Our society and economy are asking for better results from the schools in our nation. The expectation is not new. Since the eras of Sputnik and the Nation At Risk report, we have debated how best to improve the quality of schools and the preparedness of students as they leave.
The focus of policy attention has largely been in two areas: increased accountability for public schools and school choice. The bets have been that by placing more pressure on educators results would improve, and by providing access to a wider variety of school options, students would have access to better educational experiences.
Unfortunately, neither of these bets appears to have been well placed. After decades of pursuing both strategies, we still find schools struggling to meet the expectations of our society and economy. Yet, the needs for a better-educated populous and better-prepared work force are even more pressing today than even a decade or two ago.
The reasons why these two improvement strategies have not worked are not difficult to understand. The accountability movement has been based on the assumption that if people were pressured and worked harder in the current system, enough improvement could be generated to meet our societal and work force needs. It turns out that just creating more stress and assigning more blame and shame does not address the core of the problem. Teachers are under more pressure and stress than at any time in memory, but improvement still lags.
Meanwhile, creating more choices will change results only if the choices offer significantly different and markedly better approaches and experiences. For the most part private, charter, and voucher schools have approached the teaching and learning process using the same design and in much the same ways public schools have for more than a century and they are generating comparable outcomes. In fact, a 2018 longitudinal research study involving more than a thousand students in ten locations around the country shows that when family income is controlled, the results from private schools are no better than those generated by our nation’s public schools (Pianta & Ansari, 2018).
It turns out that the cause of our educational productivity problem is not primarily lack of effort, nor is it correct that other educational sectors have a track record of success and we just need to give students access. It is becoming increasingly clear that the fundamental problem lies in the design of our schools, not with the people who work and learn in them.
We have a system designed to expose students to academic content and skills and calibrated to ensure that some, but not all will succeed. Consider a few examples:
• We hold the time during which all students are expected to learn constant when we know that students come with different backgrounds and experiences and differ in their readiness to learn.
• Lessons are still taught to whole classes even though some students already have learned what is being taught and others are not prepared to be successful.
• We administer final common assessments at predetermined times to all students even though we know that many students have not yet mastered the content and skills and will do poorly.
• We honor students with good grades based on what they know, not what they have learned.
• Students who learn quickly and possess a strong short-term memory are rewarded, even though learning thoroughly and knowing how to utilize what is learned are more important to long-term success.
• Teachers are responsible for setting learning goals and planning learning paths, even though we know that ownership of learning and possessing the skills to set goals and plan paths to success are crucial life skills.
The time has come to re-examine the fundamental design of our schools. It once was adequate to design schools for instruction, but now we need a design based on learning. Educational pioneers across the country are building, testing, improving, and scaling promising designs. We need to get serious about creating the schools we need, not just pressuring the schools we have.
Pianta, R. C., & Ansari, A. (2018, July 19). Does attendance in private schools predict student outcomes at age 15? Evidence from a longitudinal study. Retrieved from https://www.aera.net/Newsroom/Does-Attendance-in-Private-Schools-Predict-Student-Outcomes-at-Age-15-Evidence-from-a-Longitudinal-Study