeful and confident that no matter how bad things might get, they know how to make good things happen.

We are millions and millions strong, and so very wealthy in our individual talents. If we find the ways to let each person know what they are good at, support that with practical education and experience, we can stabilize the economy and rebuild vibrant communities that once again understand that everything works better when we all are working towards the same goal. We need to rethink what “the good life” really means, and how people can actually be happier living with fewer material goods if they are doing work that they really like and are good at. We disrespect our nation and our children by continuing to hand out meaningless diplomas that should come with a set of Sharpies to circle the job ads and a cot to put in Mom’s basement. Maybe the real “job creators” are the kids sitting and coloring at your kitchen table, right now…if we can show them the way.