Radical Solutions

May 01, 1999 3 min read

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