Sort No More: Creating Student Learning Experiences for the 21st Century


The learning system we’ve used in our country since the 1840s does exactly what it is designed to do. Brought to us from Prussia in the days when settlers traveled across America in prairie schooners, this system establishes standard grade level curricula to be delivered by teachers, and asks them to cover the content, test the students, and then move forward to the next lesson or unit. The system worked well enough to expose students to some basic reading, math, civics, and American culture in the days when higher levels of academic skill were not needed for most jobs and only a small fraction of students were expected to stay in school and graduate from high school. Much like the prairie schooner, it served its purpose in those times.

Prairie Schooner, circa 1840

By the 1890s the days of the prairie schooner were numbered. Mechanized forms of travel began to replace the wagon and team that had so dutifully carried settlers across the plains and mountains. But the education system continued to hold onto the same model for standardized delivery of instruction. While coming into the greatest era of information and innovation in the history of humanity, we’ve held onto a model of instruction that is designed to cover, test, sort students into winners and losers and then move forward in the standardized curriculum. Even while models of competency-based learning are all around us, we have held onto our educational prairie schooner rather than innovating and changing into a model that is far more effective for the vast majority of students.

The industrialization of America caused enormous changes in the daily and working lives of Americans, but not much change to the way we design instruction our schools. The standardized instructional model persisted. After World War II there was much greater attention given to the importance of learning. Scientific advances had made it clear that nations with more advanced learners would have an advantage in business, manufacturing, science, and military defense. But our standardized model of schooling persisted, even while schools began to feel extra pressure to achieve better learning outcomes.

Oxen, horses, or mules and wagons gave way to steam and gasoline engines. Railroads, automobiles, motorcycles, airplanes, and jets options transformed our transportation systems, while schools doubled down on standardized one-size-fits-all delivery of instruction. Computers systems connect us to more information than we could ever process. A typical smartphone holds more computer power than all of NASA at the time of the moon launch. Our phones know where we are, and what we buy, and offer us directions or suggestions for lunch. And while all this transformation continues, our schools debate which list of standards to “cover” for all students in the same grade, and which set of tests to use to compare student outcomes, school outcomes, state outcomes, and national outcomes.

We continue to cover and test, and then we sort students and schools into winners and losers. Much like we did at the time of the covered wagon, when academic learning outcomes had so much less impact on the lives of our children. Our outcomes are consistently dismal, decade after decade, using a system that covers, tests, and moves on. We leave children behind, with incomplete understanding of crucial content and skills, with every grade and every class.

The architecture of the CTS system is built on these basic assumptions:

Cover,Test,Sort, Sornson, 2017
  1. All students will receive basically the same content and instruction during a grade level or course, regardless of developmental variance and history of educational success, regardless of whether they have the foundation skills needed for deep understanding and application of the knowledge or skills to be covered.
  2. Students will receive time-limited instruction for coverage of a unit, lesson, or course. Available learning time is limited to the duration of the course or unit. Students will then be tested and graded to demonstrate who was more successful. Achievement varies by student and is reflected by a grade.
  3. A high pressure environment is used to get teachers to cover more content and to get students to achieve better on standardized tests of the standardized curricula.

Let’s offer a rationale for why we have so unrelentingly held on to a cover/test/sort educational model. Until recent decades access to information and learning resources were limited. The world’s knowledge was captured in a 26 volume encyclopedia. Textbooks were the best source of information for teaching and learning. Cost and availability limited us to using one-size-fits-all instruction. Curriculum-driven instruction gave every child the same opportunity to grasp the content. Text books and lesson plans were simply how schools worked.

If those explanations were ever true (and some of it is debatable), they have not been valid for quite some time. Access to information is ubiquitous. The world’s knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. Information technologies allow us to track personal learning information, offer choice, and recognize individual differences. Treating all kids the same is not treating all kids fairly, equally, or optimizing learning for anyone. One-size-fits-all has never been the dominant instructional approach in Career and Technical Education, digital learning, medical school, sports training, or learning in the home. Everybody knows how to personalize learning when it comes to teaching their kids to swim, cook, catch a ball, or ride a bike.

But we have consistently failed to personalize our education systems. After decades and billions of dollars of “school reform” we have managed to keep right on using the same basic design for our educational systems. We engage in rancorous discussions about what to “cover”, but one-size-fits-all time-limited coverage is the still our basic design for instruction. We allow political lobbying and manipulation to dictate how we will “test” our children, and then we ascribe test scores, compare children by percentile scores, and sort out the winners from the losers. We continue to produce a relatively small group of “winners” who have solid understanding of foundation skills and love to learn.

It is ludicrously irrational. Science, technology, information, and innovation have changed our world so dramatically in every aspect of life, except in our schools.

You may choose to blame the unions for this lack of innovation, or the local school boards for their complacency and unwillingness to demand more, or the dim-witted politicians for their puffery and willingness to spend our money without accountability, or the teachers for their lack of leadership and professionalism, or the parents who are raising their kids amidst a confusing culture and whose children are poorly self-regulated and failing to fall in love with learning.

But really the blame belongs to all of us who know that learning skills are crucial to the lives of our children and yet tolerate an educational system which is clearly not serving the needs of so many children, especially vulnerable children whose lack of learning skills and work skills will diminish their lives in so many ways. We tolerate a system of education in which:

· Teachers are trained to write lesson plans for the whole class, cover the curriculum, and deliver instruction to all kids in the same time-frame.

· Content coverage is prioritized over competency.

· People in leadership have vested interests in holding onto a system they know rather than pursuing a system about which they may not be considered an expert.

· Textbook, activity book, and materials providers are anxious to hold the market share they have worked so hard to achieve.

· Standardized tests provide an incomplete and unreliable assessment of student performance, and are used as a club to sort students, schools, districts, and states without giving valuable data to suggest how to improve outcomes.

· Complex government bureaucracies grow, spawning regulations and requirements which suck the vitality out of school district administrators and teachers who are trying to learn, collaborate, and innovate.

· Government and school district bureaucrats hold tightly to control of the system they know rather than re-invent or relinquish their role of oversight in a personalized competency based learning system.

We’ve avoided meaningful innovation and improvement for more than a century, and we have a lot of catching up to do. For those thoughtful educators, community leaders, parents and grandparents who still believe this task is possible, it is time to step up and speak up. Every year another crop of beautiful children, with the potential to live successful and meaningful lives, falls into the frustration and disengagement from learning that will profoundly diminish their future. There are so many ways in which a redesigned system can improve learning outcomes for our children:

In creating a model for instruction that better meets the needs of modern learners, we have to create a systems architecture that can consistently produce far more students who love to learn and continue to learn for life.

This new systems design must be attentive to the development of the whole person, including social-emotional skills, problem-solving skills, and positive character.

The system must be designed in keeping with everything we know about human learning, and more than lip service must be payed to instructional match, intrinsic motivation, deep understand and application, differentiated instruction, the importance of safe and connected classroom culture, and the importance of art, music, movement, nature, and beauty.

This new systems architecture must value meeting the learning needs of individual students, rather than giving top priority to covering the content standards du jour.

The architecture of our new system must abandon “test and sort” in favor of assessment for learning. Assessment is most valuable when educators can use that information to thoughtfully design learning for each student, rather than ascribe grades and move on to the next chapter without allowing students to deeply understand and enjoy what they are learning.

To serve the needs of our children, this systems design must take a radically different view of how to deliver “school”, so that all children, not just a fortunate few, receive the instruction and practice time to build every essential skill along a pathway to higher level skills, at their own instructional level, for as long as it takes.

The architecture of a Competency Based Learning system is built on a significantly different set of assumptions:

Competency Based Learning, Sornson, 2017
  1. Students advance upon mastery, not time.

2. At the same age, all students are not alike in their experiences, rates of development, and learning readiness.

3. Students receive instruction and support based on need, not based on age or a pacing guide.

4. All students learn better when offered instruction at a level of challenge that allows for high rates of success.

5. Students work better in a community in which they feel safe and connected to others.

“We covered it and tested it” in a one-size-fits-all time limited educational system is a poor excuse for a learning systems architecture in the 21st century. Fortunately we are surrounded by examples of personalized competency based learning systems, some of which have been around for a very long time.

The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts devised a merit badge system that is competency based and goes back to the early 1900s. Preparation for the trades, including electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and steelworkers, has long used a mastery based apprentice to journeyman to master-level progression of skills based on competency. Music, fine arts, medical, and martial arts training programs help their students build skills one step at a time, guiding them along a pathway to higher level skills.

In the digital age technical training in IT and many related disciplines is personalized and competency based. Digital game designers use a deep understanding of human learning and motivation to devise games and programs which engage the participant and keep him in the zone. Many universities are moving quickly toward competency based learning, following the lead of Western Governors University, Capella, and others. New Hampshire and Maine have led the way toward competency based high school graduation systems which replace antiquated course and Carnegie credit requirements. Early childhood programs in Michigan, Mississippi, and around the world are using the Essential Skills Inventories as a PK to Grade 3 competency framework. These inventories identify the foundation skills which students must deeply understand and be able to use to allow continued progress toward higher levels of learning.

In the age of information, technology, and the rapid exchange of ideas, learning matters for all our students. Without good learning skills, students are relegated to low-skill low-wage lives with limited economic and social options. Without better learning systems, vulnerable children will continue to fall behind, disengage from learning, fail to develop the literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional skills needed to for economic and social success. Without better learning systems we will see wider gaps between rich and poor, opportunity and indignity, confidence in a better world for our children or the resignation to disillusion and despair.

Our challenge is to create personalized competency based learning systems which:

· allow practically all students to become successful readers and mathematicians

· help individual students find and develop their unique core of interests and aptitudes

· value the development of social-emotional intelligence and character

· help young men and women build lives of purpose

The prairie schooner was lovely in its own way, but today there are better ways to travel. The educational systems design we continue to use in our schools is every bit as archaic as the schooner, traveling two miles an hour across the prairies. It is time for an update. Are you ready to dig in and make it happen?

Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and international consultant whose work focuses on competency based learning, early learning success, and parent education. He works internationally with school districts, universities and parent organizations. His many books include Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), and Essential Math Skills: Pre-K to Grade 3 (Shell Education). Contact

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