Education

Radical Solutions

May 01, 1999 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

America will never have the public education system it needs until we fundamentally change the structure and culture of schools. The current system was not designed to educate children to participate in a complex and highly technological information society. It is a Model-T Ford. We can replace the motor, the transmission, the wheels, and weld on wings. But it will never be a supersonic jet.

Twenty years ago, when the American manufacturing industry discovered that it was losing its competitive edge in the global economy, corporations made sweeping changes. The ideas of Drucker, Deming, and others pointed the way to reform. In the steel, automaking, machine-tool, and other industries, factories were streamlined, new technologies introduced, workers retrained and given more autonomy.

Steel factories today bear little resemblance to those of 40 years ago, but schools have hardly changed over that time. Why are we unwilling--or unable--to do what’s so obviously needed? The way schools are organized virtually guarantees that the bulk of their resources and assets--time and dollars, teachers and students--aren’t effectively used. We know, for example, that all children are different, that they progress emotionally and intellectually at different rates, and yet we insist on grouping them into 12 grades based on ages. That misguided practice leads to another problem: grade-specific curricula that we expect all students to learn regardless of their abilities and interests. At each grade, the curriculum determines what teachers will teach and how time will be spent.

In a public education system more concerned with covering material than addressing student’s needs, teachers and students lose. Just look at the statistics: Our schools persist ently fail to educate more than half the children who enter them. This is a system failure; we can’t blame teachers and students. How can the system be effective when it handcuffs teachers and virtually ignores the interests and talents of its students, the “clients”?

So what is the answer?

Assuming the public won’t pay to double the teaching force, the most rational and promising solution is to abolish grade levels and replace them with three divisions: a primary division (roughly the equivalent of grades K-4), a middle division (grades 5-8), and a secondary division (grades 9 and up). In this scheme, the primary division would be devoted almost entirely to reading and writing, with the goal that every child become a proficient reader. Students in the middle- and secondary-divisions would help design their own individual learning programs and then do the work largely on their own; teachers would act as coaches and mentors, available to help as needed. Schools also would trim the number of subjects offered and classes required, and they would make the curriculum more flexible. As students grow older, they would spend more time working in their communities--in libraries, museums, local businesses--through internships and other mentoring arrangements. Some might take classes in community colleges or drop out for a quarter or semester to work. When students demonstrate that they have mastered the predetermined goals and standards, they would receive a diploma and move on.

Similar proposals have been floated over the years, but they get nowhere because they require seismic changes in attitude and lots of hard work. Still, the benefits of a reformed system are worth the pain. Freed of their custodial role of spoon-feeding prepackaged curricula to their charges, teachers could become true professionals. They could put their own knowledge and expertise to work helping young people be eager, curious self-educators.

That should be easy given that children start life as self-educators. The average 1st grader has mastered a difficult language, developed a sense of the surrounding world, and even acquired some interpersonal skills. But when children arrive at school, they quickly discover that curiosity and imagination are not valued. For some, learning slows, and many students actually do less and less well as they move through school. That should tell us something.

--Ronald A. Wolk


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP