Total Paradigm Shift Needed to Save K–12 Education in the United States
The U.S. education system is broken, yet our efforts and finances are focused on trying to fix what we perceive to be wrong with the students and the teachers. The structure and management of public schools and the actual process of educating students in the classrooms contradict each other, philosophically and practically. This dichotomy between belief and practice is the cause of the current educational chaos, which will not end until there is a complete paradigm shift in our school structure and management.
The current system engages in a form of bullying of students and teachers with unrealistic expectations that each student should be able to learn the same measurable amount of knowledge and skills taught within the specified time frame of a grade level. An expectation that all children will develop at the same rate physically would be considered ludicrous, and yet our school system is designed with the expectation that all children will develop at the same rate cognitively, or be chastised for failing to do so.
When Teachers Forget What They're Taught
Currently, educators are typically trained to teach students in the classroom based upon a research-based belief that each student is physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally unique and develops individually at his or her own rate. Many veteran teachers, who have managed to hold on to their beliefs that each student is a whole child possessing eight multiple intelligences, instruct in an authentic manner using such techniques as differentiated instruction, project-based learning, arts-integrated instruction, and cooperative learning. They desire to encourage learners to experience success, have high self-esteem, be motivated to take risks, think creatively, and find joy in learning. Many beginning teachers, however, have not learned how to be "creatively subversive" by teaching according to their philosophical beliefs and what they've been taught in education courses; they tend to give in to the pressures to teach curriculum content with worksheet drills designed in the same format as standardized tests, all to produce desired test scores, organized by grade levels. Under pressure, a teacher forgets to pay attention to student individuality.
Students often disengage when they're compared with their peers, are labeled "underachievers" or "at risk," or are punished through failure and retention when specified goals are not attained within a given time frame.
In addition, the resulting competition between classrooms, schools, and teachers caused by standardized testing induces fear and discouragement that drive students and teachers alike to drop out. We can stop our students from failing if we stop instilling fear with tests, competition, comparison, and labeling. We are spending billions of dollars on education to deal with the damage that our own educational system is inflicting on students.
Design Schools That Understand Unique People
What can be done to create a new paradigm? We must design a schooling structure based upon the belief that each student is truly a unique individual who develops at his or her own rate. Students could be grouped into classrooms of multiple age clusters for socialization purposes and could be taught according to individualized progression along a continuum of educational goals and skills in each subject area. Teachers could be held accountable for guiding each student to choose a set of academic goals, an individual pace for skill development, and multiple instructional strategies and materials to match their learning style. Assessment could be based on each individual's academic progress along the continuum of specified knowledge and skills, with comparison of scores made only with what the individual accomplished previously. Students could be encouraged to learn within the school, the home, and the community, from personal experiences, and from each other. Imagine school as multiple places where joy in learning occurs and a student's ultimate potential is realized.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to delete these words from the education vocabulary: underachievers, at risk, learning gaps, failure, retention, and dropouts? Of course, our current education system wants to eliminate the need for such words, but at present, the methods of attacking the underlying causes are faulty. These words would become obsolete if the existing instructional strategies, such as cooperative learning, differentiated instruction, project-based learning, peer tutoring, and arts-integrated learning could be used within a new school structure that congruently recognized student individuality.
Meeting Students Where They Are
With a total paradigm shift, available finances could provide equality in learning environments, instructional materials, and experiential opportunities for all children. Schools would no longer be seen as stressful places where hope, self-esteem, confidence, and joy in learning are missing. We must stop the blame game in education, the use of fear and competition to motivate, and the insistence that we can solve our problems primarily through more rigorous tests or more money. Instead, we must give attention to a vision of an alternative structure for the K–12 school system. In such a structure, each student would be welcomed into the schooling process with his or her own unique culture, experiences, talents, abilities, and own timetable for learning. Progression along a continuum of curriculum standards and skills would occur as each student continually set goals that were motivated by the accomplishment of prior goals. Students and teachers would be celebrated for each step forward, no matter how long it took, rather than being punished for not taking those steps quickly enough.
Procrustes, a mythical Greek character, insisted that each visitor to his home should fit the size bed that he had. If the visitor was too short, he stretched them, and if they were too tall, he cut off their legs. In either case, he killed his guests by trying to make them fit the bed. Today, we are killing the spirit of learning in our students by trying to make them all fit one prescribed rate of learning. This can be changed if we are willing to expand upon a creative vision and move away from the assembly-line approach to education.
Nancy Self is a clinical associate professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture at Texas A&M University.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 20. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.