System Reform Overdue
By Alex Saitta
August 26, 2014
Iíve talked and written about two challenges facing public education for as long as Iíve been on the school board.
First, the economic situation is more challenging for public schools. Mainly revenue growth has declined and the growth of revenue will remain low for years to come.
Second, and the focus of this write-up, children have become more diverse in terms of their backgrounds and upbringing. Fifty years ago the student population was much more homogenous in the sense most students came from two parent families, were well supervised and guided at home and in their communities, and most all were relatively sound in mind and body, typically went to church, and followed a strict moral code.
Today family structure(s) is more diverse: from those raised in two parent families, to those living with one or without either parents, to those raised by relatives, to those in the DSS system or even being raised by two mommies or two daddies; from those students living in high income households, to those living in households just getting by on government assistance; from being raised by parents who believe in God and religiously attend church, to those who donít believe at all, to new agers who believe things like rocks having positive energy; from those being raised by parents who carefully monitor and teach their children right and wrong, to those totally MIA on teaching lifeís lessons, to those who just plop their children down in front of TV, movies or video games to get their daily moral lessons; from those students with no special education issues to those with physical, mental and/ or behavioral issues. Society is more diverse, hence our children are more diverse in more ways than ever. In big cities such diversity is even more glaring.
Itís The System:
Public school districts have not effectively responded to this widening or growing diversity of the student population. The reason has nothing to do with the caliber of the employees. Nor is it due to insufficient resources. But rather, (and Iíve been saying this for years too) it is due to a flaw in the design of the system and its inability to respond to this change.
The centralized, top-down-ly managed system is too rigid and too inflexible to fully recognize how the environment is changing, and respond to the changing environment in a timely manner and in an effective way.
In South Carolina, 69.6% of 8th graders are at or above grade level in math, and 67.3% of 8th graders are at or above grade level in English. Sixty-five to 70% success rate is not impressive or efficient. On the school grading scale, thatís an ďFĒ or a very low ďDĒ. For whatever reason, beit the system design, beit the breakdown of the family, beit the water we are all drinking, whatever, when less than 70% of the students are ready to take on the required 24 Carnegie units/ credits awaiting them in high school, many of them will not graduate or not graduate on time. So it isnít a surprise the graduation rate in our state is in the 75% range. Thatís not successful.
Author: Whatís The Root Cause?
I recently read most a book entitled, ďSchools Cannot Do It AloneĒ, by Jamie Vollmer. He is a pro-public education advocate that sees the situation for what it is, and is providing solutions to improve it.
Chapter Five is entitled, ďThe Flaw in the SystemĒ. I think he has the overall point, but is off on some of the details.
He writes, Americaís schools were not designed to teach all children to high levels, (which he believes is required today). Going back to Thomas Jefferson he believes the public school system was designed to select and sort students into a small handful of thinkers or learners and a great mass of doers or labors. This learners and labors educational design, with its two-tracks, was the driver in the public school design we still see today according to the author. He believes the design worked through the industrial age where the learners at the top remained the minority and low-skilled labors in mass worked on the factory line.
Today, things have changed, he states, with the decline of manufacturing in our country. Most all employees, at all levels of the company, must learn a high level of skill, and apply what they have learned faster than the competition here and abroad. The author makes the point public schools are struggling to meet this new need of business (that most all must be learners), because the public school system with its two-track design generates few learners and mostly laborers. The author sees this as the primary problem with our education system.
My View: Whatís The Root Cause?
I agree to some degree, but disagree with most of Vollmerís explanation.
With less than 70% of 8th graders at grade level in math and English state-wide, I believe the old design or model no longer works for many students today, as the system is struggling to adapt to changes that are causing the low success rate.
I disagree with the author when it comes to the when, where and how the system design was created.
While the roots of our public school system may got back to Thomas Jefferson, the prevalent design and expansion of most school districts came into their own after World War II. I believe the design we see today is the product of two things: the baby boom and the mass production design.
After the war, a record number of babies were born and it was necessary to educate a ton of new children in the 1950ís, 1960ís, 1970ís and the early 1980ís.
The mass production way of thinking -- economics of scale, homogeneous inputs and standardized output, top-down and centralized management, strict time scheduling ó was born at the turn century in the meat packing business, was sponsored in the 1920ís by Henry Ford in the auto industry and the assembly line was put into nationwide use in the 1940ís during the war. The mass production way of thinking was transferred to budding school districts of the 1950ís and 60ís.
The need was to educate massive numbers of children and the mass production (in vogue at the time) was naturally applied and instilled in school district design.
The result was massive school districts, high plant and equipment costs, centrally controlled and top-down-ly managed with their one size fits all approach. That is the best way to produce as much as you can, as fast as you can, and that was the need of the day because of the baby boom.
When you look closely at the design of the public school system, it drives home my point. Schools operate much like an assembly line with 13 different stations. First, the raw material or student goes into K5 and learns about numbers, letters and learns to read left to right/ top to bottom/ page by page. The student then goes to the next station in the line, 1st grade, where there are a different set of teachers there to teach the basics of adding and subtracting, and recognizing the key features of a sentence like the first word, capitalizing some words and ending punctuation. The student then moves on up to the next station, 2nd grade, and a different set of specialists adhere counting by 5ís, 10ís, 20ís, recognizing basic shapes and teaching basic units of measurement, as well as asking and answering questions of who, what and where concerning text they are reading. Like an assembly line, each year more and more knowledge and skill is added to the student going up the line until they graduate in the 12th grade and roll off to the rest of their life.
Some may get mad about what I just wrote, but the public school system design is very much like the assembly lines of early 20th century with its one track, successive stations, precise scheduling and specialized employees working on only one aspect of the studentís education.
Support For My Viewpoint:
Naturally in any population, there will be different types or groups. The author of the book said there were two major types of students called the learners and labors.
I agree there are different groups of students, in terms of backgrounds, ability, economic class, etc., and something can be gained from that discussion. However, I disagree that is the reason behind the public school system design. I believe the system was designed the way it was because a large number of students needed to be educated (the baby boom), and the mass production model is what the country was embracing at the time.
Supporting my point (without knowing it), the author wrote how the design was greatly influenced Andrew Carnegie (a huge steel manufacturer), and how his foundation formalized the education process with a standardized school day and times just like the mass production of manufacturing. High school credits are called Carnegie units, by the way.
If the authorís theory was correct, and the design came about because of the two types of students, youíd think the design would have had separate tracks or even separate schools for these two types of students. It doesnít. There is generally one track for all students, much like the one line in Fordís early assembly plant.
Why Public School Design Is Struggling Today:
An assembly line works most efficiently/ quickly if only one type or grade of raw material is used and run down the line. If the grade of material is uniform and consistent, it requires less tweaking or extra work at each station to add this or that, and the line turns out a higher percentage of quality product. The idea of standardized production depends on little variation in the raw material being put into the assembly line.
As variation in the grade of raw material increases, the assembly line becomes less efficient and it slows down. If an auto plant uses grade 8 steel for the frames and that is enough to hold the motor, all will go well when the car reaches the motor installation station. If for some reason, grade 5 steel is accidently put into the line, it will slow down the line as the workers at the motor station have to figure out how to reinforce the frame before they load the motor. Once the line adapted to grade 5 steel, if the owners then put in grade 2 steel, more adjustments would have to be made again (more reinforcement) slowing down the line again.
Now picture if the owners ran 20 different grades of steel down the line, one right after another, first grade 8, then grade 12, then grade 2, then grade 5, etc. A lot of adjustments would have to be made, some of the cars will have strong frames, some wonít and have to be reinforced then and there, and some steel frames would just be dropped off the line and never make it to the end because they were just too weak no matter what the workers did.
Now think back to the initial paragraphs above. Where I wrote fifty years ago the student population was much more homogenous relative to day today where student backgrounds are varied and wide ranging.
Hence, my point. There is so much variation in terms of student backgrounds, abilities, effort, etc. going into the ďstandardizedĒ public school system today, the system cannot effectively deal with the variation and efficiently educate all those students. Hence, the completion or graduation rate from the K-12 system is only about 75%.
It is not the fault of the students or the teachers. The standardized, one-size fits all system was not designed for all the variation it is having to deal with today.
In my opinion, the system needs to be reformed, mainly decentralized into a variety of schools with more tailor made approaches of education to meet the needs of the expanding variety of students walking in the front doors.
In Chapter Eight the author stated the system doesnít want to change, and the reason he stated was long held beliefs by the leaders and employees. I disagree.
The reason many are resistant to change is mainly economic. Too many in the system fear they will lose something they have now and depend on ó beit management control, pay levels, benefits or generous work schedules.
I visited AJ Whittenberg in Greenville in May, and many of their teachers stay after school 3 hours a day for 3 days a week helping tutor students who are behind in their coursework. Most employees in the traditional public school system would oppose such an expansion in the schedule. Surely, states with teacher unions would never go for that. For reasons like this, the traditional public school system is resistant to such necessary change and I believe such needed reform is unlikely.
Given that, my fear is if the public education systems doesnít reform on its own and improve its graduation rates to an acceptable level, state legislatures around the nation will step on the gas when it comes to alternatives like virtual schools, charter school and school choice. And this centralized, top-down-ly managed and quite rigid system will not fare well in the face of more competition, competition from schools that are smaller and more fleet of foot when it comes to adapting to the changing/ wider educational needs of students.
The future is challenging to say the least for traditional public school system. Either the system fails to change, and gets eaten up by competition from virtual, charter and private schools. Or the system is more proactive and seeks to evolve in order to boost its graduation rate, but that is going to be a tough go because the leaders and employees will resist such significant change.
This was a prediction when I first said and wrote about this five or six years ago. Today, it is an account of what is slowly unfolding. Charter schools are more decentralized, tailoring the delivery of their lessons and are fleeter of foot to meet the demand of the changing educational environment. Look at the charter school in Six Mile, the YLA. After snow wiped out 5 pre-testing school days, YLA added an hour to their day on 10 days, and added back another two or three school days before testing. I think our county school district day added only 1 day back to the calendar before testing and forgave the rest.
Alternatives will continue to gain ground at the financial expense of traditional public schools unless those school districts take a more proactive approach to boosting graduation rates and meeting the needs of an ever more varied student body.