Old School House
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The Bottom Line Don’t Reform, Transform!

Over the last 70 years, while our entire society has undergone dramatic change, our schools are still very much as they were during the first 50 years of the 20th Century. We still have the 180-day year, the six-hour day, many of the same course requirements, and virtually the same graduation requirements. We have seen numerous reform efforts implemented, which can be found in every corner of the classroom. However, they have not fundamentally changed the manner by which we educate our children. As a consequence, there has been minimal improvement in the academic achievement of America’s children. In fact, we have lost ground when compared to other countries. 

Too often, educational leaders sidestep the true crux of our educational crisis, which is the system itself. The current educational system may have worked during the industrial age, but it has become increasingly obsolete in the information age. Reforming this obsolete system will not achieve the needed outcomes — it will simply provide a modified obsolete system. We must transform it!

An Outdated System

The root problem with the current system (and the attempted reform strategies) is they continuously enforce a “one-size-fits-all” style of education. This system was created in 1763 by King Frederick the Great of Prussia, and further developed until the 1830s. Frederick established a regimented, hierarchical system featuring students seated in rows, teachers assigned to individual classrooms, and a curriculum that focused on discipline and obedience as much as on reading and writing. Massachusetts adopted this system and became the first state to provide all its citizens access to free public education.

Over the next 66 years, every other state adopted the Massachusetts/Prussian model of public education. The system was designed to teach an “average” set of students to be competent to work in manufacturing jobs. The factory model of education worked for the first 50 years of the 20th Century, but it does not work now. Today we live in a digital age, and the learning requirements are dramatically different. In short, our society has adjusted, but our schools have not.

More fundamentally, it is absurd to believe there is an “average student” within a broad range of unique students. Within a classroom, learning readiness among students will vary widely. Moreover, students learn in different ways and at different paces. Assuming otherwise assures the failure of a large number of students. Students also vary in their interests. Ignoring these realities results in a reduction of student engagement and motivation, and hinders students’ confidence to thrive. The net result is that, in any given classroom, there will be a wide variation in the amount of learning that occurs. One size does not fit all.

U.S. Education Results

In the U.S. today, about 35-40% of our children get the education they need. Those students go onto college or some other post-secondary education. The remaining students do not fare so well. About 500,000 will drop out of high school prior to graduation.1 The remaining students will graduate but will not possess the skills needed to enter post-secondary education or a good-paying job in the workforce. That amounts to 3.5 million young people per year coming out of our schools ill-equipped to succeed in the 21st Century economy. This has been the case for decades, and we are now into the third generation of adults who have been poorly educated or under-educated by our obsolete school system. The results are tragic and cut across all facets of society. The impact is shown in perpetual poverty, high incarceration rates, and good-paying jobs going unfilled for lack of qualified applicants (young workers from other counties are being recruited to fill open positions).

According to ACT’s The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2017 report, only 39 percent of graduates are ready for college coursework. Less than one in four underserved students (low-income, minority, or first-generation college students) is prepared for college. Colleges attempt to address this issue by providing remedial coursework to about one-third of incoming students — at a high cost and with limited success.2

Numbers like these are deeply concerning and should have every parents’ blood boiling. Unless we improve our schools, we will continue to turn out young adults without the knowledge and skills needed to gain a good job in an increasingly complex society.

Reforming the U.S. School System

Most of the reform efforts of the past were not bad ideas. In many states, reform has been the driving force for education improvement. For instance, in Florida, reform strategies have positively impacted education outcomes and have served as a model for other states. For example, Florida has put in an accountability system that measures school performance; they have also expanded school choice, among other initiatives. However, even Florida fails to educate every child, has unacceptable dropout rates, and test scores still lag behind many other nations.

Over the years, similar reform efforts have been tried in all states, and billions of dollars have been spent attempting to make our schools competitive — but to no avail. U.S. education ranks 26th overall according to 2020 data from World Population Review,3 despite leading the world in education spending. It’s time for a different approach!

Systemic Transformation

Simply tweaking the system — typical of reform efforts — will not suffice. Instead, a total transformation of the system is needed. We can no longer afford to continue failing our children. Not only do we set them up for failure and a less than satisfying life, but we also put our democracy at risk. As our founding fathers indicated, a democracy is dependent upon an educated electorate.

To change a system as entrenched as our public school system will not be easy, nor will it be quick. But it can be done and, frankly, it must be done. In the edited and updated version of my book, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education, I provide a specific game plan outlining how we can tackle transforming the system so that every student is given an effective, high-quality education that they deserve and need. Also, I explain that changing our education system is a significant societal alteration. Even the best strategies can be misinterpreted, mishandled, and completely disregarded if not properly presented and implemented. Transforming our school system not only means changing how we educate our children, but also it is likely to impact how we live and spend our time as the current school calendar is an integral part of the American culture. We are embarking upon a daunting task that could take a decade or longer to complete.

The strategic and systematic game plan I outline starts with changes to state laws and then moves to customized models at the local level. Starting the transformation process at the state level is vital because the state controls most of the education money, the state controls who can and cannot teach, who can and cannot lead, the governance structure, subjects taught, rate of pay for staff, and graduation requirements. Therefore, it is foundational to lasting change that the transformation process starts at the state level. If this game plan is adopted and carefully implemented by at least one state, that state can serve as a model for the nation.

If we want a healthy and functioning society, it is imperative that we effectively educate our children — all our children. That can only happen if we transform our education system. That effort must start at the state level. Someday, one state is going to take on this task. I hope my book might play some small role in making that a reality so that we, as a nation, can effectively educate every child in every school.

[1] U.S. Department of Education, “Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2019 Compendium Report,” National Center for Education Statistics, January 2020, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2020/2020117.pdf.

[2] U.S. Department of Education, “Remedial Coursetaking at U.S. Public 2- and 4-Year Institutions: Scope, Experience, and Outcomes Statistical Analysis Report,” National Center for Education Statistics (Institute of Education Sciences, September 2016), https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016405.pdf.

[3] “Education by Country 2020,” World Population Review, 2020, https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/education-by-country.

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