How to achieve true educational transformation

“True transformation would be providing each child with a personalized education plan … and recognizing that, thanks to technology, learning can occur anywhere,” Domenech writes.

“Learning Leadership” column, October 2012 edition of eSchool News—With the country approaching national elections, those involved in education wonder how the results might affect the educational landscape. The last four years have deeply affected schools systems, as the economic downturn has caused significant reductions in spending and the Obama administration has used stimulus dollars as the carrot to implement its policy initiatives. Here are some key points that we should bear in mind as we move forward.

In response to the education critics, there is substantial evidence that America’s public schools are the best they have ever been. Our graduation rates are at the highest levels, our dropout rates are at their lowest, NAEP achievement in reading and math is at its highest level, the achievement of minority students is at its highest levels. According to the latest Gallup Poll, parent satisfaction with the school their oldest child attends is at its highest level. The problem is that we are not satisfied with our performance, and we want it to be better.

There is a significant gap in achievement between children of color, children on free or reduced lunch, children who speak English as a second language, and white middle-class children. We have two educational systems: one in wealthy suburban communities that can compete with the rest of the world, and one in the impoverished urban and rural systems that has defined the American public school system as a failure. We want all of our public schools to be the best in the world.

Unfortunately, education is not our No. 1 national priority as it is for many of the countries that outperform us on international tests. Education accounts for barely 4 percent of the federal budget. To be the best, we’ll need transformation—and a much greater federal commitment to level the playing field between the haves and have-nots.

For more news and opinion about school reform, see:

Review: Anti-union movie ‘Won’t Back Down’ is a step backward

Bill Gates: The keys to effective teacher evaluation

Beyond ‘Superman’: Leading Responsible School Reform

To date, reform efforts have merely tweaked the system. They are not transformational. Many reformers are in love with charter schools, but think about it: Charter schools are merely traditional schools that get exemptions from the rules and regulations everybody else has to abide by. If it’s such a good idea, than why not waive the rules and regulations for all schools?

The popular notion to weed out the bad teachers has led to the implementation of evaluation systems that use the same old standardized tests that have been labeled as unreliable and not valid as major criteria in the process. This is an unfortunate development that is proving to be time-consuming and costly and diverts attention from more productive approaches to teacher development. More rules and regulations are being heaped upon the very rules and regulations that stand in the way of transformational change.

True transformation would be providing each child with a personalized education plan; teaching to the standards, not the test; abandoning seat time in favor of performance; doing away with grade levels and the old agrarian calendar; and recognizing that, thanks to today’s technology, learning can occur anywhere.

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.

For more news and opinion about school reform, see:

Review: Anti-union movie ‘Won’t Back Down’ is a step backward

Bill Gates: The keys to effective teacher evaluation

Beyond ‘Superman’: Leading Responsible School Reform

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.

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

Comments are closed.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.