What's Wrong With Our Current Educational System? 7 Fatal Flaws We Must Address

What's wrong with our schools? Why isn't our education system churning out students prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century?  Why don't any of our "fixes" ever seem to work?

The problem is that any real, comprehensive list of what's wrong with education cannot help but shed sobering light on the enormity of the problem(s) we face.  Addressing any of the following would require a Herculean combination of political will, social reform, and disregard of powerful lobbying interests the likes of which our current democratic construct - with its fixation on short-term "fixes" and over-reliance on campaign financing - is wholly unequipped to address.

The irony, of course, is that until we start correctly identifying the problems we face, we fatally undermine all efforts to identify effective solutions.

Without further ado, then, here they are: my nominees for factors that are robbing our students of the education they need and deserve.
  1. Education by Tradition. Schools still look a lot like they looked back in the 1900s: emphasis is on kids sitting in classrooms, learning the three 'R's, and making it home in time to help out with the harvest. And we wonder why they aren't preparing students for the 21st century? We need to "re-invent" how we "do" school - purpose, structure, and curriculum.
    1. Purpose.  Right now our college prep curriculum is training 100% of students to be scholars - which has more to do with "the Great American Dream" than the reality of 21st century America, which requires a healthy blend of both scholars and worker-bees in order to maintain a robust economic structure.
    2. Structure. Why are we still closing schools over the summer?  Research shows that we are wasting too much time every fall re-teaching students what they forgot over the summer.  Shorter, more frequent breaks would be much more efficient
    3. Curriculum.  Our curriculum needs to be completely rethought.  Way too big a topic to discuss here, but if you're interested in some specific ideas, check out my blog post on the topic.
  2. Education by Fad. Perhaps more than any "profession", educators seem delighted to jettison research-proven instructional methods to chase after "fads". Don't believe me? How many of the following "fads" do you remember from your own schooling? Open classrooms, whole language, invented spelling, new math, fuzzy math, touch math, universal design, multiculturalism, self-esteem/praise, discovery learning, thematic instruction, outcome-based learning, classical education, affective learning, cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, brain-based learning, learning styles, mnemonics/memory tricks, alternative assessment, Socratic teaching, grouping, block scheduling, on-line education, response to intervention, vouchers, charters, etc. Believe me now? The problem, of course, is that we have NO VALID (research-based) EVIDENCE that any of these fads actually improve learning.
    1. Just because an intervention worked under certain conditions doesn't mean it will generalize to all conditions. (It usually doesn't.)
    2. Just because something correlates with success doesn't mean it caused that success. (Ex: playing a musical instrument doesn't make you smarter - rather, parents who require their children to play a musical instrument also tend to require their students to take school seriously. They correlate, but one does not cause another.)
    3. Just because someone wrote a book about something doesn't mean they know what they're talking about. (Often they don't.)
  3. Minimum Competency Standards & Testing. No Child Left Behind had admirable intentions, but also one fatal flaw: minimum competency testing.  Why is this a flaw?  Because intelligence is variable (distributed along a bell curve), approximately 10% of students are cognitively incapable of achieving "minimum competency."  Therefore, the only way states can "win" (achieve 100% pass rates) is to cheat - by dumbing down either the standards or the tests.   Not to mention at least three other unintentional outcomes:
    1. Every time we applaud students for passing minimum competency standards/tests, we send the message: "minimum competency is good enough!"
    2. Minimum competency tests "cheats" the ~30% of students with above average IQs by shifting resources away from them.  
    3. Multiple Choice isn't "real life".  Because they're easy to grade, schools and states are increasingly relying on multiple choice tests.  Unfortunately, these tests rob students of the opportunity to develop/practice critical thinking skills by generating their own answers.  Also, they suggest to students that in "real life," questions have right/wrong answers - when in fact answers are almost NEVER wholly right or wholly wrong, and choosing between them requires that students possess the very critical thinking skills that multiple choice tests deny them.
  4. Worshipping at the Alter of Technology.  First it was white boards. Then it was smart boards. Now it's online classes.  I grant that technology is a wonderful thing, but there's a reason it took a $10M computer to compete with humans on Jeopardy.  Technology alone simply cannot replicate the critical thinking or the give/take of human interaction which is modality in which about 90% of us learn best. 
  5. Business Models Can Fix That.  Am not saying that there aren't some business principles that can, and probably should, be applied to education. Just saying that anyone who thinks the "magic bullet" to improve schools rests in the pages of the Harvard Business School Annals is at best naive, at worst dangerous.  Here are some of the reasons why:
    1. Businesses can choose the raw materials they use. Schools have to mold their product from the raw materials (students) they are given.
    2. Business processes can be standardized. Humans learning can't be standardized.
    3. Businesses use money to incent employees.  Schools must rely on students to incent themselves.
    4. Businesses control their own finances.  School finances are doled out at the whim of federal, state, and local agencies
    5. Businesses operate in a relatively free market. Schools are constrained by often onerous regulations (8hrs/day, no summers, no overtime, etc.)
    6. Businesses are run by people who know business.  Schools are run by politicians who often know little/nothing about educational administration.
    7. Businesses have metrics they can use to determine quality/success. Measuring quality of instruction/student "success" is infinitely more difficult.
    8. Businesses can accept a certain amount of loss.  Schools cannot ethically tolerate any loss - not as long as each loss represents a child deprived of the preparation they need to become functional citizens and adults.
  6. The Blame Game.  Just now it's fashionable to assign the blame for what's wrong with education on teachers, implying that somehow "bad teaching" is a recent phenomenon.  Can we not all agree that bad teaching has been around for decades? Here's what hasn't been around for decades: drugs, single parent households, technology distractors (internet/phones/DVDs/etc.), ADHD, universal educational mandates .... just to name a few. At the cost of repeating myself, until we start correctly identifying the problem, we sabotage all efforts to identify effective solutions.  (For a more in-depth discussion of why teachers aren't the ones to blame, check out my blog post on this topic.)
  7. State Funding of Education.  As long as state tax dollars provide the main funding for education - putting schools in competition with health care, pensions, and pay raises - there will always be built-in disincentives to provide adequate funding for schools.  How is it fair (or effective) that the quality of education a student receives depends on the state they happen to reside in?
Feeling hopeless?  Believe it or not, that's not my intention.  But what I do hope is that, after reading this list, citizens will think twice about the next politician or reformer who comes along claiming they possess the "solution" to what's wrong with education.  If you believe that, then I have some nice snake oil you might be interested in ... because there is nothing simple about what it's going to take to implement the reforms necessary to "fix" what's really wrong with our current educational system.

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