Shamefully little was said during the endless presidential election season about the biggest challenge this country faces: our antiquated, fundamentally flawed education system. No matter what the future brings - technological unemployment, terrorism, global warming - the survival of our democracy depends upon an educated citizenry.
This week, Donald Trump’s proposed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, will face the Senate for her confirmation hearing. DeVos is the most prominent face of the proponents of school choice who dominate the new administration, and who are proposing extending and creating more voucher-like programs and increasing the number of charter schools.
But putting all their eggs in the school choice basket will not reach the great majority of America’s children, many of whom live in areas where any kind of school choice will never take root. Most of those schools are located in cities because rural areas are not desirable enough to attract the human capital needed to start a charter or independent school.
Here’s the tale of the tape: After 25 years and several billion public and philanthropic dollars, there are approximately 7,000 charter schools in the USA educating an estimated 2.7 million students. And, over the same period, there are 400,000 students on some type of voucher. Yet, every day, over 50 million children attend traditional public schools.
Even if all political barriers and human capital constraints are eliminated and the number of charter schools doubles in half the time, there would be approximately 14,000 of them operating in 2028 serving some 6 million students. But there would still be 47 million children in traditional public schools.
Furthermore, the fact that some children are attending choice schools says nothing about how prepared they are to meet the challenges of the 21st century’s technological revolution. Reforming education along governance and parental choice lines means focusing on the adults. But what is needed is a transformation of the education system that focuses on the learners.
Here is how the system is designed now for most of America’s children: It processes students clustered in age cohorts through a rigidly paced curriculum built around a non-existent average student. Time is the constant while learning is the variable. For example, in the fifth grade, what matters is how long Johnny is taught fractions, not whether he learns them. If he cannot do it in the time allocated by the pacing guide, the teacher is forced to move on, affecting Johnny’s chances to learn algebra. And algebra is the gateway to college.
Today, teachers and students operate in a system that is bureaucratic, top-down and compliance-based. Rules are set by several different layers of the hierarchy and sometimes contradict each other. They stifle creativity and innovation every step of the way. The system rewards those who best comply with it and ignores or even rejects those who do not.
Until the end of the 20th century, the main purpose of education was the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next. In the 21st century, knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. It is now a commodity that resides in the device in your pocket. Just as important is deliberately developing in children the skills and dispositions that will enable them to succeed in changing circumstances. Fortunately, technology now makes it possible to deliver a personalized learning experience for every student that combines the acquisition of knowledge with the ability to evaluate it and apply it.
The most lasting and fundamental “reform” that Betsy DeVos and the new administration should champion is the elimination of the rigid, standardized, one-size-fits-all curriculum and its replacement with competency-based learning.
In this model, students achieve mastery of competencies spelled out in standards that are translated into learning objectives. Mastery is assessed on a continuous basis so that timely and appropriate interventions can be provided as required. In such a system, Johnny will never be penalized for needing an extra week to learn fractions.
When personalized learning becomes the basis for the education system, continuous assessments and improvements will be embedded in the learning experience. The emphasis on compliance essentially disappears because outcomes are self-evident and no credit is given for merely following the rules. Oversight will still be necessary for safety and fiduciary reasons but learning acquires an intrinsic value for the student and the system is designed to encourage that goal every step of the way.
Here’s the good news: Congress just passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and its framework allows states to pilot competency-based learning. The new administration should encourage this trend and add monetary incentives, much like the federal Charter School Grant program, to accelerate the creation of competency-based, learner-centered schools of all kinds. This revolutionary approach will have a much greater impact on the future of America than simply expanding school choice ever could.