Five Ideas for Education Reform

The topic of education reform seems to be highly politicized.

I know what you’re thinking:  If you’re a Republican, you’re probably screaming about vouchers and standardized testing in your head, right now.  If you’re a Democrat, you’re probably screaming about, well, vouchers and standardized testing in your head, right now…  And regardless of political stripe, you’re probably either a) screaming about No Child Left Behind or b) wishing you had some kind of informed opinion on No Child Left Behind (but pretending that you do have an informed opinion on No Child Left Behindright now.

Rather than take a political position — which seems, frankly, like a worthless exercise — I thought I’d put out the five best ideas I have come across, concerning how we might change our educational system, and see what people think.  Up front:  I am not an expert in this field.  I’m just a guy who went to public school and put three kids through public schools.  Also, these ideas are focused on public education and on the United States.

As an additional disclaimer, these are not my original ideas.  I first heard most of these ideas here (and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can, too!).  The rest of this is what I’ve supplemented or modified slightly in my own consideration of other people’s brilliant suggestions.

1. No more cohorts (established groups of students based mostly on age)
In our current education system, cohorts (groups of students) are fixed.  They vary based on the age of the student.  At five years’ old, you enter Kindergarten; at six, you enter First Grade, and so on through 12th grade (all of primary and secondary education).  You finish secondary education at the same time as everyone else — or, with any significant variation (more than a year), often not at all.  You are supposed to progress from one grade to the next in the same order, in the same time frame, as everyone else in your age group.  To go faster or slower than other people your own age is an exception.  Everyone studies the same things, with few variations (some advanced classes and some remedial classes exist, but broadly, everyone takes the same classes).

Instead, what if what was fixed was mastery of subjects, and a core group of basic subjects, and what was variable was how long it takes to learn and demonstrate mastery of those subjects, and which other subjects each student studies at any given time?  What if there was no “cohort” — no group — just people studying different topics?  Primary and secondary education would begin to resemble a community college, where widely different people might be studying the same topic at the same time, and where people have different focuses of study, and focus on them for different amounts of time.  Divergences would become more wide as students progressed through the education system (early-on, most students would study the same basic topics; later, students would vary widely in which topics they study and how much time is spent studying each topic, and what degree of mastery is sought beyond a basic level in each core subject).

The way it works now:  Students study the same things at the same ages, for the same amounts of time, in the same ways.  Minimal variation occurs among students of the same age group.  You are finished studying a subject when everyone else in your cohort is finished studying the subject.  You move to the next grade level when everyone else in your cohort moves to the next grade level.

The way this might work:  Students study the same core topics to a basic level of mastery.  Students then a) further study these basic topics to a higher level of mastery, and b) study other topics, according to their own preferences and natural inclinations.  More variation occurs as the student population gets older.  You are finished studying a subject when you can demonstrate mastery of that subject.  There are no grade levels, but you need a certain number of credits overall, with certain minimum credits in basic topics, in order to graduate from secondary (high) school.

My wife brought up (and she’s right — as usual — damnit) that there would be both natural competitiveness among students, and a natural stigma as older students spent more time on subjects that younger students had already mastered.  True.  However, there is simply no good time to stop doing something that doesn’t make sense.  In my mind, grouping students by age alone is arbitrary, and teaching every student in the same way and for the same amount of time as every other student is also wrong.  I think the stigma associated, for example, with older students dwelling on topics that take longer for some people to master (say, Trigonometry) would be countered by two factors over time — first, the more students study topics longer, the less stigma is associated with that, and second, in a system like this, there would naturally be very little homogeneity among  a student population as it gets older (further mitigating any stigma associated with older students studying the same subjects as younger students).

2. Student-driven and market-driven focus areas in secondary education
The American education system was set up during the 1800s for the express purpose of preparing children for a college or university education.  Students in America, and I would imagine elsewhere, are under pressure to keep their grades up, to take the right classes, to participate in certain kinds of extracurricular activities, to do well on standardized tests, and so on, because the primary and secondary education experience is essentially one long dress rehearsal for college.  Guidance counselors try to prepare every student to go to college.  Kids are encouraged to pick out a major and pick out the schools where they want to go even before they enter high school.  Kids stress over all of this, even if they profess not to do so, because the expectation placed on them is that they will go to college, and on to a profession requiring that college education.  We are teaching our kids that this is the only way to succeed, even as the costs of a college education spiral out of control.

At the same time, there is a significant imbalance in the job market in the United States.  At the same time we’re producing a record number of college graduates who can’t find work, we lack people who are qualified to work in all sorts of skilled trades and technical fields.  Everyone wants their kid to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or an engineer, but many kids simply aren’t suited to work in these professions.  There are a lot of kids in the world who toil away preparing for a profession to which they are entirely unsuited; at the same time, the job that truly does interest them, and the job that they would do best, is a job that sits vacant because there aren’t enough people who can do that job.

There’s no good reason why we can’t teach kids a wide variety of subjects while also preparing them to enter a skilled trade.  Take a look at this article from Forbes, which outlines the shortage and where it exists.  The same article focuses on the fact that people who can work in skilled trades are aging and are not being replaced.  It is not an accident that the middle class shrinks, as we prepare a large number of children to do a shrinking number of white-collar jobs, as a shrinking number of children prepare to work in skilled trade, blue-collar professions.

The answer would seem to be to a) identify which skilled trades are in short supply by location, and b) give students in secondary education an option to pursue advanced training to enter a skilled trade during high school.  Demand for skilled trade workers should drive the opportunities available to secondary students.  Most importantly, we need to change our own thinking — it is not only acceptable, but preferable, that not everyone should go to college and earn a Bachelor’s degree and work in an office or a cubicle.  Many kids would be both much happier, and much wealthier, working on cars, building office complexes, and installing or fixing electrical systems.  At the same time, these trades teach students practical skills and academic subjects.  [Editor’s note:  I learned a surprising amount of math while studying electronics.]

There are steps beyond education reform that are needed to fix this problem.  For example, there is not a healthy guild or trade craft system in the United States.  Without some kind of real apprenticeship system (where people can progress in skilled trades from apprentice, to journeyman, to master), the critical aspect of on-the-job and continuous learning is still a giant gap.

3. Classroom-flipping
The traditional approach to learning anything in before you get to college is similar to the traditional approach to learning anything in a college or university setting (again, because our education system seems to have been built to prepare students for that experience).  Generally, you read part of a book; you sit down in class; you receive a lecture (perhaps with some discussion); you get homework; you go home; you do the homework at home; your homework is handed in and graded; and, the process repeats.

The process itself isn’t bad.  Introduce student to topic.  Become familiar with topic.  Try to practically apply that topic.  See how well you applied that topic.  Move on to the next topic.  The thing that could stand improvement is where and how each step is accomplished.  Traditionally — lectures and discussion are live, instructor-led, and happen at school.  Homework is done on one’s own time and in one’s own home.  Classroom flipping is about turning that around.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (see what I did there?), the lecture, and even some of the back-and-forth that might occur during a classroom lecture, can happen when the student is not with the teacher.  The lecture portion might be as simple as a recorded video on YouTube, or as complex as a computer-based training simulation module.  In a flipped classroom, the student does this part on his or her own.  The “homework” is to accomplish the portion of learning that would have traditionally come from the lecture.  The next day, in class, with the instructor, the student tries to apply what he or she learned through some practical exercise.  That exercise is completed with one-on-one instructor support. as much as possible.  If something wasn’t clear in the recorded lecture or computer-based lesson, the live session affords the opportunity to clear that up.  If the student needs help, the instructor is right there.  Feedback is immediate or nearly-immediate.  Exercises can be done as a group or individually.  Students help and support other students and this reinforces their own knowledge of the topic.  And then, the students move on to the next topic.

This is a model that requires student participation.  But then — so is the traditional model of instruction.  So is anything.

The disadvantage, or difficulty, comes in the fact that not all students have access to the same technology as other students.  This model doesn’t work unless all students can access and use the “flipped” material from home (or at least not during class time).  So, just like #2, this model would necessitate changes outside of the education system (strictly speaking) in order to work effectively.  With that said, the inherent cost of the required technology, as compared to the inherent cost of a more traditional textbook approach, is not all that dissimilar — and some would say, is actually much cheaper.

4. Physical education
When I was a kid, recess was something that happened every day, multiple times per day.  We were expected to get up, go outside, and play.  We did this in the morning, during lunch, and in the afternoon.  We were often tired when we came back into class from lunch or recess.  We played kickball.  We played dodgeball.  We played four-square.  We raced from one arbitrary object to another arbitrary object just to see who would get to the second arbitrary object the fastest.  And we also had PE.  By “also” I mean “in addition to” — as in, everything I just described happened as a natural consequence of providing children with time during morning and afternoon recess and during lunch to play.  We also had PE, where we climbed ropes, and wrestled, and played baseball, and learned the basic rules and mechanics of any major sport or physical activity in which we might participate.

Kids today look at a rope that’s six feet long, with three knots tied in it, and get tired.

Even though I went to public school, I am aware that correlation does not imply causation.  Even so, I feel compelled to point out two other trend lines in terms of where they stood when I was kid, and where they stand now.

a) Childhood obesity.  In 1980, childhood obesity stood at about 7%.  In 2010, childhood obesity stood at just under 18%.   In thirty years, childhood obesity rates doubled in children, and tripled in adolescents.

b) Type 2 diabetes in children.  Type 2 diabetes, or adult onset diabetes, is a chronic disease associated with obesity affecting the pancreas, kidneys, liver, peripheral nervous system, eyesight, and peripheral blood flow.  Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas summarily fails due to a defect (typically, the defect causes this failure during childhood).  Type 2 diabetes is associated with obesity, and occurs when the pancreas fails due to prolonged overwork (it gets worn out).  Essentially, diabetes is the lack of insulin, a critical hormone produced by the pancreas, necessary to break down the sugar in the food that we eat, so that it can be used by the body.  Diabetes has no cure, and diabetes kills, quickly or slowly (left untreated, quickly).   Prior to 1980, Type 2 diabetes accounted for less than 2% of all new pediatric diabetes cases.  By 2000, it accounted for between 8% and 45% of all new pediatric diabetes  cases.  In 2007, it was projected that by 2015, type 2 diabetes (when the pancreas fails due to overwork) will be more prevalent than type 1 diabetes among children.

Not for nothing:  There is decent evidence that shows grades improve when children partake in vigorous exercise regularly throughout the school day (this study is often cited).  But, that is not the best reason why we might want to get our children up and moving.  The best reason is probably that our education system exists to prepare our children for success in life, and that life is a critical component of success in life.

Editor’s note:  It may seem weird that keeping our children from eating themselves to death only made number four on this list of five important ideas.  That’s a function of the fact that the first three were really good ideas that had directly to do with building a really good educational system, and this fourth idea is more like: “Oh, by the way, our children have to still be alive in order to actually benefit from a really good educational system.”

5. Arts education
I can actually hear the groans coming through the Internet, right now.  Hear me out.

I didn’t just go to a public high school.  I went to the public school you’re thinking of right now, when I say “public school.”  I went to the public school with the security guards and the guns and the knives and the gang-bangers.  I went to the public school where I was part of a white minority.  I went to the public school that always had pages in the back of the yearbook for the kids who were senselessly killed throughout the year.  I went to the public school where you didn’t make eye contact unless you were ready to throw down, and you probably weren’t ready to throw down.

When I arrived at that high school, I was probably the shyest, most reserved kid who had ever walked into that school.  The first half of my Freshman year was pretty rough.  During the second semester, I had to pick a new elective, and I chose Drama I (though I honestly couldn’t tell you why — I just did).  I had to go and get permission from the teacher to join the class halfway through the year.  Some nameless automaton in the front office sent me to a back corner of the school to get a form signed.  When I arrived, I waited around for several minutes for the teacher to show up.  A few kids were there, but I was told it was between instruction periods and I didn’t see the teacher anywhere.

I figured the teacher would be back soon, so I just stood there and tried not to look like a lamp post on the deck of an aircraft carrier.  Eventually, someone noticed the lanky, skinny, out-of-place kid, sticking straight up out of the floor, shifting his feet and shrugging his shoulders and avoiding eye contact.  She asked me what I was doing there.  So I said to this random girl, who was kind of pretty, clearly older than me, and for some reason, sitting behind the desk, that I was waiting for the teacher to get back.

And that is how I met Resha Gentry-Ballance, my drama teacher and speech coach for the next four years.  She taught me anything and everything that I know of any value at all about public speaking and communication.  She taught me to think on my feet.  She taught me to be comfortable with my height and confident in my voice.  She taught me not to be afraid when I didn’t know what to say.  She taught me how to interact with other human beings, for the first time, in a way that was not entirely awkward.  And, she is probably the single best reason why I actually graduated from Maryvale High School.

Lots of kids didn’t graduate from Maryvale High School.  I was almost one of those kids.

What’s the value of an arts education?  Much like #4 — not just for me, but for many kids who I knew then (and still know today) — the value of an arts education is that it results in an education.  It’s kind of hard to design a really good public education system that doesn’t include a reason for kids to use a really good public education system.  For many students, there is exactly one reason why they go to school, and everything else happens along the way.  For some kids, that’s a sport (say, football or wrestling).  For some kids, that’s dance, or choir, or the band.  For me — it was drama.

Not for nothing:  Just like #4, there’s also good evidence that an arts education has direct or peripheral positive benefits on academic performance.  I leave it to others to make that argument.

The only meaningful argument, for me and for more of my friends than I could name, is that the principal benefit of an arts education is an education.

[Thanks, Resha!]

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One Response to Five Ideas for Education Reform

  1. Robert Yeske says:

    What you are describing sounds very much like the early years of my public education. Programs used to exist very much like you describe 40 years ago in California.

    In second grade I was in an advanced English class for 5th graders. Additionally, I shared an advanced math class for 6th graders with our older sister, Pam. The educators had pressed our parents for some time to place myself and Pam into grades (cohorts) for much older kids…then the magic happened. For my 3rd grade year, and Pam’s 6th, we were bussed off to different schools. We were entered into the mentally gifted minor program. I was placed into a class with kids from 8 to 10 years of age. We had mostly the same classes; it seems they were designed more by ability than by age. We were given Algebra, French, and advanced English. Additionally we were given our free time when the directed studies were completed to enter into self study in the SRO (later called SLO) program…colored levels were coded onto cards for reading comprehension. Tests we on the reverse side of each card, turning in the tests for a given level meant you were then allowed to move on to the next level of study.
    Programs like this one were developed to allow for both accelerated studies and a greater lateral development in education. They were fairly common in the 1970’s and 1980’s here in California.

    When I was in High School, in Spokane, there were a great many elective classes available; Debate, wood shop, metal shop, electrical shop, exploring childhood, childhood development, science fiction, mythology, food, cooking, drama, stage production, and the list goes on. I took French again in the 10th and 11th grades, there were Italian, Spanish, and German classes as well.

    The environment there was loaded with opportunities to learn a wide variety from differing aspects of life. I am depressed when I see what lack of funding and “No child left behind” has left for my own children here in Jurupa Valley, CA. There is still Spanish and French, but no other languages. There is no shop whatsoever, nor debate, nor speech, and limited drama and performing arts. They do have a couple of possible electives in the English department, mythology and a creative writing class. There has been such an emphasis on not leaving behind those that fall back, that the curriculum here has been slowed to the pace of the slower students. The curriculum has been pared back to more of the core and finding for advanced and elective teaching has been nonexistent. Now having said that about the public education in the past 8 years, let me go on to what has finally emerged in the local area.

    My adopted daughter has been given the opportunity to attend a NEW High School here, called Rivercrest High School. This is an online school with a limited attendance at the campus and personal development and responsibility. It is designed to allow for a single class to be studied for the period of 3 weeks the completed. Along with the 21 hours of attendance (1 per school day) the stundents are expected to do self study online for an additional 39 hours to complete the 60 hours required by the course. In speaking to the principal they want to proceed farther with those students capable of a greater dedication to allow multiple classes taken at the same time, allowing for either early departure form High Schools, or a greater broadening of the education. The district is using and established system, called Odysseyware (please check them out at This program, I am told, has over 100 available subjects for study.
    The student has the availability of any elective classes from the classic local High School that Rivercrest co-occupies campus with. Choir, drama, and the like (classes requiring multiple students) can still be taken in the classic model.
    I am sitting here looking at a flier for Flabob Airport Preparatory Academy. I have been somewhat aware of this charter school for 2 years now. It offers:
    An Aviation High School on an airport.
    Aviation classes – Aviation seminar, Ground school, Aviation and War.
    Engineering classes- to include Robotics, Essentials of engineering. Mechanical engineering, and Electrical engineering.
    Medical Office Classes – where college credit is applied for these classes.
    Dual and concurrent enrollment in college.
    Internships for 11th and 12th graders.

    It looks like there are some small number of broader education opportunities finally returning to public education. It is my belief after experiencing some broader education in my youth that programs such as these provide for the greater diversity you appear to be espousing in your dissertation. I absolutely agree with your ideas in a broad stroke. I see these programs more for the advanced and more self dependent students. I believe that the use of cohorts works well for those more set for a non self paced education system…and the use of cohorts can foster opportunities for camaraderie. Let us not forget the social development that our modern education system has found to be within their purview. Lumping students together by age allows for greater social skill development.
    I am always up for something better, my caution comes from the experience of those that believe they know better redesigning the wheel and the disastrous results I have viewed of late.

    Your Ideas sound, clear and sound beneficial, the one place the lack is in social development on the kids in the education system, again just my opinion.

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