Why do education systems fail? And trust me, they do.
It might be that the first step in ameliorating any system's problems is admitting that we lose sight of why students learn when they learn. There are 4 basic categories of learner:
1. The student who loves the process of learning -- he may not retain anything but his brain expands and he has the thirst for all new information. Occasionally he can combine facts and is trained to seek out new knowledge.
2. The student who loves a particular content area -- he can memorize facts which interest him. He will read and study anything that has to do with his interest area. He will even seek out new information about his area of interest.
3. The student who wants the grade -- he learns for a test, and learns to "play the game" because he can attenuate his performance to each (or any) teacher. For him, any memorization or comprehension is a means to an end and while some information sticks, that is almost incidental.
4. The student who learns for direct use -- he sticks with facts and skills which have a relevance to what he wants to do or be, or which he can see as immediately useful in the real world. Esoteric knowledge and background data, unless they can be proven as applcable to his near-future experience will be ignored.
When we teach, we often ignore why the students are there and their particular needs. Can we change presentation or, indeed, the curricular demands we place on students to address what they want to do and what they need? Do we know what a kid will need in 10 years to survive? Is math necessary when the calculators and computers are there? If my kid isn't a scientist what science does he need to survive? Is there something about the process of learning that is necessary for anyone?
Or maybe, the problem is that we break kids into groups and try to differentiate, accommodating their specific needs instead of saying that we have a standard expectation of all and part of growing up is dealing with tough or uninteresting classes, or learning irrelevant material because struggle makes you better able to face future struggle.
And this tension fills every professional (and many non-professional) moment of a teacher's life. The question of "why are we doing this?" or "is this the best way, or even a good way?" plague us. Wouldn't it be easier if someone could tell us what will work and what will be necessary so we can be "just teachers"? Instead we have to evaluate needs, try different methods in the dynamic classroom, backing up and starting over or forging ahead, knowing that every wrong decision has consequences which reach well beyond our time in the class. No pressure, or anything...just the survival and success of our culture and society.