Toward a more rational public education system

I have been a student far more than most people: it took me 29 years to get through school from first grade to the PhD (with various twists, turns, and interruptions along the way). I also spent ten years teaching music privately, and later, several years homeschooling my two daughters. I often have randomly philosophized on the question of education, and over the years have developed a few ideas and opinions on the subject.

The first main difference between my ideas and the conventional view is over who controls the pace of learning. In the conventional approach, the teacher and school district/department/college control the pace, and the student must keep up, along with all of the other students in his class. Those who work more slowly are lost, and those who work more quickly are bored. I think that a critically important component of a rational educational system is that the student work at his own pace through a structured curriculum.

The second big difference between my approach and the conventional one has to do with what it means to "pass" a course or a grade. The conventional approach is to set a certain average level of performance--generally what is called a "C" grade--and to pass those with C or better averages and fail those with less than C averages. Note that a C average can be attained either with Cs in all subtopics, or with an A in half and an F in the other half of the subtopics. That is, a C average means that there are certain subtopics that have not been mastered; yet, the student must advance to the next level and do work that presupposes this mastery. As one moves through 12 grades, there is an accumulation of nonmastery such that students who graduate highschool with an overall C average will have mastered, on average, only half of the subtopics in the courses that they passed. I think that a second critically important component of a rational educational system is that students must master each and every subtopic that they study, in a structured curriculum. By "master", I mean that there should be no misunderstanding, basically performance at the "A" or "A+" level.

Finally, a third significant difference between my ideas and conventional education is that all students must end up at the same point. That is, there is something called a highschool diploma, or a bachelor's degree, that all students must achieve within a certain period of time. Those who don't, fail; those who do, pass. My idea is that, given a properly structured curriculum through which students pass at their own pace, but in which each and every subtopic must be mastered before advancing, the proper outcome measure is not a single diploma/no diploma, but rather, an index that represents just how far they have progressed--with complete mastery, remember--through the structured curriculum, at any given point in time.

The structure of the curriculum is extremely important, however, there is already wide general agreement, at least for the core subject areas, as to this structure. There is no reason why extra, less-structured, non-core subjects can't be incorporated into the core curriculum as such, as long as the well-structured core is available. For example, if performance ability on the violin is not part of the core (and why should it be?), there is still no reason why a student should not add a violin performance component to his individual curriculum.

So there should be a national core curriculum broken down into a network of interrelated subtopics such that the dependencies are encoded into the curriculum in the form of prerequisites. When a student has mastered all prerequisites, then he advances to the next set of obligatory and optional subtopics, in an ongoing process.

This means that students will work much more independently than in a conventional classroom. There are two relevant precedents for this. The first is so-called "open education" which was popular in the 1970s (and in which my elder daughter participated for two years). The second is the style of "unschooling" used in many homeschooling families. In both cases, chaos can result in the absence of knowledgable, well-trained teachers or parents, and the training must include how to let students work as independently as possible, as well as how to convey the information in the curriculum. The approach is also found in Montessori schools, whose emphasis on properly prepared manipulables and other structured materials is an excellent example of how to carry out this approach.

It is true that under a fully-implemented version of this approach, some students would make their way very quickly through most of the curriculum, "graduating" while still elementary school age, while others, even after 12 years, will still not be at what is currently known as the "high school level". Is this a bad thing? I would argue that it is much bettern to master each aspect of basic skills than never to do so, but by occupying a seat, to receive credit for "passing" more advanced ones.

The largest problems in using this approach are (1) to create the curriculum along with all supporting materials, and (2) to train (or de-train) teachers and parents in the method so that they strike the right balance of support for the students.

Greg Shenaut