School books on desk
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The Bottom Line It’s Time to Rethink School

As we enter spring, we approach almost one full year since most of our country’s schools shut their doors. Teachers, parents, and students were forced to adjust to an entirely new way of learning. In some cases, it worked reasonably well. But unfortunately, even the most successful experiences were still not as engaging nor effective as in-class instruction. Student social and emotional development also suffered.

For most of our children, it has been a terrible year. Estimates range from six months to a full year of lost instruction and learning. For the youngest children, this is a crisis. It will be hard, if not impossible, to recover from a lost year of learning at age 5 or 6. And, as usual, the children who could least afford to lose a year of learning are the ones who suffered the most. The pandemic has exacerbated the achievement gap between socioeconomic and ethnic groups. 

So, what steps should be taken to address the situation? Should schools wait until all teachers are vaccinated and then re-open in the fall? That would be almost a year and a half without in-person schooling for many students. If so, will school resume with the same arrangement as before the closure? Should schools return to the six-hour day, the 180-day year, and utilizing the same curriculum as before? Would that make sense? Should we simply accept that America’s children will lose over a year of learning? Would that response be acceptable? If we do that, what are the ramifications to those children, to their life experiences, to our country?

Let’s face it, what we have is a situation where our public education system was already failing almost 70% of our children. Locking the doors to schools for a year has only made matters worse. Our students will not recover if we continue to do school the way we always have. Doing so would be illogical and shortsighted. We had an education crisis before the pandemic. Now, we have a disaster! 

Our present school system was fully established by 1904. The 180-day year, the six-hour day, the six-period day, and the academic “credit” to measure the completion of a high school course were all created over 100 years ago. The basic high school curriculum that we still have today was also established: four years of English, three years of history, three years of math, etc.

In the intervening 117 years, our country has gone through two world wars, several lesser wars, moved from an agrarian economy through the industrial revolution and into today’s digital information era. We have gone from the horse and buggy to space flight, internet on-demand, and Zoom video conferencing!

During all that time, and through those changes, the constant has been our schools. Someone once said to me, “If Rip Van Winkle had gone to sleep on January 1, 1900, and was reawakened on January 1, 2000, the only thing that would be familiar would be the school.”

Over the 117 years, the U.S. has also moved from being the world leader in the education of their children to placing 26th overall, 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 33rd in math when compared to other developed nations. The U.S. didn’t need a pandemic to identify that our present education system is obsolete.

A simple analysis of the best-performing nations gives us a clear roadmap for change. By studying their education systems, it is evident they have adapted from:

  • An adult-focused system to a student-focused system
  • A teaching-focused system to a learning-focused system
  • A group-based system to an individual-based system
  • An input-focused system to an output-focused system
  • A time-based system to an achievement-based system

The current, obsolete system has never effectively educated all our children, and it never will. For the first 50 years of the last century, that might have been acceptable. But no longer. The current economy requires an educated workforce to do the work required and maintain our competitive position in the world economy. Furthermore, our children need the skills and mindset of continual learners — after all, many of the jobs they will perform in the future have not been invented yet.   

Near the end of World War II, Winston Churchill famously advised, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Though not in a world war, we too have a crisis on our hands. We also have an invaluable opportunity to use the crisis to make needed, sustainable changes to our education system. There has never been a better time, nor a greater need, for change to occur.

Our education system is designed to give control to the state. The state controls most of the money, controls who can teach and who can lead, controls curriculum, controls testing, and controls graduation requirements. Consequently, if we want an improved education system for our children, change must occur at the state level.  

Strategically, one state needs to decide it is time to change its public education system fundamentally. Such a state needs to look at the best systems worldwide and then lay out a game plan to match or enhance their highly effective practices. Significant changes to state education laws will be necessary.

A massive effort to engage and inform citizens, particularly parents, of the need for change, will be foundational. Implementation will span years. It would be unreasonable to propose transforming an ensconced system, the size of our education system, in a quick fashion. The strategy must be long-term.

A society is measured by the degree to which it loves, nurtures, and educates its children. Today, we are failing at all three. The stakes could not be higher. Our republic’s survival and flourishing require an educated electorate, which we can only accomplish by creating a new education system — one designed to educate and equip all our children effectively.

It’s time to rethink school.

Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?