There are very few things that I know for sure. But this I know...
Education is not a finite process. It is not initiated at the morning bell and terminated at dismissal. It does not begin after Labor Day and end in June. And it most definitely does not start on the first day of Kindergarten and end on graduation day. Perhaps most importantly, it does not begin in 3rd grade (or whenever your state begins state assessments) and it should not end after testing is completed in March.
Unfortunately, our current education system focuses on a goal being achieved, a test being passed and getting the "right" answer.
How do we improve the education system?
There are several foundational blocks necessary to build lifelong learning. These are not new ideas - there are MULTITUDES of research to support these.
1. Learning must be relevant. If we learn skills because we NEED them to do something that matters to us, then we remember them. For example, students working on measuring and calculating the area of a plot of land in which they will be growing a garden to provide vegetables for class snacks are going to care about the formula for calculating area. In fact, they will probably be able to derive the formula. Textbooks, while an "easy fix" are very ineffective, especially if the textbook is the primary (or exclusive) source of information and work provided to the students.
2. Extrinsic rewards that are offered for activities that people enjoy doing tend to decrease motivation. In other words, if children love to read and we start giving them stickers or stars or "A's" for reading 30 minutes each day, they will be likely to eventually read less often and derive less pleasure from reading. Rewards should be reserved for use when they are needed - to motivate people to do things they don't enjoy. In addition, learning associated with grades becomes learning for the grade, not for the knowledge. There are MANY students who graduate college with honors but cannot remember the content they learned once the test is completed or access their learning in practical applications on the job.
3. We are more brilliant and can achieve greater success when we learn to work together with others. Collaborative learning environments encourage students to listen to others, to think for themselves and to explain their thinking processes. Once they leave school, it will be much more important that students can work collaboratively and yet our education system insists upon testing them individually and encourages them to compete rather than collaborate. To add insult to injury, states are now being required to build competition among teachers. Now more than ever they need to be working together as a team to help all students, but their meager income depends upon them beating their colleagues. This contradicts everything that schools should be about.
4. Incorporating movement and thinking makes learning easier and more permanent. Simple gestures associated with concepts help us to access information even if we have not used it for years. Concepts as simple as "long" and "short" can be shown on paper - but holding an object that is longer than a child's arms can reach and comparing it to a similar object that the child can hold between finger and thumb allows them to experience long and short. Allowing students to experience higher level concepts such as quantities in the billions, squaring a binomial, or the length of a light year will provide a deeper level of understanding and a lasting impression.
5 .Students will thrive when they have some choices about their work and when they feel some control over their learning. Most teachers lecture, assign work, and label student work (turned in on time) as acceptable or unacceptable. Unfortunately those teachers will get a very different level of effort and success from their students than teachers who ask questions, encourage research and discussion, prefer students to create their own original project ideas, require the students to identify their own strengths & weaknesses, and will accept nothing less than the student's best work (no matter how long it takes). In a system as huge as our public schools, there is need for a curriculum. Allowing students some choice and control in deciding how to demonstrate their learning while encouraging an awareness of their own thinking processes will develop self-discipline and motivation.
6. Students who feel connected to classmates and teachers are much more likely to persevere. If there is one quality that is most associated with student success, it would have to be perseverance. There are countless examples of high school students who skip most classes, but come every day for the one class in which they feel the teacher cares about them. Teachers who take the time to get to know students can communicate with them even in times of distress and end up teaching valuable lessons in self-respect and persistence. The lack of this necessary connection is painfully evident in the fact that schools across the country have resorted to paying students for good attendance and good grades (refer to number 2).
7. If we believe they can or we believe they can't we are probably right. Teacher expectations will usually be fulfilled by their students. If teachers KNOW that their students are capable of achieving far above and beyond the state learning objectives, their students will learn the skills, but will also develop motivation to learn and will begin to expect more from themselves. If there is one way that NCLB has benefitted public schools, it is in the refusal to accept the attitude that some students are not worth our time, money and effort. This long-held belief allowed teachers and administrators the choice to give up on students because they had learning differences, physical difficulties, racial or ethnic differences, or simply were square pegs who did not learn in our assembly-line school systems. If we believe they can all succeed, we will find a way to help each and every child to learn, even if it means looking outside of the textbooks, even if it means bending over backward to get their attention.
So, how do we improve our education system?
It will require a shift in our educational philosophy. We can begin by going back to the reasons why NCLB was originated. The intention was to create basic expectations for learning at each grade level.
First we need to establish a FEW basic necessities for students to know in each subject area at each grade level. In some states the number of specific learning goals is greater than there are days in school.
Next we must create a culture of high expectations and value COLLABORATION over competition. The place for competition is on athletic fields, not in classrooms. Students who collaborate will learn more, enjoy learning and welcome new challenges.
Finally we must make learning RELEVANT. Projects and performance assessments provide real learning - students remember the concepts because the context matters to them. Multiple choice tests encourage temporary memorization, not mastery.
My children deserve better. If parents knew the educational possibilities, they would not tolerate the antiquated systems and strategies to which their children are subjected in public schools.
Should we have high standards? Certainly.
Should we hold teachers accountable? Absolutely.
BUT we must also hold students and parents accountable.
We must have realistic expectations for ALL students to learn.
We must refuse to allow any child to fail.
We must focus on thinking and learning, not memorizing and regurgitating.
We must VALUE education over high scores. Anyone can produce high scores.