How do we get past the fatigue, frustration, and fear of our national ed reforms?

We need a new paradigm if we are to transform our public schools. The 19th century factory model of education has certainly run its course, and continuing to scaffold new programs and promises onto a “seat time centered” public school structure is a losing proposition because it fundamentally fails to meet student educational needs.

The key to real improvement is, I believe, to “de-bureaucratize” our public schools by giving ownership and responsibility for success back to our students. Although it has been tried in dribs and drabs in our public and charter schools over the past few years, it might be time to revolutionize all of our classrooms by putting competency-based education (CBE) at the forefront of our national reform agenda.

The problem with the many top-down federal and state efforts to reform public education by way of laws, regulations, and mandated goals over the past couple of decades is fairly obvious: They all have relied on a hammer to get the job done. The threat of withdrawing plaudits or cash—or of awarding them if some improvement can be identified—means that the day the hammer is withdrawn is the day everyone can go back to business as usual.

This pretty much boils down to handing out more and more diplomas to high school graduates who are more and more unprepared for college and career because seat time instruction is—for reasons that surpass all understanding—still considered a reasonable measure of actual learning. A heavily bureaucratized and regimented educational establishment provides lots of comfortable rules and steady paychecks (like the U.S. Postal Service), but it is a dismal failure for our children.

Indeed, a frightening—but wholly unsurprising—report just issued by The Education Trust points out that a scant 8 percent of high school graduates are completing college and career ready courses of study before graduating. All those hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars spent hammering home reform have seemingly added up to zilch in far too many districts.

So here we are now, with a federal law called Every Student Succeeds Act that allows for some accountability but leaves it to states to create their own hammers and then hit themselves with them when they don’t like what they see. In recent years school reform has become secondary to the need to make failure politically palatable. We forget that the original purpose of all this effort was to help our students to learn.

The no-nonsense NCLB notion of closing schools that fail to educate their students has largely died due to bare-knuckled political pushback from both local communities and unions. We now instead actively avoid labeling schools as failing or deficient because schools hate being labeled as failing or deficient (imagine that).

Encouraged by the very educators who might be embarrassed by the results, more states are questioning the value of standardized tests, more parents (mostly white and suburban) are pulling their students out of these tests, and more pundits and politicians are presenting the basic concept of gathering academic outcome data through testing as some sort of sinister plot to undermine the republic.

All these years of the hammer have apparently not done much other than anger a lot of people who might have been allies, blown through truckloads of cash, and left everyone a bit dazed by the human cost of all this reform—fatigue, frustration, and fear.

So perhaps it is time to put the hammer back in our toolbox and consider a different way of approaching school reform because not every problem is a nail.

The underlying problem we face regarding school reform has not fundamentally changed: we have built the entire system around a seat time model that fails to take advantage of either the natural curiosity of students or the dramatic changes in educational technology now available in every classroom.

High school students by and large do not need to prove they have learned—and to some degree mastered —core academic subjects. Rather they need to prove that they have sat through two years of science, three years of math and four years of English to qualify for a diploma. Rather than build education milestones around the acquisition of competencies—which students gain at widely varying speeds—we instead reward the ability to sit in a chair and endure boredom. If a student has attained a core competency in reading, writing, science, or math before the unit on that subject material even starts, that student is just out of luck—and the only additional education to be expected will be a course in Creative Window Gazing 101.

Competency-based public education that allows students to learn at their own pace is so different from the prevalent classroom model that it is nearly unrecognizable. States such as Alaska, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Ohio have launched limited experiments, and some of the results are certainly encouraging, but the notion that all of our public schools could be radically different places of learning that challenge students to achieve to their highest level tends to founder upon misunderstandings and fears regarding change.

Concerns that students will spend all their time plunked in front of computers, cutting and pasting rather than engaging, are realistic insofar as not every teacher has the skills to adjust to this style of teaching. It would not be surprising if some veteran teachers turn CBE into a model that more closely resembles the old “complete-your-worksheet” classroom style that is well within the comfort zone of those who have spent their entire teaching careers slavishly following curriculum guides.

Successful implementation of CBE will require a new type of teacher and an entirely new model of training, supporting, and evaluating them that is, sadly, exceedingly far over the horizon right now. Given how we continue fuss over common sense reforms such as tying teacher evaluations to measurable results and making it substantially easier to fire lousy teachers, it is hard to see how we will even get started.

Nonetheless, this could be a transformational way of addressing the seemingly intractable problems we see with preparing students for college and careers—but only if done thoughtfully and with well-trained professionals in our classrooms and central offices.

The big question around this idea is not necessarily educational—it’s political. How can we change an entire culture of public school teaching when the primary concern of so many in our educational establishment is finding new ways to avoid the shock of just how badly our schools are performing and deflecting accountability for their failures?

It is a question we will need to answer—and soon.

What do you think?
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Andrew Wilk

Andrew Wilk

Andrew teaches both English and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and during the 2014-15 academic year he was nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award at the college in recognition of his work in the classroom. In addition to teaching at both the secondary and college level, he worked for many years in the private sector, holding professional and administrative positions in advertising, journalism and healthcare. Andrew has published over 100 commentaries on topics ranging from politics to education, and he has also published a novel, “A Day at the Fair with Chili Boy.” He writes on his blog, Common Sense. He is the dad of two grown children, who attended public schools in Urbana.

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