Learning should not be optional

In many of today’s schools, learning is allowed to be optional and variable while time and teaching methods are constant.

Think about it. We enforce time as a constant and settle for whatever we get when it comes to student learning and achievement. We measure school success in promotion and graduation rates, as opposed to what students actually know and can do. We allow many elementary school students to move from grade to grade as functional non-readers, and then wonder why they cannot read well enough to master high school course work.

If we are to improve student learning, we must set high levels of student achievement as the constant with time and teaching methods as the modulated variables necessary to support learning for each student.

This is not a new concept, yet there is a dogged persistence to continue doing business as usual even as we fall farther behind most of the rest of the world.

Our current industrial/factory method of operating schools has changed little in most of our lifetimes. A time traveler from 50 or even 100 years ago would find more similarities than differences in how we conduct school. Never mind that virtually nothing else in our world has remained as staid and fixed in time.

Student instruction is still keyed to clock hours, seat time and numbers of days in the school year. We place and move students based primarily on chronological age rather than achievement.

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 through the exit doors as dropouts. Others are expelled. Our excellent system of career and technical education remains underutilized and very little career counseling and exploration is offered to most students. As a result, most move through school with little or no notion of what they want to do to pursue a career or job.

Among those who graduate, at least a third are functionally illiterate in the new economy. About half of those who go on to a two-year or four-year college will have to take remedial courses in at least math and writing and will need five or more years to finish, if they ever do. Real SAT and ACT test scores remain stagnant. In response, a watered-down SAT is in the offing.

Fewer boys than girls are now going on to complete higher education and both are taking longer to finish. Despite the burgeoning 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 bills, we continue our unabated annual importation of hundreds 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 colleges and universities.

Other nations understand that hard work and higher level learning and training are the pathway to economic gain, and gain they are. They are producing huge numbers of highly skilled professionals and the number is growing.

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

While recently providing a happy group of more than three-hundred high school seniors with a diploma and a handshake, 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 a high school diploma.

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.

About 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, are 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 to allow them to move through the curriculum at their own rates of individual mastery.

Students should progress based on achievement and not solely on time or age. To do otherwise is a disservice to everyone involved.

Commencement should still be once a year, but graduation and upward mobility should be available to those who earn it virtually any day of the year.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Terry Wallace is a member of the graduate faculty at Muskingum University, a signatory of the Boston-based Time to Succeed Coalition and a Senior Fellow at Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia