Chronic failures in the education system have alternately been blamed on students, parents, administrators, teachers, assessment (testing) and the curriculum. One of my favorite superintendents used to say, “We’re really only tweaking the system each time we reform something, so the best we’ll get is tweaked results.”
Currently, North Carolina educators are embroiled in controversies over teacher tenure (due process protections), teacher salaries, the curriculum (Common Core State Standards) and accountability (testing.) With the exception of teacher salaries, these issues are simply tweaks.
Changing teacher tenure practices will have no significant effect on student success. North Carolina repealed administrator tenure in the 1990s and nothing dire (or extremely positive) happened. Repealing the Common Core and replacing it will also have no effect on student success. The state has maintained and revised curriculum standards for over 100 years. In 2010 the Department of Public Instruction was just completing an excellent curriculum standards revision when the State Board of Education adopted the Common Core. The “new” standards can use the best from each. Accountability has also become a bogeyman and rightly so, but it, too, is not the main problem.
The main problem is that the educational system culture embraces and supports the status quo as its primary driving force. Our public education system still largely emulates an industrial-era factory model. The system is excellent at grading and sorting. We bring in the raw product (students) at the beginning of the line (kindergarten) and process them for 12 years. Each year we grade and sort, and by the end of the line we have eliminated 10 percent to 20 percent as somehow defective (real dropout rate). The raw product has been sorted along the line into special education, gifted, magnet schools, high achievers, average students, and all are now known as “career or college ready.”
The reality is the status quo will reign supreme unless we truly investigate and embrace different ways of teaching and learning. The following actions are offered as more than tweaks.
1Develop voluntary pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs for all students. Research is overwhelmingly clear on the impact. Eliminate 12th grade for most students in order to pay for it. Offer pre-K programs in the evening and weekends and use current elementary school buildings.
2Abolish grade levels in kindergarten through fifth grade. Implement a system in which students progress according to success on relevant curriculum measures. Class sizes should be 12 to 15 students. Testing becomes an integrated part of teaching and learning. There is no need for state-mandated tests. Some students progress faster than others. Beliefs about student learning translate into clear plans of action. For example, students generally learn best by “doing.” As a result, every lesson and activity in every subject includes purposeful student activity. Teacher-led instruction is minimized.
3Redesign middle schools to become sixth- to eighth-grade centers that are year-round (or some variation). These shall be theme-centered (arts, math, science, second language, technology), and each will concentrate on core academic subjects. Project-based learning is emphasized. Class sizes should be 20 to 25 students. Lessons are individualized. Student performance data (tests) are used to improve classroom instruction and not for grading and sorting students.
4Redesign comprehensive high schools to become small theme-centered high schools. Expand and enhance virtual education. Separate athletics from academics and operate them as club activities.
5Abandon the state-mandated testing program. Administer one nationally normed and standardized achievement test each year on one randomly selected date not announced in advance. This will provide a useful snapshot of student performance. Costs will be substantially less. Needless anxiety and wasted teacher time will be eliminated. More classroom time may be spent on teaching and learning. No additional testing is necessary because teachers will already have sufficient legitimate student data to validate progress (see No 2.)
6Pay teachers a professional salary. Pay teachers based on subject matter and supply and demand. Math, science, foreign language, special education, programming, kindergarten and reading specialists should make substantially more than English, social studies and health and physical education teachers.
7Abolish all attempts to link teacher evaluation to student test results. Instead hold all school leaders (central office and building level administrators and school board members) contractually accountable for maintaining the conditions that support student learning.
For the past five years, I have observed and reviewed hundreds of schools (pre-K to 12th grade) and school districts nationally and internationally. The schools with successful students have clearly articulated beliefs about learning that drive instruction, effective class sizes, administrators who establish the conditions that support student learning, classroom lessons that develop critical thinking skills through projects and hands-on learning activities and assessment practices aimed at improved learning rather than grading and sorting students.
George Griffin, Ph.D., a consultant at learnerdifferences.com, was a teacher and principal in several local districts and a program director with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.