That’s the thought that crossed my mind last week during a meeting with one of my clients, her parents, and her math teacher. Said client is an otherwise excellent, intelligent student who is floundering in her current math course — and the root of the problem, the guidance counselor and I both agreed, is a weak foundation on the prerequisites. Math now brings a poor girl to tears because she hasn’t been adequately prepared for her current classwork.
Again: There has to be a better way to do this. And by “this,” I’m referring to public education.
This is not going to be a post discussing obstructionist teachers unions, ill-prepared instructors, indoctrination in the classroom, or laughably dumbed-down curricula (all very real problems in many localities). Instead, I’d like to question the concept of grouping kids by age and expecting them to accomplish a one-size-fits-all set of academic objectives in 180 days. High standards and regular testing, I feel, are necessary — but the artificially imposed time-tables are problematic.
The truth is, we are not all born the same. Some kids are poor mathematicians, while others can fly through their grade’s textbook in half the time allotted. Some kids learn to read early and quickly start devouring books written far above “grade level.” Others take more time — and not necessarily because they’re dyslexic. Yes — public schools do have some forms of differentiated instruction, like gifted programs and special reading intervention groups. But in the end, a public school teacher – even if she’s smart and dedicated, as many teachers are – simply can’t provide individualized instruction for every child. Eventually, she’s going to bump up against a state-imposed deadline. Even if she knows that teaching to mastery and repetitive practice are the best approaches to instruction, she can’t wait for every single child in her classroom to “get it.” Ultimately, she will be forced to move on to the next benchmark.
Students, meanwhile, respond to this structure in maladaptive ways. This is midterm week for my county, so once again, I have been reminded of this fact. My teenaged clients are all stuck in short term thinking; the goal is simply to survive from unit test to unit test. Since they’re not really expected to truly master what they’re learning, they don’t — even when I talk myself blue about the need to go over something again if they didn’t get it the first time. Thus, when the rare cumulative exam finally pops up, we inevitably deal with the mad scramble to re-learn everything that was covered months ago — and once again, long-term retention falls by the wayside.
The above discussion is one reason why, if I one day have a family, I am committed to homeschooling my kids through high school. When you homeschool, the only schedule you need to worry about is your child’s. You don’t have to rush. You can stick with a topic until your child is comfortable with it. You can truly teach to mastery.
Of course, not everyone has the time, the inclination, or the confidence to homeschool — and not every student has the internal motivation necessary to make it through an online program on their own. For various reasons, we still need “boxes full of strangers” to serve everyone’s needs effectively. But that doesn’t mean we need to stick to an outdated model in which kids are trained to be obedient little cogs in a 20th century industrial economy that no longer exists. We have the technology now to do better than that.
Why not enlist our teachers in a project to design computer programs with which students can view lectures, complete practice sets, and take tests and quizzes at their own pace? Such programs can be deliberately designed to prevent a student from moving on until he or she hits a predetermined accuracy level (perhaps 100% for things like basic math facts and 85% otherwise). Such programs can also include a cumulative test at the end of every unit — and can repeat a previous topic if a student forgets a concept and consequently drops below the aforementioned mastery line. With such programs, we could transform our “boxes full of strangers” into administration centers in which trained teachers would stand by to keep kids on task, answer questions, conduct labs and grade essay assignments and class discussions (which really can’t be assessed by machine). With such a system, you could still have standards — and high standards at that. For example, a student wouldn’t receive a high school diploma until he or she has successfully completed all the required course work. What you wouldn’t have is the pressure to complete a course in a single year.
I’m sure there are many kinks to iron out before we proceed with the idea above. Still, I thought I’d throw it out there.