Make learning constant in today’s schools

Today, in most schools, learning is a variable and time is the constant.

Today, in most schools, learning is the variable and method is the constant.

Think about it.

We enforce time and methods as constants and settle for whatever we happen to get when it comes to learning.

If we are to improve student learning, we must set high levels of learning as the inviolable constant with time and method as the variables. This is nothing new. I first heard it from Dr. Larry Lezotte early in my career. So did most other educators. Yet there is a dogged persistence to continually doing business as usual even as we fall farther behind much of the rest of the world. They listened to Larry. We have not.

Our current industrial/factory method of operating schools has changed little in most of our lifetimes. A time traveler from fifty or a hundred years ago would find more similarities than differences in how we conduct school. Never mind that virtually nothing else has remained as staid and fixed in time.

We still base student instruction on clock hours, seat time and numbers of days in a school year that was codified at a time when over half the nation worked on farms. Though we claim to provide individualized and differentiated instruction, we still manage to graduate nearly everyone at about age 18 and on the same day. Some escape early through the exit doors as dropouts. Others are expelled. Still others are finished with high school before high school is finished with them and simply ossify until graduation.

Among those who make it to graduation, at least a third are functionally illiterate in the new economy. Two out of every three who go on to a two-year or four-year college will have to take remedial courses in at least math and language arts and will need five or more years to finish, if they ever do. Real SAT and ACT test scores have fallen or remain stagnant in most schools. Fewer boys than girls are now going on to higher education and both are taking longer to finish. Despite the world demand for technically trained graduates, our sons and daughters are increasingly shying away from math, science and the technologies while opting for “softer” curricula.

Through the mechanism of the H1B visa bill, we continue our unabated annual importation of tens of thousands of people with technical skill from outside the United States. We cannot meet the demand internally, even though many of these same foreign nationals are trained at our own universities and technical schools to do jobs for which many of our own students refuse to prepare themselves.

Other nations understand that higher level learning and training are the road to economic gain, and gain on us they are. India, for instance, has the equivalent of 13 or our MITs.

They are producing huge numbers of highly skilled professionals and the number is growing daily.

Much of the rest of the world is doing the same and their students learn on a year-round basis, not just for part of the year.

If we are to compete, our schools must significantly improve student performance by setting higher learning standards for all students, and committing the quality, targeted time necessary for each to achieve at high levels.

Parents, too, must insist that their children pursue robust educational goals to match the requirements of the 21st century economy. Our schools and teachers are prepared to teach; many families simply refuse to get their children ready to learn or even compel them to behave in a manner conducive to robust learning.

While providing a happy group of more than three-hundred high school seniors with a diploma and a handshake last year, I knew that about a third had wasted their last year or two in high school and should have moved on to bigger and better things earlier.

They should have had a two-year degree or a couple of years of college under their belts, rather than just a high school diploma by age 18.

For another one-third or so, things were about right and they would be going on to a traditional and typical trajectory of post high school pursuits..nothing wrong with that.

Another third of the graduates had been moved up through the grades on the way to graduation having consumed a much lighter version of the curriculum, were facing limited post-secondary opportunities and should have been staying on for another year or two, or even three.

Although annual commencements are an important part of Americana, we are beyond the time when we should force virtually all students to speed up, slow down or just plain hang on in order to go through the same portal at the same time and at the same age.

We owe it to ourselves as a nation and to them as students.

Commencement should still be once a year, but graduation should be available to those who earn it when they earn itvirtually every day of the year.

Editor’s Note: Terry Wallace is a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University and a native of Bellaire, Ohio.