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Education in Michigan: When you are riding a horse and it dies


The Next Idea

For more than a century and a half, our education system has been designed around a model that prioritizes the standard delivery of instructional content and persistently focuses on what should be “covered."  This model may have served the needs of public education through the first half of the 20th century, but not today.

Here is just one example:  Halfway through the year, a veteran third-grade teacher prepares to move on to the next math lesson. The pressure of the state assessment looms. Looking around her classroom, she can easily identify which students love math. There are only a few; the others don’t get it. Her district has adopted a math program that allows no room for variance. Every student gets the same lesson on the same day, even when some lack basic number sense. Don’t slow down, the teacher is told. In a few months the expertly-designed math curriculum will come around and cover the same material again, so if kids don’t understand it now, just keep going. Teaching math used to be fun, but not anymore. 

In the 21st century, good teachers are being asked to use this curriculum-driven instructional model that treats kids as if they were learning on an assembly line. Covering way too much content at an unreasonable rate, with rigid pacing that makes it impossible to shape instruction to meet the individual needs of students, the system is breaking down. 

In spite of teaching to the test, our children are not doing better on international comparisons. Good teachers are discouraged. Many of the best and brightest college students cannot imagine subjecting themselves to working in such a broken system. State and national legislators fiddle mindlessly with our schools, adding layers of regulation that confuse and befuddle both educators and parents. This is unsustainable.

How We Got Our System  

The systems design for American public schools was significantly influenced by the work of Horace Mann.  As the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, he traveled to Europe in 1843 to study the education systems of the time. After his travels through Europe, he supported adoption of the Prussian education system, which emphasized the development of reading, writing, arithmetic, ethics, duty, discipline, and obedience in grades 1-8.  In each of the grades there was a standard expectation for the content to be covered, and most students were not expected to complete all eight grades.  Only a very small group of affluent children advanced beyond the last year. 

Implemented across the nation, this model was a success; it did what it was designed to do. Large numbers of students had a little bit of learning in math and reading. Staying in school, becoming highly literate, developing higher math skills, and developing scientific or technical skills were not expected or needed. A strong back and a good work ethic were enough to build a life in those days.

When learning outcomes are important, we help our kids learn each crucial skill, one step at a time, without hurrying, without giving lousy grades, and only moving on to higher levels of difficulty when they are ready.

As the world has changed, and the skills and habits needed for economic and social success have changed, our schools have clung to the same basic education model: cover, test, and sort. We tweaked with the system by adding more content, as concern grew that we were not meeting the needs of our children, and we have been asking teachers to cover more, faster, and with younger children ever since. 

We became the curriculum-driven system on steroids, blazing through material in the name of rigor.  Try harder, we told our children and their teachers.  When that did not work, we started testing kids more and giving grades to schools.  When that did not work, we started rating teachers. In some school districts, the pressure was enough to encourage teachers and administrators to fudge the test results.  In many states -- including Michigan -- officials manipulated test scores to make it appear that progress was being made.  

So what's the Next Idea?

There is an alternative to curriculum-driven, one-size-fits-all instruction.  Every parent who has ever taught a child to ride a bike or drive a car already understands it.  When learning outcomes are important, we help our kids learn each crucial skill, one step at a time, without hurrying, without giving lousy grades, and only moving on to higher levels of difficulty when they are ready.  We break down the learning process into steps, helping our kids find success at every step and making the process of learning joyful. 

Competency-based learning is standard practice in pilot training, medical training, and most technical training.  It is the instructional model for the Khan Academy, most digital learning systems, and some online universities.  Video game designers use the principles of competency-based learning to keep users engaged.

These principles are quite basic: 

  •  Set meaningful and clear goals.
  •  Assess student skills and readiness.
  •  Offer instruction at the student’s readiness level.
  •  Monitor progress and adjust instruction until these skills and objectives are deeply understood, giving learners all the time needed to build competency.
  • Allow students to move on to more advanced learning as soon as they are ready.

Changing from a curriculum-driven to a competency-based model is challenging, much like redesigning an airplane while it’s still flying through the air.  But education and community leaders around the nation are stepping up to the task.  The New Hampshire State Board of Education has established competency standards for high school graduation designed to replace traditional grades and courses.  In Alaska, the ChugachSchool Districtwas given the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for its development and use of a K-12 competency framework. In Michigan and Mississippi there are preschools and elementary schools using a simple competency framework to build the foundation skills needed for long-term learning success.  In many parts of our country, a business alliance with local high schools and community colleges helps students develop the competencies needed for high skill, high wage jobs. 

Michigan can make a choice. Starting with the end in mind, we could establish clear guidelines for high school graduation that are based on competency rather than seat-time, and then build a backward chain of steps along the path to these competencies. 

Or our state could adopt a framework of competencies that establish the foundation of early learning success, including preschool through third grade.  With either choice comes an enormous commitment to retraining teachers and working with parents.  

Or we could hunker down with the curriculum-driven system we know: add more frequent testing for our kids, evaluate teachers harder, up the content expectations and pacing guides, add a few more complex bureaucratic regulations, and require additional school reports.  And in doing so, watch our state and our nation drift further away from learning success and a love of learning. 

It is time to smell the horse. It’s been dead awhile now.

Bob Sornson is the founder and president of the Early Learning Foundation based in Brighton. He is also an author, speaker and former Michigan school administrator. 

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