By the beginning of fourth grade, the point at which we can accurately predict long-term learning outcomes, only 33 percent of American children are at proficient reading levels. Only 17 percent of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels. The vast majority of the non-proficient readers are unlikely to ever become good readers, love to learn, go on to advanced education, or become learners for life.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff report that 75% of high school seniors are not eligible to serve in the military because of poor academic skills, poor physical fitness, or a criminal record. Nationally, only 25 percent of the high school graduates taking the ACT exam met or surpassed the college readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading and science. In Michigan only 18.1% met the benchmarks, and among economically disadvantaged Michigan students only 6.6% met the benchmarks.
Some would argue that we are doing everything we can with the resources available. Respectfully, I disagree. There are great public, charter, and private schools in all corners of this country, but not nearly enough of them. In this article we’ll consider a series of actions that are needed to move public education in a new direction that would allow vastly more students to become learners for life.
1. Make a commitment to quality early learning success experiences for all our kids. This would include high-quality preschools, high quality K-3 programs, systematic measurement of progress during the early childhood years, and parent engagement and training to improve the learning conditions and patterns of behavior at home.
Poor or mediocre preschools are insufficient and do not improve long-term academic gains. Whatever number of preschool slots we fund, ensure they are in high-quality preschools.
Systematic measurement of progress is a departure from standard practice. By identifying the skills and behaviors crucial for school success we can ensure that for these outcomes teachers don’t just cover them and then move on. Essential early learning skills deserve all the time needed for every child to build proficiency.
Parents and guardians cannot be left out of the early childhood discussion. Parents are and will always be the first and most important teacher. But many parents are struggling, and do not have strong networks of support to help them learn to be firm, fair, and calm. Schools, community service organizations, churches, extended family, friends and neighbors must step up.
2. It is time to abandon the curriculum-driven model of schooling that has existed for more than a century. “Covering” long lists of content expectations does not equate to quality learning. Content covered is not content learned. It is way past time to change to a model in which some skills, behaviors, and content are identified as essential to moving forward. Crucial learning outcomes should be given all the time needed to develop before students move on.
3. Character, social skills, grit, and self-regulation are more important than IQ in predicting learning success and life success. By abandoning the insane practice of racing through chapters and lessons filled with content, we can find time to include the procedures, routines, activities and projects which help kids learn to be calm, focused, persistent, empathetic, personally motivated to learn and offer service to others.
4. Simplify government and school regulations. Most citizens are unlikely to know the time, energy, personnel and money which go into satisfying the complex maze of federal, state, county, special education, Title 1, drug-free schools, migrant, homeless, school improvement, school reports, student accounting, state standardized testing, and other regulatory requirements. The vast majority of it is nonsense and adds zero value to student outcomes. Complex regulations put an incredible burden on educators, especially administrators. It adds to the pressure, anxiety, and sense of frustration in our schools.
5. Attract and keep the best educators. In the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teacher satisfaction has dropped by 23 percentage points since 2008, including a five-point decrease in the last year, to the lowest level it has been in the survey in 25 years. Since great teachers are the single most important external factor affecting student learning, we’d better start getting this right. Teacher bashing by politicians and media strips respect from our profession. Over-protection of a few lousy teachers by unions diminishes the general respect of students, parents, and the public.
6. It is time to reinvent the culture of most schools, changing from compliance and conformity to respect, resilience, personal motivation, curiosity, initiative, and innovation.
Changing public schools is hard work. Schools are locked into a pattern of behaviors that have barely responded to any of the initiatives of the last three decades. Public schools are like a battleship at full speed: difficult to turn quickly! A little screaming from the politicians or another set of complex, poorly written and poorly enforced regulations won’t change our course by one degree.
Education needs a clear vision and strong leaders like we’ve seldom seen before. There is so much promise in our children. There is so much talent among our educators. There are great models of quality learning just waiting to be used. By carefully reshaping the design of schools we can change the direction and outcomes of our schools. Inch by inch, degree by degree, we can create schools that will help our kids become lifelong learners, innovators, with the character and values to build great lives in the information society.