The five principles of real school improvement
Various statewide candidates from both parties have pontificated in the last month about “what is wrong with the quality of education in the public schools.” I have not read anything that shows even a smidgeon of a solution to the problems. Instead, each candidate spouts old and tired platitudes that have surfaced every election for generations.
These affect me like ipecac, only faster.
The public school dysfunctions are real, and our students suffer because of them. They are driven by systematic structural defects in the way education is conducted. The schools do not lack for well-meaning professionals; rather, they lack the right strategies.
I have five core principles to improve schools. But first, let us visit the origin of these problems. America changed from an agrarian society at the beginning of the 20th Century, which caused the educational system to morph from an individualized to a mass-education model.
Suddenly, there were so many students that a major task was crowd control.
The personalized education of a one-room school changed to a factory model that assumes all teachers are the same and all students have the same learning needs. Little by little, the factory model had two results.
First, the control of instructional techniques became centralized to ensure that every child “got the same education.”
Second, more and more administrative structure was applied. These administrators paid themselves much better than teachers and, using salary as a measure, thought themselves experts. They demanded teachers be highly qualified and then did not — in the past nor now — listen to them.
Current educational practice can be improved by five principles:
• First, education takes place in the student, not the teacher. It must always be student-centered. A student’s curiosity must be engaged. They cannot be made to learn meaningless data to juke accountability tests and still retain any interest in school. They must be engaged in education for reasons of their own curiosity to be able to learn.
• Second, when their curiosity is engaged, students then can use literate and numerate skills development to satisfy that curiosity. Students do need different methods of learning. They learn at different rates. The system must address these differences.
• Third, the students must enjoy the passage of time. It does not have to be a carnival, but if the students do not enjoy, to some extent, the school day, they will not learn.
Example: taking their recesses away so they can study longer does not lead to more learning because students can only learn so much before they need a break. This principle of cognitive science is ignored by experts who think students are like widgets on an assembly line — run the line longer and you get more widgets.
• Fourth, regardless of the curriculum covered by standardized tests, students can only truly learn using age-appropriate language and principles. Until their brains develop, they cannot do abstract reasoning regardless of how much teachers, superintendents or even governors want them to do so.
Again from cognitive science: When their frontal lobes develop to a certain point, then those age-appropriate concepts can be learned. Violating that principle for any reason leads to learners who think they are stupid. We are asking them to do things they cannot do.
• Finally, students must retain their dignity at all times or their education suffers. They must not be bullied by peers or teachers. Each student is a small future adult, and the way they are treated by the system often controls their success.
We are not sensitive to how students are made to lose dignity with no recourse. The students all know which teachers are inappropriate, as do the rest of the staff, but there is no mechanism to advocate for the dignity of students.
Spend time in a public school
Before our leaders say one more thing about how to improve education, they need to spend a couple of weeks in a public school watching and learning. Then we can talk. It is tragic that they not only don’t know, but that all they think they know is not so.
If I was governor I would start by talking to teachers instead of experts. What’s happening instead is like everyone is set to change an airplane’s instruments without talking to the pilot.
Swickard is a weekly columnist for this site. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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