By BOB SORNSON
The history of American public schools is a study of unintended consequences. For decades we have struggled to “reform” a system that is built on principles designed for agrarian pre-Civil War America. As academic learning became significantly more important after World War II we began to raise expectations for a system that is built to cover standardized grade-level content to all students in a time-limited format, but poorly designed to help each child develop to his/her potential or to become a person who loves to learn.
In the education system we all know so well, we cover grade level content, give a test and a grade to sort the academically ready from the rest of the crowd, and then move forward in the curriculum to offer more advanced content, whether or not students have deep understanding the fundamental skills needed to succeed at higher levels of learning. Recent waves of “school reform” have increased the intensity of standardized grade level assessment giving us more data with which to declare some students “winners” and others “losers”. But having more data from standardized tests which compare students based on percentile rankings has utterly failed to improve national learning outcomes.
So the reformers increased the pressure by aggregating student data and comparing schools. Once again, winners and losers were identified. Poor scoring schools, predictable by zip code and levels of affluence, were vilified, then threatened, then placed on lists of failing schools. But the listing of schools which are winners and losers has also failed to improve national learning outcomes.
Looking for more screws to turn, the school reformers began to rate school districts, then states. National standards for instructional content were proposed (CCSS), and states were coerced to adopt them by promises of federal dollars. National assessments of instructional progress were developed (PARCC and Smarter Balance) with hundreds of millions of federal dollars, and once again states were coerced to use them. But these too have completely failed to improve national learning outcomes.
We’ve identified students who are not performing, schools and districts that fail to perform, low-performing states, and even teachers who are not performing based on the test scores of their students. And still our national learning outcomes have not responded with any meaningful gains.
While failing to improve academic learning outcomes, we have inadvertently created high-stress high-pressure school environments. We have reduced the time available for recess, exploration, nature, social emotional learning, projects, adventures, and play. We have stripped much of the joy out of learning and teaching, and discouraged many bright young women and men from even considering becoming teachers.
We have attempted to “reform” a system without challenging its basic assumptions. If only the kids would come better prepared, or the teachers would work harder, or the parents would start raising better children. We find excuses for the failures of school reform without seriously considering the system, and how its basic assumptions are counter to what we know about high-quality teaching and learning.
In my professional life I have seen many examples of systems design that gets in the way of helping students reach their potential. As a high school special education teacher I worked with many students who had crashed and burned within the world of typical instruction. Although many of these students had obvious learning delays, somehow they continued to receive “standard” instruction in many of their classes, even including their special education classes where they did little but finish GenEd homework assignments they did not begin to understand.
As a special education administrator I saw this same pattern play out at every level, and was especially distressed to see educators identify young students who were falling “behind” but not yet eligible for identification as a special needs student. The system said “push on”, and let those kids struggle for a few more years, until finally after the student absolutely believed she was a lousy reader and mathematician, she would get the label that gave her access to a minimal level of service that was unlikely to help her ever reach her potential. The system was far more committed to getting the grade level content “covered” than it was to giving kids essential instruction that might allow them to make meaningful learning gains.
As a central office administrator, I experienced the inexorable bureaucratic machine that lives in the bowels of most districts, every state department of education, and especially the federal department of education. It is a machine that values compliance; and the cover and test education system is a perfect vehicle for exercising control and compliance. Regulators are capable of enforcing rules in spite of the clear evidence that the mountain of regulation we’ve developed in the last fifty years has not let to even the smallest improvements in learning outcomes. They are capable of enforcing rules that harm children, families, and often strip the joy out of education. And the incredible truth is that joyless and soul-sucking regulations are often enforced by perfectly kind and thoughtful people who are acting within a system that is really good at getting people to comply with the system’s expectations.
As a consultant and trainer, I have experienced with sadness those moments when really good teachers express: “I know which students are struggling and don’t understand the material. I know which students need more time and practice. But I have to cover the standards, and I have to keep up with the pacing guide, and so I just move forward with my curriculum.” These are good people, working within an archaic and destructive system.
In the standard American classroom students will range in age and developmental readiness. Some will have delays in the development of language, self-regulation, and social-emotional skills. Some will come from poverty while others will be from affluence and privilege. The ages will vary by at least one year, and the group will include both boys and girls. We will take this incredibly diverse group of children, put a large number of them in a classroom with one teacher, and require that teacher to deliver standardized one-size-fits-all instruction to all her students. We’ll insist that all kids have a right to be exposed to the same content standards each year, and held to the same standards for learning. We’ll require the teacher to cover more content than could ever be well-taught, use a rigid pacing guide that requires that she move constantly ahead whether or not kids have learned the previous lessons, use district assessments to add further pressure to the students and teacher, and evaluate the teacher on whether all kids score at a high level on high-pressure standardized tests at the end of the year. What could possibly go wrong?
Perhaps more than at any time in history, the success of our system of education matters. Learning matters in the age of innovation, technology, and the rapid exchange of information and ideas. And so does the ability to communicate, collaborate, solve problems, and demonstrate self-regulation, empathy, and the social emotional skills needed for working and living with others.
Not only is it important that our children learn to read and do math, but it is crucial that they develop these basic skills along with a love of learning that will motivate sustained lifelong learning. Equally important are the personal and interpersonal skills that allow us to develop positive character, grit, persistence, respect for others, and the self-efficacy to believe that hard work can lead to good outcomes for ourselves and others. But rather than embrace the need to develop humans with the skills and character to thrive in a world of innovation and collaboration, schools have remained stuck in a bureaucratic and controlling mind-set.
Our current focus on accountability is one part of that bureaucratic and controlling mind-set. Though envisioned to push for equity, in fact, No Child Left Behind and its antecedents have dehumanized the experience of school for our children and our educators.
Our current system with its focus on “covering” grade-level content standards and preparation for high-stakes tests has separated us from the basic purposes of education. Curiosity, wonder, exploration, play, the exchange of ideas, collaboration, inquiry, experimentation, social learning, and the development of character are absent from the CCSS and from the standardized tests. The wonders and beauties of creation and of being are dehydrated into a testable, textbook sterilized world in which there is no time to be filled with awe for the majesty of the universe or the potential of each human spirit.
So, what is the way forward? The irony is that by choosing to use heavy handed accountability systems that push us toward an ever more standardized, superficial, fragmented and meaningless learning, we have completely failed to improve test scores. We have stripped away much of the sense of community, joy, play, and social learning from our schools as we hold onto an archaic educational system that was never designed to help large numbers of students become quality learners for life.
It is a system designed to cover, test, and then sort out lesser students. All this our system does effectively, year after year, until a vast majority of our students have been sorted away from the love of learning, sorted away from the economic and social opportunities that are part of the age of innovation, technology, and learning.
For decades as a nation we have clung to an ineffective system of age-based, time-limited, one-size-fits-all instruction. We reformed the hell out of it, and drained much of the humanity that somehow had managed to survive by the grace of good teachers and curious learners. All that is left is a race to cover dry, personally meaningless facts and concepts that might help us get a good score on a standardized test so that some bureaucrat can pretend that somehow we have not failed our children.
Are we ready to call for a systems change to a personalized system of learning that allows far more students to become good learners and great people? Such a system is based on far different design specifications which are based on considerably more accurate assumptions about human learning. At the same age, all students are not alike in their experiences, rates of development, and learning readiness. Some students need more time to learn a concept or skill, but are fully capable of learning well if given sufficient time. All students learn better when offered instruction at a level of challenge that allows for high rates of success. Pushing kids into a frustration zone, in the name of academic rigor, causes students to disengage from learning, stop trying, and even to misbehave and disrupt the classroom.
We have the knowledge of how children develop and learn. We have the technologies to track individual development and support crucial learning at each child’s instructional level. We have the capacity to build learning systems that help students become successful readers and mathematicians while also helping individual students find and develop their unique core of interests and aptitudes. It is entirely possible to build learning systems in which learners respect themselves as unique human beings while also valuing the potential and unique talents of others.
It is our choice. Do we continue to work in schools modeled after factories from a bygone era, or do we commit to rediscovering the joy of great teaching and learning? Do we hold onto the idea that all students should be ready to learn the standard content on the same day and in the same way, or are we ready to acknowledge that we are all different in our development and that serving the learning needs of children requires us to develop our ability to personalize learning to allow for the amazing diversity amongst our students?
Do we continue the falsehood that somehow with yet another list of content standards or the newest assessment system we will eventually bring improved outcomes? Or will we step beyond those fallacies and design a system that respects individual difference and values the development of the whole child? It is hard to change a dysfunctional system from within. But with thoughtful educators, parents, and community leaders working together, it could happen within a decade.
With every visit to a school I feel the urgency. In every conversation with students I see the potential for our children to have the learning skills, the social-emotional skills, the character, and the love of learning to build a great life and a great world. In the eyes of young children I see the wildly un-standardized core of potential that lives within each one of us. How long will we wait?
Bob Sornson, Ph.D. is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. He is a national leader calling for programs and practices which support early learning success, competency based learning, and parent engagement. Contact: Bob@earlylearningfoundation.com.