Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Standing in the Way of Real, Meaningful Change

This is an update to my previous posts from awhile back about the need to radically alter our school systems.

The structure of today's K-12 schools was embedded in our national psychic well over a hundred years ago in response to industrialization and the rapid growth in manufacturing. We needed efficient, well-organized schools that could stem the growing chaos of our swelling cities, enhance productivity through basic skills for assembly-line and other low-paying jobs, model compliance as a virtue, select out a handful for higher education (management class), and serve as the bedrock for thousands of local communities. It was all about standardization through factory-model learning.

And while the occupations and industries of today and tomorrow have changed significantly in the past forty years, schools have not. They still retain the basic assembly-line structures that once were seen as necessary (even though they may have had an immoral foundation to them that ensured most students would be locked into their place within society's respective class structure, especially if they were poor or minorities), and no matter where you go, whether it be traditional public, charter or private, for the most part schools today resemble the same as those attended by our grandparents.

Aside from the fact that the results produced by schools today are now measured against a very different yardstick (ALL students graduating on time, college and career ready) then those from the first half of the twentieth century, the one basic structure that most hampers learning and contributes to the growing costs of education is the graded-school system. This is a system that says regardless of the "inputs" a student comes with to school, that student must progress through primary, elementary and secondary education based on age. So even though a student might enter the first grade in command of half the vocabulary of his peers, having rarely been read to in the first six years of life, and having virtually few out-of-school learning experiences due to his family's economic situation, that student is expected to magically catch up and progress to the next grade following the same number of days of instruction as her classmates.

Ridiculous? Yes. Here's an analogy (a poor one at best) to show you why it is ridiculous to use chronology to measure achievement. Suppose you and your cousin from the other side of the state decide to paint your homes which just happen to be approximately the same size.  But it turns out that your cousin (1) has more pre-existing knowledge and experience with painting a house, (2) has a higher income level that allows him to purchase high-quality, easier to spread paint, (3) has access to better equipment for painting, and (4) is enjoying better weather on that side of the state conducive to painting. Being from a competitive extended family, the pressure is on from everyone else to see which one (1) finishes the job on time (an arbitrary time set by all the "experts" in the family) and (2) does so with the highest quality (an arbitrary assessment of what a quality outcome looks like). All other factors being equal, your cousin easily "wins" even though eventually you too have a newly painted home that given the inputs could be considered a quality outcome. Doesn't matter though. You're a loser and that's that.

My point is that students do not come to school with the same backgrounds and do not learn at the same rate but yet are expected to achieve the same levels year-after-year, graduating precisely twelve years after entering that first grade door. Or they and the school are losers.

It doesn't have to be that way anymore since we no longer place as high a value the same purposes schools once served. Learning can be accomplished at a pace that is consistent with the child's background and development, with the goal of achieving the highest possible results even if it takes more time.

Sounds simple, so why don't we change? Mostly because our own communities place roadblocks to such change since it is so radically different from the schools they attended. However, some of the most serious obstacles are embedded in ridiculous state or federal regulations such as that illustrated in the excerpt below taken from a handbook for understanding (if that's possible) Michigan's color-coded school rating system (forced on us by NCLB but only because we allow the federal government to have that power over us). As you can see, ungraded school systems are fine as long as students take the state-mandated assessments designed for each grade level at the same age as students stuck in a graded school structure.

So in the end schools can be innovative in the 21st century as long as they maintain the key problematic innovation of the assembly-line, industrial-era: age-based progression.


Related posts:

Change begins with removing the root of the problem...

Reincarnation of the Efficiency Movement is Here!

Random Thoughts about REAL School Reform

Real change not "better sameness"

Let's Ditch the Limiting Language of Education

Are We Too in Love with the Past?

The Problem with the Graded Schools

Taking Action During a Storm

12 Things I'd Do Right Now to Improve Education

School or Balloon Factory?

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