Gary Coker Ph.D
In the early 1980’s the report, “A Nation at Risk”, outlined the many issues facing the educational system of the United States. Legislative bodies throughout the country responded by increasing the annual school calendar from 175 days to 180 days. Other measures included lengthening the school day and a litany of ideas designed to ‘reform’ the educational system. During the next 25 years ‘reform’ became a household word in our educational system. Practically every level of our society has addressed the issue including quadrupling the spending for education. The decline of academic achievement, measured by international testing, has reached a plateau but the United States continues to rank in the lower half of achievement when compared to other developing countries. Notably, all of these countries have a longer school year than the United States. Interest has not lacked for organizations, individuals and groups to offer blame and/or remedies.
The greatest predictor of academic success is engaged learning time. Taking this proven hypothesis, it would stand to reason if we spend less time than other countries engaged in the learning process our students will achieve less. You only have to read the sections addressing education in Thomas Friedman’s book ‘The World is Flat’ to realize the tremendous challenges facing the students enrolled in today’s schools. Bill Gates said, “The educational system in the United States is obsolete.” I hasten to add the present educational system has served us well. Given the changing nature of society, it has merely been taxed beyond its ability to deliver or arrive at the desired destination. The same can be said for pouring more money into a system that is incapable of meeting students’ needs.
Reform must be true reform, a challenge—a new delivery system. We must realize success is not something parachuted from the outside by some legislative body or something done ‘to you,’ but rather a conscious change from within. If we want our students to function in a global economy, where the world is flat, we simply must willingly accept responsibility for everything that occurs in our schools. That process begins with a change in the school calendar. We definitely do not need to take a vacation from the challenges before us but rather begin to change our school culture to reflect the needs of our society. A more realistic approach would be to lengthen the school year into a trimester system.
A true trimester system is not the same as the year round schools where the existing calendar is stretched to fill a calendar year, but rather additional engaged learning time—the United States has the lowest number of school days of all the developing countries. A system with three equal semesters would require students to select two semesters with a third semester based upon specific needs of students. The third semester would be available and required of students in need of remedial or tutorial services. It would also serve as an opportunity for an innovative approach to cooperative and experiential education. Students would not “chill or hang out” for three months each year but rather be engaged in learning and that learning would enhance who they are and how they are created. With this new approach the existing model would be replaced with a school system where a continuum of services ranging from highly independent open access curriculum to a structured program where students’ behavioral and academic outcomes determine their choices.
Grades kindergarten through seven are designed for students to master skills in basic education. It would be interesting to have all eighth graders accessed as to their personality and neurological ‘bent’ with a series of exploratory courses offered during the ninth grade which allowed students to explore their interest and passion. From these exploratory courses a series of academies would offer each student the opportunity for in-depth study and practical experience prior to leaving high school. It would also add to the curriculum if each student had to have a least one semester working in the community under the supervision of an adult. This type of thinking must be embraced as it becomes increasingly evident the existing system no longer meets the needs of the students served. In the years ahead, we can expect our educational system to evolve from its current focus on time, teaching, and formal classrooms to an emphasis on outcomes, learning, and education in an out of school. The introduction of the virtual classroom as evidence by Khan Academy allows mastery learning to occur for most children. It should be inexcusable in today’s society for a child to be behind their grade level unless there are extenuating circumstances.
Finally, there is an area that immediately brings anger and alienates groups and individuals. However it must be addressed. A major issue with today’s youth in this post -modernistic society is the lack of a true moral compass. The Judeo-Christian cornerstone of our society has been misplaced and nears destruction. The sinister influence is the state-sponsored school. Recently the news media has fretted about the possibility of nationalized banks, nationalized auto manufacturers, nationalized health care, nationalized energy producers, nationalized radio networks and more recently nationalized pre-school. We long ago nationalized the educational systems that shape the worldview of 90 percent of all Americans. What if we said good-by to statist education and produced a more educated public at the same time? What if every child could be educated in the school of their choice and save the local citizen and government thousands of dollars. The data is present and programs easily implemented. It would be quite easy to have every school be a ‘charter school’ meeting the needs of a state framework but with the freedom to plan programs, develop character and plan for the future with assurance. It is ironic that education is one of the areas in our free society where I have no choices. Would it not be great if I could choose a school where my faith and values and a biblical world view was incorporated.
In a short opinion article, space does not allow for the elaboration necessary to develop the full range of ideas. Let it suffice to say there is enough evidence and research that supports the fact we have tried most of the existing alternatives and the present system is not meeting the needs of today’s youth. It’s time to try a new system, and remember– quality is free.