The U.S. K-12 education system is based on time, not student achievement. Too many students exit the system logging the required time but not meeting learning proficiencies. A redesign that promotes students based on their competency, not the school calendar, is urgently needed.
The flawed system utilizes time as the constant and achievement as the variable — students progress from one unit to the next based on teacher lesson plans and due dates instead of concept mastery. Similarly, students advance a grade each summer when late May or mid-June rolls around regardless of whether they achieved proficiency across all learning content. What we have is a factory model with a conveyor belt running at a consistent speed rather than being correlated to the student’s learning pace.
As any parent with more than one child knows, no two children are alike. Combine each student’s unique differences with his/her learning readiness, and it’s evident that a one-size-fits-all model won’t be effective. Yet that’s how our schools, designed nearly a century ago, remain today. In Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education, American Center for Transforming Education Chairman and Senior Fellow, Don Nielsen, describes what an education redesign looks like.
In an achievement-based system, schools would be organized by achievement groups or levels, with class size determined by the current level of learning of the students, not by their ages. The less prepared a student, the smaller would be the class size and the more individualized the instruction. Less-prepared students would attend school for a longer day and for a longer year, until they reached a standard of learning appropriate for students of their approximate age. Only when they had learned what was required would they move on to higher levels. A good analogy to this type of educational system is the merit badge system used by the Boy Scouts. In Scouting, a young person can become an Eagle Scout at any age between 10 and 18. However, no Scout can earn Eagle rank without achieving the satisfactory completion of all the merit badges required. We thus have Eagle Scouts of varying ages, but none has failed to meet the standard.
Achievement grouping is not tracking or ability grouping, and it should not be confused with this kind of traditional grouping. Tracking and ability grouping set a student on a certain path based on the assumption that the student is either a gifted or a mediocre learner. Once on a track, the student would either be made college-ready or be given a lower level of learning designed to accommodate their abilities as assessed by others.
In an achievement-based system, it is assumed that all children can achieve at a high level. The system simply recognizes that some children have had more access to knowledge and learning than others and that some children can learn certain subjects faster than others.Don Nielsen, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education
Nielsen continues by outlining how levels, not traditional K-12 school grades, would be a wise alternative:
An achievement-based system would not have grades one, two, three, and so on, nor would it have letter grades A, B, and C. Students would start the year by being placed in appropriate levels and would remain there until they had met the standard of learning for that level. Children behind in their learning would be put in smaller classes with gifted teachers to speed up their pace of learning. Then they would move to the next level, regardless of whether or not the month of June had happened to arrive.
For example, today a student takes Algebra I for a year, regardless of whether the child requires six weeks or 26 weeks to learn the material. The student is then graded on his or her performance relative to other students in the class. The grade is based on a standard of performance established by the teacher, the school, or the district office. A student may receive an “A” or some lesser grade, based on how the student does on the tests. The focus in our current system is on sorting and teaching, not learning. All students receive the same material, presented in the same manner, and students are graded on how well they absorb the lessons presented. The focus is also on time.
In an achievement-based system, the math student would move once he or she had mastered Algebra I, regardless of the time required. Such a system focuses on student learning, not teaching and sorting, and it has the advantage of not being constrained by time or age.
In an achievement-based system, children would be placed in levels based not on age but on their current level of learning. Achievement grouping would put students into classrooms in which all the students would be at approximately the same level of learning, regardless of age. By doing this we would allow each child to keep moving forward in his or her learning, and children would not be placed with a classroom group that was either years ahead or far behind where they were in their own learning. For example, if a kindergartner is already reading, but not doing well in math, that child may attend class at level two or three for reading, but go to class at level one for math.
Students who start school well behind in their learning would be put in smaller classes, with individualized instruction, while those at or above standard in their learning would be put in more advanced classes that might well have a larger number of students. Under this shift in approach, students who were behind in their learning would get more assistance so they could catch up, and those who were advanced in their learning would not be held back. Each type of student would be allowed to learn at his or her own pace, and would not be constrained in advancement. Also, we would use teachers’ time more effectively, thereby enhancing their ability to teach and increasing their job satisfaction.
Those students who need more work would attend school longer each day and perhaps more days each year. This increased school time would be provided to help these students catch up to their peers and to minimize the variation in age ranges that could occur. Under this system, no one would be left behind, no one would fail academically, and students would not move up until they had learned what they needed to learn.
Built into this thinking is the philosophy that all children can learn, but some need more time than others.Don Nielsen, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education
Some argue that grouping students by age precludes certain negative consequences, such as older students bullying younger students or older students being embarrassed when grouped with those younger than them. However, grouping students based on experience, skill, and knowledge is commonplace and successful in youth activities outside of the school setting. Junior group tennis lessons, music practice and performances, theater companies, chess clubs and competitions, and swim teams and meets are a few examples.
Those who have experience teaching and leading cross-age groups will attest that positive benefits outweigh any negative. Younger students can learn from older students, and older students can gain confidence and develop leadership skills by interacting with younger students. This often leads to increased motivation to learn, work hard, and advance in level for the older students. Similarly, younger students are excited by the opportunity to acquire new learning and more advanced skills rather than being held back by same-age peers who need more time to grasp concepts they have already mastered.
This is not to discount the fact that children are still growing and developing, and there can be significant physical differences as well as social-emotional differences among children at varying ages. Schools may need to be creative in designing age-based activities during those times where social interactions are more predominant — for example, during recess, lunch, or P.E.
The restructuring would transform the entire K-12 experience, including the criteria for earning a high school diploma. Nielsen explains:
Under such a system, a standard high school diploma would no longer automatically represent a traditional four-year learning experience. Instead, high school would last as long as it took for the student to achieve the standard in all academic subjects and mature in their total development. Such a system would focus on the needs of the individual student and would work to ensure that students achieved at their highest level. Moreover, students would not be permitted to fail. Students would move as fast as their ability and motivation would allow. Frustration, both for the student and for the teacher, would be minimized and student learning would be maximized. Also, if children know, at the outset, that they will remain in school until they achieve a defined academic standard, they will have great motivation to engage themselves in learning. Having to attend school while their friends enjoy the summer holiday would be a huge incentive to learn the material.Don Nielsen, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education
Obviously, these changes cannot occur overnight. But instead of maintaining our existing system, which fails to prepare 70 percent of students for success in life and the competitive career workforce, let’s get started with steps toward this end.
With transformational leadership and stakeholder support, America can effectively educate every student in every school. Our K-12 education system can be transformed to better serve our students and our country by a redesign based on achievement over time.