New Rules, Old Responses
Each year, my annual report takes the form of an essay. This year, I am writing about a revolution that has occurred in America's expectations for its schools—how they should function and what they need to accomplish. Revolution is a sensational and much overused word. In our hyperbole-prone culture, social problems are regularly termed crises and trivial changes are called revolutionary. I want to make clear that I mean exactly what I have written. Our nation's education system has been wracked by profound and disruptive changes brought on by shifts in the demography and economy of the country.
Each year, my annual report takes the form of an essay. This year, I am writing about a revolution that has occurred in America's expectations for its schools-how they should function and what they need to accomplish. Revolution is a sensational and much overused word. In our hyperbole-prone culture, social problems are regularly termed crises and trivial changes are called revolutionary. I want to make clear that I mean exactly what I have written. Our nation's education system has been wracked by profound and disruptive changes brought on by shifts in the demography and economy of the country.
This essay discusses the nature, causes and consequences of that revolution. Using as examples several education policy issues that exploded into the headlines this year in New York City, it describes a mismatch between what is being demanded of the schools and what school people and government are actually thinking and doing. Let's begin by looking at what has changed.
"Everything is Changed"
As our country makes the transition from a national industrial to a global information economy, we are living through changes far greater in magnitude and many times more rapid than any generation in human history. Everything around us appears to be in flux-things as fundamental as how we cook, shop, communicate, and entertain, and as basic as how long we live, where we work, who our neighbors are, how safe we feel and what our country's relationship is with the rest of the world.
The effect of change on this scale is profoundly disorienting for all of us who live through it. The rules and customs by which we have made our lives are bent and abridged without announcement or warning. We see parts of the world we have known dying and a new world as yet inchoate and indeterminate being born to replace it. It is far easier to see what is being lost than what is coming into being. Historians have the task of giving coherence and a name to the confusion and uncertainty people live through each day.
Washington Irving's 1819 tale of Rip Van Winkle, the story of a man who falls asleep for 20 years and wakes thinking he has slept a single night, is often used as a metaphor to describe the impact of the change we are experiencing. Upon awakening, Rip Van Winkle no longer recognizes the people in his village; the very buildings are different; the names over the doors are strange; his wife is dead; his children are grown; and friends have died in a Revolutionary War he has never heard about. Near mad, Rip screams, "Everything is changed, and I am changed and I can't tell what's my name and who I am."
Today, our condition is similar to that of Rip Van Winkle's. The pace of change is so swift that an individual could go to sleep one night and wake up the next day feeling that the equivalent of 20 years had passed. But all people and all institutions are not affected equally by the change. Some are touched much more deeply.
In the current era, the schools are one of the institutions that have been profoundly affected by change. The demographic, economic and technological changes sweeping our society have given education greater importance and impact than ever before in determining the success of the nation and its children. What we need from our schools in this environment today is different from what we needed from them yesterday. What we are asking them to do now is not what we asked them to do before.
To understand how this happened, it is necessary to examine the changes that have occurred in the country and the forces that have caused them. Population shifts and an economic transformation, each occurring in the context of a shrinking globe and burgeoning new technologies, are individually enormously powerful forces. Together they represent a whipsaw for a society and its institutions, acting simultaneously, independently, concertedly, randomly, consistently and conflictingly, all at once.
Let's look at the impact of demographics first. Today, the population of the United States is increasing, aging, changing color, coming from other countries and redistributing itself across the nation at a frantic pace. In the past two decades, the population over the age of 65 increased by a third and those numbers will balloon as the oldest of the Baby Boomers hits 65 in 2011.
In terms of race, over the same period, America became considerably less white. While the Caucasian population increased by 9 percent, blacks grew by almost a third, Hispanics more than doubled and Asians nearly tripled. The immigrant population of the country increased over two fold, reaching the higher proportion in three-quarters of a century.
Meanwhile, the population of the nation moved west and south to the regions that now constitute a majority of the U.S. population, remaking the political map of the nation. On the way, the middle class left our inner cities, leaving urban America more isolated in poverty and more segregated by race, and America became a majority suburban nation.
These changes rocked the world of education. They brought with them a tidal wave of teacher and administrator retirements; the need for an army of new teachers to fill the classrooms of an increasing number of school children, particularly in the sunbelt; and with the high turnover in inner city schools, the necessity of continually replacing teachers and administrators. This in turn forced the states to find as many as two and a half million new teachers by 2008. To contend with an enormous number of potentially vacant classrooms, 43 states chose to reduce the entry requirements into teaching, creating new or alternative routes into the profession, and allowing people who had not been educated as teachers to fill their growing list of unfilled teaching positions.
Demographics also meant changes in the population enrolled in the nation's schools. Inner city schools became increasingly segregated-largely the province of low-income children of color with low high school graduation rates; schools all across the country enrolled a rising tide of students for whom English was not their first language; and the nation found itself facing a stagnant achievement gap between whites/Asians and blacks/Hispanics.
Demographics translated, too, into education becoming a key item on the national agenda. The well-educated Baby Boom generation, a potent political force comprising over a quarter of the U.S. population, became parents, producing a Baby Boom echo of children for whom they demanded better schools. It meant that politicians running for any office from dogcatcher to President of the United States had to have an education platform of some kind if they wanted to get elected.
In this environment, the federal government, which launched a more than 30-year school improvement movement with a report entitled "A Nation at Risk," became an education activist at a level not seen since the Great Society of the 1960's. Washington embraced an increasingly larger and more powerful role in schooling, even getting involved at the state and local level, to the point of mandating state testing, determining acceptable reading curricula, and specifying failing school remedies as requirements for federal funding. The national government also defined what constituted appropriate teacher education and acceptable forms of research in education.
Now let's turn to the second force, the new economy. As the nation shifted from an industrial to an information economy, the sources of wealth changed. The new sources were derived from intellectual activity and knowledge rather than physical labor and natural resources. The new economy demanded more education and higher-level skills and knowledge than ever before in history simply for adults to function successfully in society, necessitating more and better schooling for all of our children. Jobs requiring higher levels of education multiplied, and low-end education jobs dwindled. For instance, the assembly line job once available to people without high school diplomas, which had offered an income adequate to support a family, were lost. The demands of the new economy led most states to raise their expectations for high school graduation rates, as well as the requirements students needed to meet for school promotion and graduation. States also attempted to improve the quality of their teaching forces by raising the bar for teacher certification, which was the opposite of what they were doing to increase the quantity of teachers. They were moving simultaneously at high speed in opposite directions.
The shift in the economy changed the focus of education as well. The emphasis in an industrial economy is on process, epitomized by the image of an assembly line. In contrast, an information economy stresses outcomes. Our schools were a product of the industrial era and resembled, to some extent, an assembly line. That is, they educated children by age in batches of 25 or so through 180-day school years, from 8:00am to 3:00pm daily, teaching five major subjects, each in 45-minute blocks for a period of 12 years. In concert with the economic change, the schools were asked to shift focus from assuring access to this common process to assuring the outcomes of their education, placing their emphasis on student achievement-on what students actually learned. Specific student outcomes to be attained by the schools were mandated by 49 states, statewide tests were implemented to assess whether students were meeting these standards, and schools were to be held accountable for the results.
The new economy also brought the schools competitors and new education providers. The private sector in the booming '90s looked at education and saw the next health care industry-a sector that was poorly led, low in productivity, high in cost and poor in its use of technology and achievement of results. Viewing education in an information economy as a potential goldmine, the private sector established companies to create and manage schools as well as educating teachers.
Now put all of this together. The implications for education are absolutely staggering.
Education became one of the most powerful engines driving our economy and determining individual and national success.
The schools were told to raise achievement of intellectual skills and knowledge to the highest levels in history for all students. The states mandated this by adopting higher standards for promotion and graduation, outcomes, testing, and certification accountability.
Schooling needed to be redesigned, and to shift its focus from process to outcomes. The historically standardized processes would need to become variable and the traditionally variable outcomes would have to become standardized. The emphasis would have to switch from teaching to learning. The focus would have to change from the teacher to the student.
The teacher and administrator forces had to be remade. The country needed millions of new teachers and administrators to quickly replace most of the current teacher and administrator corps. And it needed more able teachers and administrators to achieve the higher standards.
In practice, improving quantity and quality at the same time ended up being conflicting goals, so the states introduced conflicting policies. The majority reduced the barriers for entering teaching to make it possible to recruit more new teachers, even as they raised the requirements for certification of teachers coming from traditional preparation programs to increase quality.
No matter how teachers or administrators came to the job, the positions they took were dramatically different from their predecessors'. A different set of skills and knowledge was necessary in the redesigned school. A school administrator could no longer be simply a manager, she needed to be an education leader who could guide a school through a transformation in goals, focus, human capital and learning resources to enable all students to achieve higher standards than ever before. All educators had to be prepared to work in an education system undergoing profound and continuing change. The currency in that system was student achievement and they were accountable for the results.
Demographic shifts demanded new approaches to teaching and learning at most schools. The populations that America's schools were least successful with-those lowest in academic achievement, school completion rates and English proficiency-were growing most quickly. While these students were more likely to be found in increasingly segregated inner city schools, affluent suburban schools were experiencing a mushrooming in the number of students diagnosed with learning disabilities. And all across income ranges and community types, schools were facing an achievement gap between blacks/Hispanics and whites/Asians.
Schools had new options. There were new pathways of entry into the education professions from which to recruit teachers and administrators, and new providers of education from which to obtain teacher preparation and professional development.
The schools faced new competitors. For-profit companies such as Edison Schools, thinking the schools were doing poorly and they could do a better job, entered the education marketplace. Government created alternatives such as charter schools and vouchers. The schools now were being forced to compete for their own students and budgets as well as public approval.
What all of this ultimately boiled down to was a nation demanding the transformation of its education system to produce more and better graduates. The country was calling for nothing less than a revolution in schooling.
The irony is that the revolution has gone largely unnoticed. Ask anyone who works in schools and she will tell you she feels besieged by a barrage of new education laws and regulations. Talk to policymakers and they will offer you a list of the changes they have mandated-some substantive, others procedural, a number inconsistent-ranging across the entire education landscape from curricular content, graduation and promotion requirements and testing to teacher certification standards, funding requirements and accountability measures. Educators tend to view these changes as a gauntlet of individual initiatives they must run, while policymakers see them as a series of quality improvement measures. Yet neither are likely to have recognized the cumulative impact of the initiatives. They have been so busy coping and legislating that they missed the revolution the policymakers created that reshaped the educator's world.The result is that we are living in a new world that educators and policymakers continue to view through their old lenses. The result can be seen in several education policy issues which became causes célèbres in New York City this year. These issues concerned the very basic elements of schooling practice and policy-the requirements for social promotion, the definition and cost of an adequate education, the work and compensation of teachers, and the appropriate reading curriculum. It is useful to look at each to understand what is happening.
In Winter 2004, the mayor of New York City and schools chancellor announced that they would end social promotion between third and fourth grade, where there are explicit state standards for reading and other subjects. The results were what would have been expected, because social promotion is one of those hot-button issues that produce automatic, knee-jerk reactions. Liberals embrace it and conservatives oppose it. Criticism of the new policy mounted quickly, not only based on predictable ideological differences. The teachers union, which was being pushed hard by the mayor to make concessions, seized upon the issue, as did potential political opponents gearing up for next year's mayoral election. There were City Council hearings, and the media was filled with stories about the subject, generally focusing on the horse-race angle of whether the mayor or his critics would win.
New York City has a mayorally controlled school system, but a vote was scheduled on the mayor's plan by his advisory education panel. The mayor appoints the majority of the panel's members, and other city officials appoint the rest. The meeting was cast as the show down at the O.K. Corral. Just before the meeting, the mayor fired and replaced several members of the panel in order to win the vote, which resulted in an uproar over his tactics.
Somehow in all of this, the educational merits and demerits of social promotion got lost. The subject of how best to educate our children got trumped by the politics of social promotion. That's too bad, because research on the subject is clear. Leaving students back increases their school dropout risk, and using the same methods to teach them the same subjects they failed to master the first time does not bring them up to needed achievement levels. Social promotion does not work either. Having failed to master prior skills, students are unable to learn more advanced material in the next grade and are more likely to become disruptive of other students who have. Neither approach is desirable.
The real problem is that schooling is time-based-imagine if you brought your laundry to the cleaners and the proprietor asked for how long you wanted it washed. That is, of course, a ridiculous question. The answer is, "I want my clothes washed until they are clean."
Yet in education, we "wash"-or rather, educate-all students for the same amount of time, not until they are "clean," or master the curriculum. They all are expected to learn the same skills and knowledge in 12 years even though they come to school with dramatically different levels of ability and experience. The school year is held constant at 180 days, and all children have to learn the same amount of material in that time.
What this means is the schools have a uniform process intended to achieve a uniform outcome. It is an unworkable approach that seeks to move schools into the new outcome-based world without allowing the process by which this occurs to become variable. With this approach, we are left with the question of what to do if children fail to learn the material in the same amount of time. Do we promote them to the next grade or leave them back?
This problem would disappear if the education system simply recognized that kids learn at different rates. This would require us to fix as constant the outcomes we expect students to achieve and vary the amount of time they are given to attain them. Instead of saying all students should complete schooling in 12 years, it is more realistic to believe that some can achieve the stated outcomes in less time and others will take longer.
We follow this practice in so many other aspects of our lives. When we teach our children to drive, we don't demand that they all learn to do it in the same amount of time. Rather, we grant them driver's licenses when they have mastered the skill of driving, no matter how long or short that takes.
Interestingly, New York City has instituted just such a practice for gifted students. Special Progress classes were created for the most able students to advance through middle school in two years rather than three, reducing the amount of time needed to complete schooling from 12 to 11 years. The problem is that there is no similar provision for students who need more than 12 years. For these students, there is only the stigma of being "left back." In essence, we are saying it is quite reasonable to complete the curriculum in less time, but unacceptable to need more time.
New York State has already fixed the outcomes necessary for our children to earn a high school diploma. The schools now need to build into their structure a time-variable method for achieving these outcomes. Our expectation should be that schooling will be completed on average in anywhere from, say, 10 to 14 years. College already works this way. More students now are graduating from higher education in five years than four.
Ultimately, this will mean transforming schooling from a time-constant process with variable outcomes to a process in which the outcomes are constant, with variable times and methods employed to achieve them. This would be a revolutionary change in which students advance individually based upon their achievements in each outcome area. It would necessitate an end to classes by age and grade and would require a very different kind of teaching force, expert at diagnosing the best ways for each student to learn, continually assessing student achievement in each of the outcome areas, and prescribing the appropriate instructional activities and levels for each student in each area.
In the interim, there are several steps school systems can take. First, they can engage in early diagnosis of student skills and knowledge, moving ahead students who are beyond grade level and providing appropriate additional instruction to students who are behind. Second, school systems can create transitional classes between grades. Thus the student who might be left back in third grade would instead advance to a smaller grade 3-4 class in which the focus would be on remediating areas of weakness and building on subjects already mastered, as opposed to repeating the entire experience. Third, school systems can extend the school day or year for all students, allowing those who are beyond grade level to gain enrichment rather than becoming bored, and supplementing the curriculum for students who are behind grade level. Those students would be given additional time, with more individualized and effective methods of instruction, in areas in which they learn more slowly.
If we did this, the issue of social promotion could become meaningless, a remnant from the past. More importantly, students would obtain a better education.
The Cost of Education
Under court order for redress, New York Governor George Pataki announced the creation of a commission to make recommendations on how to eliminate the inequity of funding for New York City's schools, which currently receive less financial support from New York State than other schools and whose students perform less well academically and graduate at lower rates than their peers around the state.
The commission quickly became entangled in a thicket of politics. The Governor had appealed the initial court decision calling for adequate funding, so his motives in establishing the commission were immediately questioned. The Mayor of New York City denounced the composition of the commission and the narrowness of its charge. There were attacks by politicians representing school districts that stood to lose if funding was reallocated to the city, and counterattacks by city politicos who were fearful of a do-nothing commission stacked with friends of the governor. Once again, an education issue was transformed into a political matter.
The first question facing the commission had to be what constitutes an adequate education. By the old rules, adequacy might be thought of as equalizing the number of dollars all schools receive. Or it could be considered ensuring all students go to schools with the same resources-teacher-student ratios, curriculum materials, physical plants and facilities. But like holding timing constant, these notions of holding dollars or resources constant is antiquated for a school system seeking to achieve common outcomes for all students. In today's world, adequacy means funding education at levels such that all children have an equal opportunity to achieve state-mandated learning outcomes.
Second, because this is a fundamentally different definition of adequacy, it has very different financial implications than current education funding. It means the state will be required to make a far larger investment in urban school systems than in their suburban counterparts. For instance, research shows clearly that no change in schools has a greater impact on student achievement than a quality teacher. However, teacher salaries are lower and working conditions are considerably worse in the inner cities than in the suburbs. The result is that urban areas have difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers. Since working conditions in the cities cannot be made equal or better than in the suburbs, it becomes essential that salaries there improve.
Similarly, the process of education needs to be geared to the individual student. The reason is that children coming to urban schools bring less advanced skills than their peers nationwide and face a litany of linguistic, economic, familial and health challenges. As with social promotion, the universal 180-day school year was not created with them in mind. Adequacy must offer access to pre-school, after-school and weekend programs, as well as summer school and tutoring, to all students who need it. It is simply a matter of creating sufficient instructional time to allow students to achieve mandated outcomes. Instruction has to begin with the skills children have and bring them to the state required outcomes. The amount of time and instruction to accomplish this varies. Students must also have the necessary curriculum materials to fit their learning needs. In short, it is imperative that the state invest its dollars according to the cost of providing the education that will give each student an equal opportunity to achieve its mandated outcomes.
This will require a flip-flop of current state educational funding policies, as urban schools will need greater revenues than suburban schools to bring their students to state standards.
The Work of Teachers
This year, the New York City Teachers Union and the New York City Department of Education prepared to renegotiate the teachers' contract. The proceedings began with the unions and the city schools pointing fingers at each other for diminishing school quality.
The Department of Education attacked the unions for making it all but impossible to remove bad teachers. Beyond this, the Department criticized union rules that base teacher assignments primarily on seniority, not on teacher ability or school needs, assuring that weak schools continue to attract the least experienced teachers. They went on to chastise the unions for basing salaries upon years on the job, not the quality of teacher performance, the difficulty of the teaching assignment or the unmet demand for teachers in fields such as math and science. The Department lambasted the union for rigidly regulating hours on the job and the amount of time available for professional development, as in assembly-line work.
The unions countered by saying that the school department was responsible for high teacher attrition and the city's inability to attract a sufficient number of highly-qualified teachers because it refused to pay adequate salaries. Once again, the charges and counter-charges made headlines and the City Council held hearings.
The fact of the matter is that both sides were right. The teacher unions and government work in concert to ensure that the status of the teaching profession remains poor, the quality of urban teachers is kept low, and the mostly low-income and minority children who attend urban schools continue to receive the weakest education in the United States. In this process, government keeps most of the best and brightest out of the teaching profession, and unions fight to keep the incompetent in. This allows simultaneously for a lowering of both the quality ceiling and floor.
By paying teachers low salaries, state and city governments ensure that the vast majority of our most able young people will not enter the teaching profession. In 2001, the average salary offered to new college graduates was more than $13,000 higher than the average starting salary for teachers.
Government insures a constant exodus of experienced teachers from the profession because the salary gap between teaching and other professions requiring comparable educations actually grows the longer one is employed as a teacher. The current system offers increasing incentives for experienced teachers, who have the strongest records of enhancing student achievement, to leave. The salary differences also mean urban schools are regularly subjected to "creaming" by suburban districts with better wages and working conditions, seeing their best teachers lured away after they have learned how to teach in the city.
Teacher unions work hand in hand with government to undermine urban schools and de-professionalize the teaching profession. Unions do make it very hard to remove poor teachers. Just ask principals and teachers how difficult it is to fire a bad teacher. One recent New York City chancellor confided that, due to union rules, it costs over a quarter million dollars and takes several years to remove each grossly inept teacher. So while the states insure that the teaching profession fails to attract the best, the unions insure that the teaching force retains the worst.
Beyond this, union work rules do keep the profession mediocre for the reasons identified by the Department of Education. The hallmark of a professional is doing the amount of work necessary to get the job done and doing whatever is necessary to accomplish the job. Each work rule to the contrary diminishes teaching as a profession and reduces the chances for the children of our cities to learn.
The irony is that, despite these conditions, there continues to be a significant number of excellent teachers in our urban schools today. They are there because they are idealistic and willing to make sacrificial personal and financial commitments at the expense of their families. They are willing to work in a low-status profession despite all the barriers and despite all the incentives to leave.
The finger-pointing masks the fact that government and the unions have an outdated view of the schools, rooted in a constant process rather than common outcomes. The low salaries make it impossible for the city to secure the quality of talent in teachers necessary to help students reach the state-mandated outcomes. And the teachers unions' retention of incompetent teachers and advocacy of narrow and fixed work rules fly in the face of a standards-based education system focused on student achievement, demanding flexibility in process and requiring accountability for results. The union/ government blame game is reminiscent of the magician who waves his arms and unfurls his cape to distract the audience so that it misses what he is really doing. In this case, the difference is that the magician is also unaware of what is going on.
The Reading Curriculum
This past year, there were continuing skirmishes between New York City and the federal government over the city's choice of a balanced literacy approach to teaching its children to read. Finally, the New York City Department of Education decided to change the reading curriculum in 49 of the city's poorest schools in order to qualify for federal funding, targeted specifically at high poverty schools.
The department made the change to meet the regulations of the Reading First program included in Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act. Reading First is unusual in that it prescribes a single model of reading instruction that schools must employ and funds only programs said to be grounded in scientifically based research utilizing randomized experimental trials. The existing New York City programs, implemented four months earlier, were rejected on the grounds that they failed to meet these criteria.
The elimination of the existing reading curriculum in New York City was a mistake educationally. Education policy in the U.S. has become a political battlefield, in which issues such as vouchers, bilingual education and reading become matters not so much of how students learn best, but of competing orthodoxies. The reading wars are among the most vicious of the contests today-divided at the poles between conservatives advocating phonics and liberals championing whole-language instruction. Bush Administration education policy staffers have come largely from the phonics camp, and the regulations and implementation of Reading First reflect this.
The Reading First program itself is rooted in the findings of the National Reading Panel, a congressionally-mandated review that examined the research on reading and identified five skills critical to early reading success-phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Reading First is committed to offering only reading programs built around these components.
The devil is actually in the details. The report doesn't explain how to balance the five components for varying student populations. It does not tell how much of each component all students need. While the administered Reading First program places a heavy focus on phonics, the report cautions "teachers must understand that systematic phonics instruction is only one component-albeit a necessary component of a total reading program."
The Reading First program claims that "scientifically based reading instruction can and does work with all children." However, the report of the national panel says that different programs "suit some students better than others." In fact, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics released a report in 2003 showing that reading skills varied profoundly, not simply by program, but also by a student's home literacy environment, health, attitude toward learning, early literacy skills, and length of her school day.
Nor was the National Reading Panel the only effort of its type. The National Academy of Science, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, convened a second group with a similar assignment that also produced a report which identified a somewhat different set of critical elements and called for a more balanced literacy curriculum-of the type originally adopted in New York City-combining what are thought to be successful elements of both the whole-language and phonics approaches.
Balanced literacy is also currently being employed in Boston and San Diego. Data released in December from the National Assessment of Educational Progress on 2003 student achievement in reading in fourth and eighth grade indicated those two cities were outperforming nearly all of their urban peers using other approaches to reading instruction.
The notion of funding only reading programs that work as demonstrated through scientifically based research is very appealing, but largely theoretical. At the moment, there is very little quality research on which programs work. For this reason, the U.S. Department of Education's Institute on Education Sciences has made research in this area one of its highest priorities.
Here's the point. There is simply no single curriculum in reading or any other area that is appropriate for all children. Any curriculum is a means and not an end. It has absolutely no integrity of its own. A curriculum is merely a bridge between what a school has-a particular student body with a given set of skills, knowledge, abilities and motivations; a specific faculty with its own strengths and weaknesses in teaching; and a package of resources including money, curriculum materials, plant, and student supports-and its goals, or the outcomes the school wishes its students to achieve. Any curriculum that gets the school from its givens to its goals is an effective curriculum, and there are in theory many approaches with the potential to get a school there.
This is another example of continuing to embrace a process-constant vision of schooling, rather than an outcome-based notion of education. The former emphasizes a single, common curriculum or method of teaching reading. The latter encourages a variety of different methods geared to the specific needs of the students being educated.
Our education system is caught between two worlds-one dying and another being born. Many of today's most heated policy debates and reform efforts are rooted in the dying world. They are premised on a uniform process of schooling for all children, whether the constant is time, funding, salaries, curriculum or pedagogy.
The world being born is an outcome-based education system driven by common standards for all students. It necessitates sophisticated methods for assessing student achievement of those standards. At the moment, the tests that have been implemented by the states for this purpose are primitive. The future will require the development of multiple, more effective assessment tools which truly reflect the mandated outcomes such that teaching to the test becomes teaching to the standards.
The methods of educating students to achieve these standards will need to be flexible. The notion of a time-fixed education will have to give way to time-variable schooling. The practice of moving students through school in assembly-line fashion by age will need to become increasingly individualized, with students progressing as they achieve each outcome. The common curriculum will need to be replaced by pedagogies that fit specific student learning styles. As brain research advances and new software is developed, we will gain an increasing understanding of how students learn, and we will acquire the means to design education based on their differences in learning styles.
Our funding of schools will need to reflect state standards. Rather than providing preferential funding to the highly-affluent school districts, our money will need to be invested according to what our children need to achieve state standards. This will cause a reverse in funding, such that urban schools and disadvantaged children receive higher funding than their suburban peers.
The work of our teachers will change. Instead of being the instructor at the front of the room, they will need to become the diagnostician of student learning styles, the prescriptor of the best means for each student to master the skills and knowledge that constitute state standards, and the assessor of student progress. This will require a much more highly-educated and skilled teacher force whose members must be paid significantly higher salaries. The same will hold true for our school administrators.
This represents a transformation of our schools with the promise of making education more effective for our children and our society. Our debates and reform efforts in the years ahead need to focus on how best to forge this future. Too often today, they serve only as barriers to realizing the future because they are rooted in a past we have rejected. Much can be learned from the study of history, but our children will be poorly served if we merely replicate it.
Published Saturday, Apr. 2, 2005