The End of Institutional Schooling

For the last three decades public schools have been subjected to a continuing barrage of reform initiatives that promise to fundamentally change the way students learn in American classrooms. While policy makers can claim that reform mandates have made the performance of schools more transparent, they would admit that they have not fundamentally changed the way students learn in America: Teachers are still standing in front of classrooms talking a lot; students are still sitting at desks listening a lot; teachers and students are still copying information from textbooks a lot. How do public schools maintain the appearance of making fundamental changes to classroom instruction that, decade after decade, remain fundamentally the same?

The answer to the resilience of the assign and assess model of classroom instruction begins with the public perception of what schools should look like and what school personnel should be doing and ends with efficiently performing the institutional goals of schooling: granting of grades, credits, and diplomas. School administrators and teachers satisfy public perceptions of what schooling should look like by performing the daily routines of schooling well. Buses arrive on time, student schedules are correct, open house runs smoothly, and their son’s or daughter’s name is found on the appropriate honor roll.

The public believes that school administrators and teachers are doing their jobs when they are rigorously pursuing high academic standards. Rigor in schools is defined as reading lengthy textbooks, taking notes, taking tests, and receiving a grade on a report card. Although this definition of rigor promotes an instructional delivery model that is in direct opposition to the fundamental changes school reformers are calling for, the assign and assess model of schooling makes sense to policy makers and parents.

Finally the sameness of public schooling is maintained by satisfying the demands of parents who aggressively pursue access to curricular and extra-curricular programs that will advance the educational and career goals of their children. School administrators balance the favored treatment of privileged groups in the schools by offering safety net programs—special education— for students whose backgrounds, interests, and talents disqualify them for the “race to the top.”

The consequences of the standoff between legitimate calls for fundamental changes to the traditional model of doing school in America and the appearance of racing to the top are school systems that are not only stuck in mediocrity, but are also are forced into institutional behaviors that actually result in a downward spiral of student performance. Among those dysfunctional behaviors are rigid rules for maintaining access to favored school programs, spreading resources too thinly to have any affect, and adopting the latest reform initiative without attention to organizational capacity or program coherence.

How do we end the schooling game that parents, administrators, teachers, and policy makers are playing with each other? How do we truly reform schools that are stuck in an instructional system that will not to optimize the diverse abilities, talents, and interests of children and adolescents or equip them with the knowledge and skills to compete in a global economy?

The answer lies in ending schooling, as the public knows it. The disruptive changes to traditional schools described below will eliminate the possibility of “reforming without changing” and force the entire infrastructure of schooling—administrators, teachers, schools of education, textbook publishers, test publishers, consultants—to either dissolve or develop a truly reformed platform for teaching and learning.

Separate academic from non-academic programs:

If schools are to become serious about teaching academics well, then school administrators and teachers should spend the entire day focused on creating classrooms that are intellectually engaging. They should not be spending any part of their day rearranging time schedules for pep-assemblies, shortening the week for homecoming, spending countless hours before and after school supervising extra-curricular activities or searching for math teachers who can coach football.

Creating engaging intellectual environments in our schools is a demanding job that requires hours of reading, planning, and on-going professional conversations. For the last century schools have hidden the academic goals of schooling behind a multitude of athletic and extra-curricular offerings that have become the tail wagging the academic dog. Aside from the money, time, and instructional personnel wasted on planning and supervising extra-curricular activities, schools send the not-so-subtle message that academic training are mere sideshows to what really counts in schools—what occurs after school and on weekends.

The customary response to this reform proposal is the legitimate observation that students enter our schools with diverse talents, abilities, and interests. Thus, schools should offer an expansive curriculum that includes interscholastic sports and a rich variety of special interest activities. While I agree with the first premise—students enter schools with diverse talents, abilities, and interests—I do not agree that schools should assume the responsibility for developing those diverse talents, abilities, and interests. School systems throughout the world delegate the responsibility for developing the diverse talents, abilities, and interests of their student bodies to public and private entities that have no connection with a school system. Our global competitors make it clear to parents and students that academic and technical training is the central mission of their countries school system.

Expand the definition of Intelligence

For the last two decades policy makers and the schooling establishment have admitted that the traditional measure of intelligence—the I.Q. tests—fail to measure the diverse abilities and talents of students and are poor indicators of how an individual will perform in the real world. Legislators and school administrators have enacted policies and procedures that have all but eliminated the use of a single test of intelligence from appearing on a student’s transcript or used to make any decisions about a student’s educational future. While policy mandates have removed single measures of intelligence from school records, they have not removed the knowledge and skills they measure from school curricula or classroom instruction.

School textbooks, teaching routines, and the traditional test on Friday, continue to value narrow demonstrations of learning: rapidly answering textbook problems or a facility for unraveling puzzles in logic. Both demonstrations of learning guarantee high scores on college entrance tests and measures of school learning, but are poor measures of the kind of adaptive decision-making skills students will confront in their private lives and public performances.

It is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on the knowledge and skills that would result in the kind of adaptive decision making that will result in success in the real world. Suffice it to say, that the curriculum materials and instructional routines that are now dedicated to teaching students to be good test takers must be redirected to teaching students how to be good thinkers.

Reorganize school subjects around big ideas/big questions

The first step to constructing a curriculum designed for teaching good thinking is the elimination of school subjects. The subject-centered curriculum is designed primarily to efficiently implement the institutional goals of schooling: scheduling students, recording grades, granting credits, packaging content, and identifying smart students. The school community’s unquestioned acceptance of a curriculum designed for textbook companies, bell schedules and honor rolls are founded on the flawed belief that the theories, ideas, and concepts that allow us to function each day originate from a subject. The public search for what works and the private search for meaning did not begin by consulting a textbook –it began by asking the right questions. The messy stories behind how those questions originated and how each generation negotiated the answers to these messy questions have no place in textbooks designed for storing information that can be easily tested on Friday.

Without the messy story that explains the context of a societal problem and its eventual resolution, students and teachers will continue to dance around the most unanswered question of schools as we know them: Why should I study this subject? Subjects, textbooks, and standardized tests only exist in the world of schooling. In the real world of public performances and the private search for meaning, “answers” begin with asking the right questions, selecting the right knowledge, and expertly connecting right questions with right knowledge. Such a process can only occur in classrooms where knowledge is organized around big questions that are answered by ad hoc arrangements of theories, ideas, and concepts from multiple disciplines. The recent publication of the common core learning standards is small recognition that twenty-first century thinking begins with big questions not little answers.

Expand the School Calendar

      Although this proposal has been around for decades, parents continue to deeply believe in a school year that begins late, ends early and is continually interrupted by some state or national holiday. To articulate the obvious, how can American students attending school for 180 days possibly learn as much or as well as students in other nations who sit in classrooms for 240 days?

A school calendar designed around long summer vacations and frequent holidays, forces teachers into a disjointed instructional routine that alternates between reviewing what students forgot over the last break and racing through new material before the next break. Policy makers at the federal and state level must provide schools with the incentives and resources to not only lengthen the school calendar, but to do so in a way that inverts the relationship between reviewing old material and learning new material.

Reorganize schools around the normal development levels of children

The final recommendation that would end schooling as the public knows it would require the restructuring of K – 12 grade configurations in a way that acknowledges the fact that the age of a child tells us noting about how that child functions socially, emotionally, or intellectually. From an institutional perspective, graded schools and their organizational divisions (elementary, middle school, high school) make perfect sense. Age-graded schools are efficient systems for publishing textbooks, offering subjects, assigning grades, awarding credits, and issuing diplomas.

From an educational perspective, age-graded schools do not travel well into classrooms. The simple truth that parents know, the research confirms, and schools ignore are the vastly different levels at which children and adolescents mature socially, emotionally, and intellectually. The research is also clear about the adverse academic and behavioral effects occur when the rigidity of age-graded school is joined with the continual transitioning of children from one level of schooling to another. Returning to the K – 8 configuration of schooling would be the first step in organizing schooling around the normal social, emotional, and intellectual development of children and adolescents. I would extend that configuration to K- 9 with tenth grade becoming the transition year for admission into a more expansive high school curriculum that offers multiple pathways for career exploration and training. A return to a configuration of schooling that honors the developmental needs of children would also provide a welcome home for expanded definitions of intelligence, thematic approaches to curriculum and instruction, and an expanded school calendar.

The disruptive changes described above have in some fashion been tried before, but each proposal has failed to gain the traction in the world of institutional schooling. The failure of each recommendation has been attributed to overly utopian visions of how children learn and how institutional schooling ought to function. In reality, most of these “utopian visions” of schooling failed because they proved too sophisticated for administrators and teachers to implement or violated deeply held public beliefs about how schools should look and what they should be doing.

What decades of school reform measures have failed to acknowledge is the resilience of a model of schooling designed to assign grades, grant credits, house textbooks, and memorize large amounts of information. Instead of disrupting the goals and methods of institutional schooling, policy makers and educators continue to double-down on the model with more tests, larger textbooks, and a narrower curriculum. The five changes to institutional schooling put forth in the article would end schooling as the public knows it and begin a new model of schooling designed for learning instead of credentialing.

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