Changing course toward more effective public schools

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.

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Mike R
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 9:30am
Excellent high-level outline, Mr. Sornson, and I agree with every single point, but I would like to see a follow-up article or a series of articles with greater detail on specific programs or approaches you believe would accomplish these goals.
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 9:37am
Mike, It starts with the clear vision of the schools that will actually produce different outcomes than the ones we have today. Systematic measurement of progress during the early learning years is described in "Fanatically Formative; Successful Learning during the crucial K-3 years," or can be observed locally in the Huron Public Schools. I'd be glad to send you further info on any listed point, and will contribute articles with more detail on each of these points to the Bridge Magazine in future months.
Mike R
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 1:50pm
Bob, Thank you for the response. I'll follow up with “Fanatically Formative" and I'll look forward to your future Bridge articles. Although my children are grown, my wife (an elementary teacher) and I are deeply concerned about each of the points you raise and possible solutions other than, or at least in addition to, the "solutions" currently proposed in the legislature and by the State Board of Education. Mike
Chuck Fellows
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 8:07pm
What exactly is "systematic measurement" and "higher quality"? These terms are thrown about with little knowledge or understanding. Instead of attempting to apply a metric (the fallacy of IQ) to a child's cognitive strengths and weaknesses why not just observe and follow the child's strengths and interests instead of attempting to quantify something that cannot be quantified. What is quality? The only individual in the educational context that knows what quality is is the child. Acute observation and listening required by adults, not prescriptions or metrication . Finally, "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." I really don't believe that to be an accurate statement. Prediction requires a large amount of "assumption" as does determining proficiency.
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 9:37am
Compelling. Where do I sign up to work with Mr. Sornson and the Early Learning Foundation? My educational experiences have allowed me the privilege of K-16 classroom time, as a result of teaching and grant funded programs. We need to gather the wisdom of educators from across the spectrum i.e. the experienced teachers, retired teachers and the newly minted teachers to review the points made in the article and strategize actions based on actual experience teaching and let us include colleges of education / teacher preparation. And yes, parental involvement is a key ingredient for supporting educational efforts. The dash between cover the content and move on needs to encompass proficiency with the ultimate outcome labeled student success. I am not advocating building more bureacracy that moves at glacial speed. I am endorsing the strength of "it takes a village."
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 4:15pm
Mr. Sornson makes a very good high level (in the clouds) portrayal of the demise of the Michigan public education system. He talks about “quality early learning” but doesn’t say what constitutes ‘quality learning’. How are we to look for quality learning if we don’t know what it entails? Mr. Sornson is similarly soft when he talks about all of his 6 points. He never gives the reader offers a level of detail that people can use. How are we to support outcome learning if we don’t know what it entails? How are we help others achieve “Character, social skills, grit, and self-regulation” and “be calm, focused, persistent, empathetic, personally motivated to learn and offer service to others” if we don’t know what they entails? How are we to offer a point of view on regulations if we don’t know what criteria to use? How are we to support ‘great teachers’ if we don’t know how recognize them? How are those teachers who aren’t currently ‘great’ able to achieve that status if they are told what ‘greatness’ looks like? How are we to support ‘reinvention’ if we don’t know what it should be? Mr. Sornson maybe a ‘great’ teacher, but as most who talk only from the high overview of any opportunity they simply don’t provide their audience with something they can use in their local communities. He would provide more help to the communities across Michigan if he were able to frame the issues so people on the ‘ground, or at the 500 or 1,000 foot level could use them to take action. The reality is that change will not happen until the people who must live the change have a clear vision of how they can be part of that change/future success. Soft words such as 'quality', 'great', 'culture' and such have little practical value until they are define so all are seeing the same vision.
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 4:57pm
Why not abandon the concept of grades (K-12) all together? When you have the skills/knowledge you move to the next level. It should make no difference whether you are 10,15 or 20, when you have it, you're done. Then you go to next level if you need or want to. Schools shouldn't be designed to hang on to our kids for any specific arbitrary number of years. I know this involves the dreaded TEST thing! But like it or not, life is full of them, get used to it! Rather than invent a new wheel, let's just copy the European's process, they seem to outperform us, all while spending less money.
Thu, 08/15/2013 - 3:37pm
Where is "life full of" the tests that educators are required to prepare kids for in schools today? In what occupation is "success" measured by the regurgitation of low-level facts or demonstration of low-level skills on a bubble-sheet? If we want schools that prepare kids for life, then we'd better build schools that require students to do the things they'll have to do in life. But retooling schools to do such work would cost money - and the legislature in Michigan is simply not up to the task of leading such an effort.
Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 08/13/2013 - 10:30pm
About right... but only about... but let me add some other predictors... a healthy every sense of the word "healthy"... and a safe, modern, up-to-date, fully-funded and right-sized school building, appropriately and effectively staffed with caring, trust-worthy and well-trained, well-paid professional school employees filled (but not too "filled") with responsible boys and girls well-prepared to attend, study, participate and contribute daily whatever their potential or skill-level might be.
Wed, 08/14/2013 - 11:05am
Jeff, All of what you say should promote kids learning and we should want that for all kids. Have you ever heard of kids that had little or none of what you mentioned that go on to learn and succeed academically, socially, financially, and other ways associated with learning? Have you heard of or known of a kid that had all of those things and failed to learn? The one thing I heard so little about is the kids that succeed, it is as if they are discounted since they don't fit what all the 'experts' talk about. What may be more enligthening would be interviews with those learning successes to learn why and how they succeed (both those without and with all the things you and Mr. Sornson promote). I would like those interviews into the whys to go past what the interviews want to hear and to what makes those kids succeed. How many have had bad teachers, bad schools, bad environments, bad almost everything and succeeded? How many have had good almost everything and failed?
Wed, 08/14/2013 - 12:45pm
Mr. Sornson has it right and knows how to do it. for those who know he's right, the details are not necessary. it appears that he has been a serious observer of changes in public education over time. ijs
Chuck Fellows
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 8:10pm
For a serious consideration of change in education read "The Fourth Way" by Hargreaves and Shirley and "The Flat World and education" by Linda Darling Hammond.
Wed, 08/14/2013 - 5:16pm
nana63, "...for those who know he’s right, the details are not necessary." that suggests that people only need to know it is right to be able to read but they don't need the details about how they should actually read. If Mr. Sornson is the only one who "knows how to do it" and he doesn't tell others how to do then he is the only one that can do it. In my limited experience it is the details that matter and how well the people who actually deal with the day to day application understand and apply them.
Jon Blakey
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 12:54pm
I recommend you all read "Finnish Lessons" to see how a country changed its educational and safety net programs to improve educational outcomes. Mr. Sorenson touches on some of them but almost totally ignores (safety net) others. Schools will never fix this problem by themselves. Pointing to a few outstanding outliers is like saying we can all become a Miguel Cabrera if we only work harder and smarter. Education is a team sport that requires all elements of society to pitch in if we want to improve the overall quality of our graduates and prepare them for the 21st century. It will take years of effort and yes, the commitment of financial resources and political will.
Mon, 08/19/2013 - 7:33pm
Thank you Mr. Sorenson for your lopsided view...prove those stats to me...document this information...your suggestions 're exactly what destroys the public school system...(divide and conquer)...let's have a few more options to public a taxpayer...obligated to support public schools at a great price...I resent your attempts to undermine the system that has educated this's either time to support public education....or abandon that theory....which is it ladies and gentlemen???
Sat, 08/24/2013 - 1:03pm
Mark The data on proficiency comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and is well reported in the Annie E Casey report and elsewhere. The data on college readiness comes from the ACT. The data on military readiness comes from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These are reputable sources not intent on destroying public education, but like me hoping to help us find ways to be far more effective.
Wed, 08/21/2013 - 10:24am
Lots of idealism in the article but when certain politicians in Lansing view teachers as "the enemy" in their actions if not their words then none of these ideas are going anywhere. Disrespect does not equate well in forging common bonds for doing good.
Sat, 08/24/2013 - 1:05pm
Every recommendation is possible with the information and skills we have available today. But of course you are correct that if we don't come together, have open and respectful conversations, and work together we will see more chaos and less progress.
Thu, 09/12/2013 - 1:55am
(It is a while since this article first appeared, but it has only just been brought to my attention.) The poor literacy standards and long tail of educational underachievement which are common to all English-speaking countries are mainly the result of the inconsistencies of English which make both learning to read and write exceptionally difficult and time-consuming. Too many words now have unpredictable spellings (blue, shoe, flew, through, to, you, two, too...) and too many letters are allowed to spell more than one sound (an, any, apron; on, only, once...) Only a modernisation of English spelling can make a substantial difference to this problem: .