How to achieve true educational transformation


We seem to be more concerned with kids having to learn something within a specific period of time rather than having them learn it, whenever. Is it a race? Is the goal to have every child master the entire curriculum by the time they are 18—and if not, we brand them as failures? What if we changed the paradigm so that the important element is mastery before moving on to the next level, and we eliminate the time factor?

School districts are required to report the number of students who graduate from high school in four years. What if they need five years, or six years, which many of our students do? The normal distribution curve would suggest that approximately the same number of students would achieve mastery ahead of time as the number of students who require more time. Following a mastery model would allow our higher-achieving students to graduate early and our students with greater needs to take the additional time they require. The dollars should even out, but the best part is that no child will be left behind.

Speaking of dollars, I come across many people who get angry when we bring up poverty as a factor affecting education. The charge is that we are using poverty as an excuse for poor academic performance. Poverty is a reality, not an excuse. If money doesn’t make a difference, then why do wealthy parents spend the equivalent of one year’s tuition in an Ivy League institution to send their child to first grade at a private school?  Small class sizes, individualized attention, resources galore, and a conducive learning environment are what money buys—and they’re why the most recent Gallup Poll also indicates that most Americans believe private schools provide the best education.

For years, correlating NAEP scores with the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch has shown that schools with a high concentration of poverty score significantly lower than schools with a lower concentration of poverty. Furthermore, children not on free and reduced lunch also are negatively affected. Conclusion: Poverty does make a difference—and it affects all students.

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We also seem to be enamored with the notion that every child should go to college. Every child should have the opportunity to go to college, but not every child wants to or needs to. With one-third of our students dropping out of high school, we are not doing enough to motivate a substantial population of our students to stay in school and learn a skill that matches their interest and would keep them gainfully employed. We talk about preparing our students to be college and career ready, but it is not clear what “career ready” implies.

At the high school level, vocational education students unfortunately are regarded as second class, and the federal government and the business community must do more to change that image. In recent years, administrations at the federal level have been intent on doing away with the primary source of federal funding for vocational education, the Perkins grants. We ignore the success many of our European allies have had with apprenticeship programs attended by 60 percent of their secondary students, leading to kids staying in school and learning skills that make youth unemployment rates significantly lower than ours. We need auto mechanics and engineers. They are both vital to our nation’s economy, and one should not be regarded as superior to the other.

With these points in mind—and a commitment to funding preschool programs, considering they provide the best return on the investment of education dollars—we could well be on our way to true educational transformation.

Dan Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

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