My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


Most Important Things 

Most Important Things #2: Education Reform

Can we begin with one, simple premise?: Every child is somebody special, and has the potential to be somebody spectacular. God created each of them in his image, with His spark and with an infinity of possibilities for their lives.

Does that seem a reasonable starting point for our discussion of education? Because, to look at the public schools today, you would not see an institution devoted to that premise. Nor would you recognize that premise from the political discussion of public education. And, if you asked all the parents out there, my firm belief is that close to none of them would tell you that their child(ren) is being treated that way.

So, what is the problem? The problem may be that the schools of today are devoted to moving the masses along at the same speed to whatever end they manage to achieve. Instead, the schools SHOULD be dedicated to driving each and every student towards the upper limit of what they are truly capable of. We should not be encouraging the herd to move, because the herd can only go as fast as its slowest member, and that is a formula for mediocrity. Instead, we should be encouraging students to become "outliers"--to think of themselves as and to behave as if they were actually different than the other students in their class.

Pretty revolutionary stuff, eh?

Ten or fifteen years ago, conservatives took up the mantle of education reformers, and caused a great deal of change. The advent of testing brought a sense of accountability back to the classroom--a sense that disappeared for a while as the schools believed it was their job to improve the "self-esteem" of their students.

Unfortunately, that accountability was applied to the masses--"No Child . . ." is driven by the premise of moving the entire herd; CSAP holds accountability, NOT for students, and NOT for teachers, but for entire schools in their aggregate. The entire idea is of the herd.

Unfortunately, to a degree, even that accountability has stalled out--lo and behold, in many ways, we've come to discover through testing there is a soft ceiling to how high those test scores can go. In other words, testing has revealed that there are certain segments of the population that do very well at testing, and there are certain segments that do not do well. And, in truth, to some degree that testing aptitude also does not have a great deal to do with actual learning.

And, as that accountability is stalling out, we are approaching a time when liberals are going to be the ones who define what change comes next. This is true for a couple reasons: one, liberals are in charge of everything right now; and two, conservatives haven't put up a new idea in ten years.

So let me propose a few ideas.

First, the 1996 T.I.M.M.S. study found, with the results corroborated elsewhere, that American Math textbooks (and thus, curriculum) cover many more topics than their counterparts throughout the world, but they do so in very little comparative depth. The end result is that American students know much less about much more, and end up getting creamed on international tests. I would generalize that to say that the same is true across the board: American schools, particularly in academics, try to do too much. Think of all the different constituent groups that the schools try to cater to, and imagine trying to design a curriculum that serves all of them.

Idea #1: cover less, do it in depth, do it better. For a change, let's learn a little bit from the CTOPU (Countries That Out Perform Us), and figure out what's really important, and then make sure the schools teach it. For instance, you can NOT possibly teach every aspect of American History from every point of view effectively; so, instead, focus on Primary Documents like the Constitution and the Declaration and "I Have A Dream," and focus on critical events like wars, and let the students start to develop ideas and opinions of their own. It is very interesting to compare MLK with Malcolm X in style, but the truth is that MLK moved the entire country, while Malcolm drove a relative handful--MLK deserves time and concentration. And at that, still less time than Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

Secondly, school reforms are more often than not incited by college professors who are far away from the classroom and who haven't been in a classroom in years. As an example, I cite my school district's move to "Math Investigations," a curriculum that has been in circulation for about eight years, with one major revision about five years ago. Here's the thing: M.I. hasn't proven, even just a little bit, to move test scores upward or to make students better capable of functioning in the "real world." So why does my school district move to it? Because it got a great deal from the publisher, and because it's the next great thing. In the meantime, teachers get to repeatedly send home lovely reminders to parents that "our fifth grade is still weak at computation," which is because M.I. doesn't think that's terribly important.

Idea #2: Concentrate on what works, discard the rest. I'm not advocating any sort of knee-jerk reaction to ideas that don't prove out in the space of a couple years; I'm talking about running schools like an business laboratory--a business doesn't attempt to do what failed for another business (did you ever hear of "New Pepsi"?), neither should schools. Innovation is a great and wonderful thing, but every scientific experiment has a pilot program--so should schools.

Third, I can tell you from experience that the move towards accountability shook up the education establishment something fierce. You should have seen the near-panic in the teachers' lounge at the idea of putting a number on a schools' performance. But the schools adjusted, they strategized, they took a professional approach, and they made the move. Now, testing is a normal, if unpleasant, reality that nobody really chafes at too badly (until the scores show up in the newspaper). That simple move towards objective standards changed behavior.

In one segment of the population. Unfortunately, there is a whole other population that is necessary to successful education: students. And, by extension, families. The schools have changed, but their clientele has not, and testing has not done anything to increase the accountability to students and parents. Sure, each student gets their individual scores on the test, but those scores are not used for any purpose--that is, until 11th grade when the ACT is neede to get into college. One of my favorite headlines/ledes from the news last summer was something to the effect that "Students who were not proficient in 3rd grade still not proficient two years later in 5th grade." What the Hell is that student doing in 5th grade if they weren't proficient in 3rd? And worse, that student is probably being "remediated" to the extent that they are only spending their days on the things that they are bad at, while never having the opportunity to discover or explore what they are good at.

Remember how every child is special and could be spectacular? And if that child is capable of 5th grade work, but "chooses" to only do 3rd grade work, where is their accountability, other than the mind-numbing boredom of their days?

Idea #3: Let each student move through the curriculum as fast--or as slow--as they are able, until mastery is achieved, for twelve years. Let every student start in the same place; test them after twelve weeks; those that have mastered the subject move on to the next stuff; those that haven't repeat the materials until they learn it. If that means that after twelve years, some students still haven't earned a high school diploma, then they need to be re-routed at the end of the 11th year to be taught a useful skill; if that means some students complete high school after only 9 or 10 years, then the state gets to pay for the first 2 or 3 years of college. In the meantime, expand the universe of possibilities for every student, and make sure that every school has a vast array of arts and performance and athletics--AND TECHNOLOGY--offerings that give the students the opportunity to learn who they are and in what way or ways they are unique and spectacular. We just might find that not every kid is cut out for college, but that our schools are going be producing a generation of young adults who have useful skills and a sense of direction for their lives.

I saw an interesting number the other day: the number of students in India that are in the top 25% is a larger number than the number of students in all of America. If we want to compete with their best, we'd better start making it easier for our best to be spectacular. And, in the meantime, we'd better find a better way to produce a productive middle 50%.

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