Rethinking Secondary Education

Everyone is aware that our public system of education, especially at the secondary level, is failing. To function well, our system of government requires an educated and intelligent populace. When 40 percent of our children are unable to successfully complete a high school education, the failure becomes a national crisis marked by high unemployment and growth of a welfare state. Here is a proposal for an entirely different method of delivering an education.

As a once-hopeful high school science teacher, I discovered that the primary cause of school failure (at least where I practiced) was the high percentage of students in school who had no interest in learning, no respect for teachers, and no intention to graduate. For various reasons, traditional education did not relate to their lives in any useful way. Many of them were simply putting in seat time until they could legally drop out at the age of 16.

Clearly, the issue was lack of motivation (which is another long subject) from many of my students. Meanwhile, professional educators tell us the problem is a lack of sufficient funding for good school facilities and good teachers. Attempts to revive failing schools invariably result in creation of a commission to study the problem followed by a recommendation to upgrade the building and facilities and to hire more teachers. It may also include new schemes to promote successful teachers and eliminate unsuccessful ones. These expensive efforts have had limited success. What are we missing? Is it that no one has bothered to ask the students themselves what they want from an education?

Our school system was designed many decades -- well over century -- ago, much of it before high school was invented and when college was for only a very few. While adequate for the elementary grades (for which it was designed), it does not work well for the upper grades. It did not expand effectively as the nation grew and our goals changed. It is time to redesign it with no preconceived notions except to meet the needs of the students and the society they must live in.

These are the issues as I imagine them: education must be relevant for every student (algebra doesn't interest a boy who doesn't know if there will be a sober parent at home to fix dinner at the end of the day); it must provide security where none is present (that is, a means for a sixteen-year-old to survive, often without a parent); and it must provide a clear path for success (that is, a useful job skill after schooling ends). From a teacher's perspective, it must remove uninterested and disruptive students from the classroom, and it must give them the setting to teach at the student's level and at the student's learning pace.

Trying to think outside the box, I came up with the following system modeled after the Boy Scouts of America programs. Scouts earn advancement by satisfying their Scout Master in that they understand and can demonstrate a set of skills or achievements. For example, a boy may need to demonstrate how to lay a fire three different ways and explain under what circumstances each is most useful. To earn a merit badge or advance to the next rank, he would have a prescribed list of such knowledge elements, each of which must be demonstrated to the leader's satisfaction. Scouts may complete the skill or knowledge elements in any order at any time, and if they fail the examination, they may repeat it as often as necessary to pass.

A similar modular education system would operate as follows: first, it is necessary to remove the disaffected children from the classroom -- in today's schools, they simply disrupt all attempts to teach. Upon completion of the eighth grade they will choose either a college preparatory or vocational school. Those seeking an early out will be enrolled in work-study programs of their choice at the vocational school. They would attend concentrated classes for half the school year in such areas as construction, auto mechanics, business operations, personal finance, etc. The other half of the year, they would work as paid apprentices in their chosen field. Upon completion of the two-year program, they would be skilled workers and already have money in the bank.

The college preparatory schools would be restructured to teach by modules (the vocational schools could be similarly designed). For each grade level, a curriculum would be established identifying the subjects to be mastered to complete that grade. These might include fifteen to twenty topics each for math, science, history, language arts, fine arts, etc. Students would choose a topic module (e.g., beginning algebra: how to solve an equation), attend the classes, take a test (which might be written or oral), and have that module signed off by the teacher. Modules may be taken in any order, and students need not attend class to have a skill signed off; that is, they may study on their own or test on prior experience. Once all requirements for a grade were completed, the student would be awarded a diploma for that grade. Students would no longer achieve "high school graduation," but would be a graduate of the grade completed with a diploma for each level of achievement. Dropouts would no longer exist because every student would be a diploma-holding graduate of the last grade he/she completed successfully.

These are the advantages of such a system. There would be no association between a student's age and his level of advancement. First, the system would allow students to advance as rapidly or as slowly as they wish. Thus, a teacher might have students of all ages and mental abilities in class. After the age of 16, students would be free to drop out if they wish. They would also be free to drop back in at any age when they are ready to continue their education. This would apply to both the college preparatory schools and the vocational schools, and students would be free to switch between the two so long as progress is being made. Progress is modular and recorded and does not expire, and diplomas are awarded at each level of achievement.

Second, every student in class is there because he or she has chosen the class, wants to be there, and wants to learn. Mainstreaming, or the mixing of slow learners with fast learners, is not an issue. Fast learners are no longer held back to sit in boredom in slow-moving classes. There is no pressure for slower learners to finish at a preset time. Disruptive students are gone. Each student's style and pace of learning is controlled by himself. Success is defined by each student for himself, and appropriate diplomas are earned for each level of achievement.

This system will work because it is student-centered rather than teacher-centered. It meets the needs of each student individually, because each one designs his own curriculum and pace of learning. Just as every Boy Scout feels successful -- whether he is a Tenderfoot Scout or an Eagle Scout, or whether he has earned one merit badge or sixty -- so every student will be successful.
Everyone is aware that our public system of education, especially at the secondary level, is failing. To function well, our system of government requires an educated and intelligent populace. When 40 percent of our children are unable to successfully complete a high school education, the failure becomes a national crisis marked by high unemployment and growth of a welfare state. Here is a proposal for an entirely different method of delivering an education.

As a once-hopeful high school science teacher, I discovered that the primary cause of school failure (at least where I practiced) was the high percentage of students in school who had no interest in learning, no respect for teachers, and no intention to graduate. For various reasons, traditional education did not relate to their lives in any useful way. Many of them were simply putting in seat time until they could legally drop out at the age of 16.

Clearly, the issue was lack of motivation (which is another long subject) from many of my students. Meanwhile, professional educators tell us the problem is a lack of sufficient funding for good school facilities and good teachers. Attempts to revive failing schools invariably result in creation of a commission to study the problem followed by a recommendation to upgrade the building and facilities and to hire more teachers. It may also include new schemes to promote successful teachers and eliminate unsuccessful ones. These expensive efforts have had limited success. What are we missing? Is it that no one has bothered to ask the students themselves what they want from an education?

Our school system was designed many decades -- well over century -- ago, much of it before high school was invented and when college was for only a very few. While adequate for the elementary grades (for which it was designed), it does not work well for the upper grades. It did not expand effectively as the nation grew and our goals changed. It is time to redesign it with no preconceived notions except to meet the needs of the students and the society they must live in.

These are the issues as I imagine them: education must be relevant for every student (algebra doesn't interest a boy who doesn't know if there will be a sober parent at home to fix dinner at the end of the day); it must provide security where none is present (that is, a means for a sixteen-year-old to survive, often without a parent); and it must provide a clear path for success (that is, a useful job skill after schooling ends). From a teacher's perspective, it must remove uninterested and disruptive students from the classroom, and it must give them the setting to teach at the student's level and at the student's learning pace.

Trying to think outside the box, I came up with the following system modeled after the Boy Scouts of America programs. Scouts earn advancement by satisfying their Scout Master in that they understand and can demonstrate a set of skills or achievements. For example, a boy may need to demonstrate how to lay a fire three different ways and explain under what circumstances each is most useful. To earn a merit badge or advance to the next rank, he would have a prescribed list of such knowledge elements, each of which must be demonstrated to the leader's satisfaction. Scouts may complete the skill or knowledge elements in any order at any time, and if they fail the examination, they may repeat it as often as necessary to pass.

A similar modular education system would operate as follows: first, it is necessary to remove the disaffected children from the classroom -- in today's schools, they simply disrupt all attempts to teach. Upon completion of the eighth grade they will choose either a college preparatory or vocational school. Those seeking an early out will be enrolled in work-study programs of their choice at the vocational school. They would attend concentrated classes for half the school year in such areas as construction, auto mechanics, business operations, personal finance, etc. The other half of the year, they would work as paid apprentices in their chosen field. Upon completion of the two-year program, they would be skilled workers and already have money in the bank.

The college preparatory schools would be restructured to teach by modules (the vocational schools could be similarly designed). For each grade level, a curriculum would be established identifying the subjects to be mastered to complete that grade. These might include fifteen to twenty topics each for math, science, history, language arts, fine arts, etc. Students would choose a topic module (e.g., beginning algebra: how to solve an equation), attend the classes, take a test (which might be written or oral), and have that module signed off by the teacher. Modules may be taken in any order, and students need not attend class to have a skill signed off; that is, they may study on their own or test on prior experience. Once all requirements for a grade were completed, the student would be awarded a diploma for that grade. Students would no longer achieve "high school graduation," but would be a graduate of the grade completed with a diploma for each level of achievement. Dropouts would no longer exist because every student would be a diploma-holding graduate of the last grade he/she completed successfully.

These are the advantages of such a system. There would be no association between a student's age and his level of advancement. First, the system would allow students to advance as rapidly or as slowly as they wish. Thus, a teacher might have students of all ages and mental abilities in class. After the age of 16, students would be free to drop out if they wish. They would also be free to drop back in at any age when they are ready to continue their education. This would apply to both the college preparatory schools and the vocational schools, and students would be free to switch between the two so long as progress is being made. Progress is modular and recorded and does not expire, and diplomas are awarded at each level of achievement.

Second, every student in class is there because he or she has chosen the class, wants to be there, and wants to learn. Mainstreaming, or the mixing of slow learners with fast learners, is not an issue. Fast learners are no longer held back to sit in boredom in slow-moving classes. There is no pressure for slower learners to finish at a preset time. Disruptive students are gone. Each student's style and pace of learning is controlled by himself. Success is defined by each student for himself, and appropriate diplomas are earned for each level of achievement.

This system will work because it is student-centered rather than teacher-centered. It meets the needs of each student individually, because each one designs his own curriculum and pace of learning. Just as every Boy Scout feels successful -- whether he is a Tenderfoot Scout or an Eagle Scout, or whether he has earned one merit badge or sixty -- so every student will be successful.

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