Science Opinion

Throwback Thursday: Change the Structure of Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 17, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How we educate students must change. Is there anyone among us who still believes that the paradigm in which we operate provides adequate preparation for the adult lives our students will live? Teachers and leaders, along with communities of parents and those in business and health care, politicians and news reporters all know that change is needed. But why has change been so slow to happen?

#tbt Teaching of Mathematics

Building on the conclusions of nine recent national reports, a University of Chicago professor has proposed basic changes in the content and structure of junior and senior high school mathematics curricula that would emphasize the use of computers and calculators, provide more work with applications of abstract principles, and introduce algebra and geometry earlier (EdWeek, 1983).

Imagine what some were thinking when reading that article 31 years ago. “What does a college professor know about what we are facing in our schools?” “Let him come in and do what I do with these students even for a week and see if he can do it.” “I can barely teach what I have as my curriculum now, how will I be able to teach higher level courses to my students?” “If they use calculators to solve problems, how will they know how to solve problems without them?” “What do computers have to do with it?” Surely we have all heard halting remarks like this. Perhaps we, ourselves, have made them. And there may be some kernel of truth in those statements to be examined. It seems shocking though, that those words were written three decades ago. What causes us to move so slowly? The article continued:

The revision--the work of Zalman Usiskin, a nationally known researcher and teacher educator--would also involve a shift away from the traditional division of students into “college bound” and “noncollege bound.” Instead, according to Mr. Usiskin, the curriculum would be organized around the future needs of students, offering them new types of courses more closely tailored to their academic and career plans, while allowing them to keep their options for further study open.

We Have Done Some Changing
There are schools that have successfully moved to include all students into the same academic classes instead of holding them into college bound and non-college bound tracks. There are opportunities for students to graduate with high honors after taking higher level courses and there are opportunities for students to graduate having taken courses more directed at career skills like auto mechanics, nursing, food service, etc. The majority of the courses in schools have become designed to welcome more students and the teachers have worked to reach each and every child in those classes. Calculators have become part of mathematics curricula and computers and tablets have, every so slowly, worked their way in as well. And with the Common Core, some mathematical concepts have been introduced in earlier grades. Changes have taken place. But we are still talking about creating a system that is built “around the future needs of students, offering them new types of courses more closely tailored to their academic and career plans, while allowing them to keep their options for further study open.

Led or Followed?
Was all led as a purposeful shift in practice or followed as a mandate? There is a difference. When we take a mandate and push it into our existing structure, we follow, but do not create a structural shift as we put new practices into place, whether in the classroom, the school, or the district. If this is our tipping point, soon we will be at the breaking point. We need a new structure within which these changes can flourish. We need a shift, a redesign of the paradigm that is our schools.

A Real-World, Integrated Shift as One Answer for Math Instruction
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), reporting on the 2012 PISA results wrote,

Relative to their overall performance in mathematics, students in the United States are stronger in interpreting mathematical results than they are at formulating a real-world problem into mathematics.

The Edweek Article from 1983 reported:

Mr. Usiskin, who is the author of Applications in Algebra, is considered a leading proponent of using more varied “real-world” applications in the teaching of mathematics.

We’ve known this for 31 years. And yet, in these 31 years, the structure of schools hasn’t changed much. Perhaps the word “change” is the stumbling block. Overall we have done a good job of offering an ever-increasing inclusive education to every child who enters our schools. And we have adjusted to changes in curricula. But with “change” as the mantle of this century, we need to get better at it. Nothing more can fit into the school structure as it exists. Change will have to be led as a result of a planned shift in the way schools are designed.

B. J. Worthington, Director of Schools 
District: Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools, Tennessee is a 2014 Education Week “Leaders To Learn From”. His district’s math and science achievement scores were in need of improvement. They determined they needed to change the way these two subjects were taught across the district. They redesigned the nature of how math and science would be taught within a new structure. Problem based learning became the basis of their program. They chose to use an application of STEM as the vehicle for their shift. In this video they reveal their value for this new way of teaching. As they have worked their way through this shift in practice, and redesigned the paradigm in which learning takes place, they have increased the percentage of students reaching grade level mastery. This is important evidence that changing the structure, taking the risk to shift to a new model, does not threaten students’ ability to achieve. In fact, it improves it.

Change the Paradigm
We’ve changed programs and we’ve implemented mandates, all within an unchanged system.It is encouraging to know there are successful attempts at redesigning schools’ strucures like the work done in Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools and so many other districts across the country . Leading a systemic shift, changing the school paradigm, is a route to providing the 21st century education we want for our students. Our schools’ structures can no longer be set in stone and continue over decades, even centuries. This century is offering us new and exciting tools with which to help children become more eager, engaged, successful learners. We have room for little else to be placed within the walls of our present structure.

It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be...“ISAAC ASIMOV

On Thursdays, we highlight an issue that was making headlines 20 years or more ago. We examine the status of that issue today and wonder with our readers about what has changed and what has not. We welcome feedback and ideas.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.