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When a Revolution in Education is the Only Option

Education in America is beyond the point of a correction here and there. It is no longer accomplishing its mandate and is in fact, often counterproductive. So, the solution is not a fix, but out with the old and in with the new. Demolition is the beginning. There must be a new foundation laid, and a whole new process put in place. It requires nothing short of a revolution.

To begin to make this point, I highlighted some of the "adjustments" the system has made to boost student success. There are only a few here. But it should be enough to see the trend and understand the scope of the problem. Read them and decide for yourselves. Do these fixes help or hinder education? Are they masking the problem? To what ends are these being implemented? Who are they truly helping? Are adjustments an adequate way to address the problems or do we need to start over altogether?

One of the more recent attempts to help the educational system succeed is the adoption of no-fail policies. Many students' actual grades no longer matter. That is because a student cannot be failed. How does that help a student's education? How does it help their motivation?

But the system can't pass students with all zeros, can it? The answer was another policy: adopt a minimum 50% policy. That means if a student does not turn in an assignment or take a test, the lowest grade that student can receive is 50%.

Another policy that has been adopted eliminates due dates for assignments. I will leave it to your imagination to picture the chaos that will be created for teachers at the end of every grading period. There is more to helping students to work diligently besides positive and negative reinforcement. But at this point, why not eliminate all grading systems. That is a more viable option than it appears on the surface.

Within the hallowed halls of Congress, legislation was passed titled "No Child Left Behind". I love the idea. But we are trying to achieve it with no-fail policies. I don't think that was the spirit of the bill. Today, we find ourselves in unprecedented irony because we are leaving millions of children behind, many more than the bill was addressing at the time, and the problem continues to grow.

There is another proposal on the table, likely to be adopted but not yet. This one is designed to no longer make students' assignments required work. This naturally renders moot the grades received on assignments. What is next? Will we give students extra credit for turning in their assignments. Don't laugh (or gasp). It will probably happen.

Another was the adoption of standardized testing and standardized curriculum. This serves to lump every student together despite all their differences. We call students individuals and yet group them together with 90 million others. Unfortunately, standardized curriculum's content and goal became focused on preparing students to pass the standardized test. This is because the school's rating and reputation depends on student scores. The problem is that standardized curriculum and standardized testing is not preparing our youth for the future. The future they face is one in which 72% of the jobs do not yet exist. How can standardized anything prepare anyone for that?

Another adjustment has been around for a while and subsequently has gone through a couple iterations. It is to try to see success by separating children into group levels. The A group is for A students. The B group is for those unable to keep up with the A students. And then there is everyone else, the C group. Unfortunately, they see themselves as slow kids because kids in the higher groups tell them they are the 'slow kids'. I know a boy whose parents' took him out of school. They saw what the school was doing with these groups and where it would lead. He was in the C group. They homeschooled him for two years and then they put him back in public school. He came back ahead of the A group in the higher grade. So, probably not so slow. It is sad, but there are millions like him.

A friend just told me about a high school boy who is an excellent student. But when this school year started they put him in a B group, when clearly he could have run the A group. Mostly he feels like he's something of a dummy. And the perception of the other kids is that he's close to that. And the beat goes on. This is demoralizing and ought not to be. In truth, it doesn't need to be, but that's a topic for another post.

Where have these and even more adjustments to our current system brought us? The U.N. has identified thirty-one 1st-world nations in the world. Educationally, the U.S. ranks 125th in the world. We're not on that list because we cannot compete with other 1st world nations in education. The U.N also identifies one hundred 2nd-world nations. We made that educational list, albeit at the very bottom. That means nearly every 1st and 2nd world country on earth surpasses the results we are experiencing, collectively, from U.S. schools. And Arizona, well, we rank 48th in the U.S.

Once no fail/no zero policies, standardized curriculum, standardized testing, performance level groups and others we don't have time to review, are dismantled, the entire educational system will become dismantled. It's a little scary. So, naturally anything like that would have to be slow and gradual. But I heard something interesting a few days ago. It is relevant.

I was talking to my niece and asked her how school was going. Her answer didn't surprise me because she is about the most upbeat and optimistic little girl I know. With a big smile she said, "I really like it!" There was authentic enthusiasm in her voice so I had to ask her why. As she spoke she counted out the reasons on her fingers. "She lets us sit wherever we want. She lets us work with whoever we want. At the end of the day we stop and she lets us read whatever we want."

First, look at the verbs she used. Verbs are the most important words in a sentence. "Sit." "Work". "Read". Music to the ears of every teacher, even those who are not musical. Although small, can you see the beginning of a developing pattern? And I imagine if we asked any other student in her class, most would say the same kinds of things. We say with the same enthusiasm as my niece, kudos to that teacher! It's obvious she understands there is more to education than dispensing information, group levels and standardization. She seems aware that if she is going to teach, the students need to be willing to learn. It is a lot easier to teach an engaged student. Take a look at this graph that illustrates the point. (Note: This is not new. There is an enormous body of research and studies to substantiate this illustration)

Education is a two-way street. It always has been a two way street, even though our current system doesn't act like it. When my niece's teacher gave her students a voice and a choice, she demonstrated trust, respect, and value. Without words she said "you are significant". It is a small start. But it is a good start.

In a recent international conference of educators from western nations, a representative from the U.S. asked a representative from Finland how they were addressing rising dropout rates. Their response: "We don't have students dropping out". Oh, oh. It sounds like the system of education has more to do with this than we allowed. We need some serious inward reflection. Perhaps we should start reinterpreting our unacceptable dropout rates and apathy toward school as votes of no-confidence in the system rather than imagining the sole problem being students who can't cut it or are underachievers. That's called deflection.

Maybe we should listen for what is underneath the sounds of students dreading school, especially when we remember how excited they were to start school. Perhaps we can, with humility, listen to what they think they need to learn, or how they best learn, or which direction they want to take in their lives. Then we can work through a cooperative plan and path for their education. That is revolutionary. And I would suggest waiting till high school to do that is way too late.

Something needs to change. A lot needs to change. We have lost control of our system and process of educating our nation. We are moving the wrong way, feeding the system rather than the hearts and minds of students. There are answers in front of us. They are not easy nor cheap. I will write about those ideas and their implications in my next few posts. But I'll end this one with this thought: The desire for significance has always been at the core of our human hearts. My niece's teacher illustrated that well with those simple privileges given to her class. Significance yields engagement. Engagement yields positive results. And it all starts with efforts to stop standardizing students and start listening and watching. Students can love learning again. But to see that day, we need a revolution in education...soon.

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