We Need to Stop Educating our Children as if They are the ‘Stem Cells’ of the Body Politic

By: Dwight Owen Schweitzer

The system of public education in the United States was designed before the founding of the Republic and in many ways, at least structurally; has not changed much since. It was, after all, at a time when most Americans never traveled more than 25 miles from where they lived during their entire lives and local control of education was not a choice, it was a necessity.

The legacy of that system that resonates most today is in the sad fact that of the thousands of school districts that exist throughout the country it is not hard to find huge disparities between them. In one, all the students have text books, access to computers, specialized programs and support services located next to another where the children share text books so they cannot take them home, have little access to computers and support services with larger class sizes, fewer class choices and lower paid teachers. We have standardized testing when we do not have standardized students.

Were this disparity not bad enough, there is superimposed on that inequality, the patina of equality by offering them a basic subject matter curriculum that finds it’s rational in the concept that all children are created equal with some minor accommodations being made in some districts for the gifted and those with disabilities. Unfortunately the mandate of the Federally imposed but unfunded Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (‘IDEA’) whose chief legacy has been better at demonstrating the government’s ability to create acronym’s than to foster real change as it is honored mostly in the breach. In the process thousands of children have been ‘left behind’. To that historical emphasis on teaching the 3 ‘R’s, came the imposition of the standardized testing to insure that ‘no (is) child left behind’ which, if put to the test, can be shown that the result has been a whole generation of students being left behind. Statistics validate the generally accepted truth that something is fundamentally wrong with how we chose to educate our children when compared with their peers in an increasing number of countries whose children rank higher than ours. Admittedly experiments have and are being tried to bring greater flexibility to the process, notably the creation of Charter Schools allowing new ideas to be brought to the choice of curriculum and learning method diversity.

The educational establishment is coming to realize that, overall, the present system is failing not only our children but our teachers as well. Our dropout rates are increasing, teacher dissatisfaction is widespread and there is no clear vision of which of the increasing number of band aids works best at a time when our students rank among the lowest in achievement in the civilized world. The greatest educational failure of recent times is the legacy of ‘no child left behind’ with its emphasis on instilling measurable proficiency in reading, math, and science with the result that teachers, ever more concerned with the effects on them of their students ‘falling behind’ their peers in the results of standardized tests, spend more and more time on those subjects at the expense of subject matter that they are not tested on such as history, geography, social studies, civics, art, and music.

In order to get a sense of the depth of the flaws in the system of how we educate our children, ask yourself this simple question. Of the things that you were required to learn in grades 1 through 12, how many of them have you used since? Let’s take a basic list: Algebra, geometry, chemistry, physics, a foreign language, (at the risk of being thought of as politically incorrect lets omit Spanish from the list). I suggest that the chances are good that most people would reply that, at least as to most of them, the answer is none, and this at a time when they project that technical information is doubling in months when not so long ago it took years.

Now factor into the mix, the ability of computers to solve problems and disgorge information that ‘PC’ (‘pre-computer’) we had to solve for ourselves, and in ways that were much more time consuming.  Even today, in an educational context, computers are seen as offering students support for the curriculum rather than offering them an ability to replace it. This, despite the fact that students now can, and often do, have access to two ‘brains’ 24/7 and one ought not have to do the tasks or learn the lessons more easily done or already known by the other, absent a demonstrative need to do so. I say need to do so because while a computer can tell a student what to think it cannot teach him or her how to think. Make no mistake gaining the skill of how to think is more valuable than ever before as the world of ideas is becoming increasing more complex. The capability to analyze and distill the needed information from the primordial soup of an expanding universe of data we are increasingly besieged with is infinitely more valuable than learning what to think. ‘How to think’ is simply the mental process of distilling ‘the answer’ between whatever choices are there to beguile and confuse you.

In short, teaching a child how to use his computer to find the right answer that his computer can give quicker and with greater accuracy, will offer our children the time and resources to study the things a computer cannot do for them. Education would then build on the synergy between two different types of ‘brains’ working in tandem so that to the greatest degree possible neither does a task more easily and economically done by the other. Creating that synergy brings me to the fundamental premise of how to design an educational model that takes into account the realities of the world we now live in. A system that prepares and empowers our children to better cope with the world they will be confronted with in the future. A future, I suggest, that will be at least as different from today as today was from the world that existed a generation ago.

What is needed is not evolutionary change but revolutionary change. The process begins by accepting that each child is quite literally unique and not an educational fungible anchored in the premise that one size fits all. Rather, what is needed is ‘assessment based education’ or ‘ABE’. Virtually everyone knows that while we all have common denominators of personality, capacity, interests, skills, capabilities, deficits and incapacities, the permutations of those make even identical twins unique. It is in how we capitalize on those disparities and in the process empower parents and their children to take charge of their educational experience, that is the focus and the goal of assessment based education. In the process we will prepare our children to the greatest degree we can to make available to them a process that will best position them to be successful in life.

It begins, at the earliest age, with children being tested to first map out their strengths and weaknesses in everything from fine motor skills, to how they process information, in short measuring all the things they bring to the educational table. The net result is to determine those areas where they can, by their inherent capabilities and capacities, be best equipped by their educational experience to be successfully employed in later life. We already have the capacity to do this type of assessment testing, we are doing it for children who have learning disabilities to assess what educational support should be offered them to level the playing field and get the accommodations needed for them to access a meaningful educational experience.

The goal of assessment based education is to offer, not to proscribe, to every student from the earliest age, an idea of what their learning strengths and weaknesses are and as a result are empowered to make their own educational choices that best fit what they ought to learn to most likely prepare them to be successful in life. The first and most fundamental benefit of such a process is that it offers the child the opportunity to design an educational process that invests them with the tools for personal success. They know from the onset those things within themselves that, properly enhanced over the course of their educational experience, however long or short, will best enable them to be ‘all that they can be’. This process is not to be imposed on our children, it is simply part of an ongoing guide for them (along with their parents) to design their own educational path that takes into account their interests, resources and capabilities and gives them a curriculum that is most likely to focus them through an educational system that is meaningful to them and for them from the earliest possible time. Think of it like college where students can pick and choose from a range of educational choices with minimal base requirements chosen simply on the basis of their interests.

This is essentially a process that already exists in varying degrees as children progress through the present system where the range of their choices increases as they progress from grade school through college. The difference, and it is a fundamental one, is that ABE removes the haphazard paths offered today with a much more systematized process that offers them an informed choice of creating a meaningful curriculum for themselves at the earliest possible time in their educational life. If an adolescent had been in an educational environment from an early age that he or she knows is most likely to prepare them to literally make a living at something they are uniquely qualified to do, they now have an investment in their educational experience which is more likely to keep them in school as they literally know why they are there from the earliest possible time.

Assessment Based Education  would also allow teachers to teach in those specialties which they are best capable to teach and are now able to be specialists not generalists at the earliest age of their students. Just imagine a second or third grader whose parents have been given the data suggested by this approach. They can then design a curriculum with the school that takes into account not only their child’s interests, but focuses on developing their inherent skills and coping with their deficits as well. Anecdotal information suggests that we would produce more scientists, more engineers, more technicians and indeed a better and more productive work force by enabling informed parents and children to create a learning environment from the earliest possible time that they know points their child in a direction that is, and will continue to be, truly meaningful to them over the course of their lives. No one argues that we need to teach our children basic coping skills, the need to read, to write, to have an understanding of the theory of mathematics (which is quite different from learning addition, subtraction, division etc. let alone algebra and geometry as requirements not electives.

In sum, by taking each child and offering them an investment in their educational experience, knowing from the earliest possible time that it will prepare them to meet the challenges that the future will offer them, they will be more likely to stay in school and succeed there. There is a societal benefit as well. It is not just a matter of having a better educated work force, it is also the heightened ability to focus scarce resources on those who will benefit the most from them because they receive them by informed choice, not mandated enforcement. Yes, it will likely place the less gifted together but it will also be by choice and the competition is with themselves and not their peers. Our children will then be graded by what they have achieved in relation to the goals they have set for themselves; a system that motivates our children, not frustrates them, as we presently do by placing them in an educational system that they increasingly see as irrelevant to their achieving meaningful success in their future lives.