Pass or Fail: Rethinking School Design
In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.
While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?
What do you feel are the most viable strategies for redesigning America’s public school systems? Does graded schooling actually support the highest levels of educational achievement?
The idea of ending retention and social promotion is far from new. It has long been recognized that teaching strategies require organizational change so that students and teachers have more contact. Such a change is necessary if high standards can be maintained while teaching procedures are changed fundamentally. In high-achieving countries, where retention is very rare, teachers often stay with students for multiple years and teach them multiple subjects. The strategy of having students work with a single teacher or a small group of teachers over a period of several years and for multiple subjects has proven effective in supporting high-level educational goals.
The Need for Redesign
There are various alternative strategies for assessment. Though alternatives may offer excellent opportunities to assess the knowledge and skills of students, one of the bigger problems is the reality that assessment is still used. How are assessments used? Nowadays, they are often used to support some policy for addressing the needs of students, as well as the fate of students who do not demonstrate the targeted knowledge and skills for a given grade.
Of course, this “need” for a retention or promotion policy must be based on the graded system itself. If education is no longer “graded,” and if knowledge and skills are no longer targeted according to a student’s age, then we may not need to make decisions about retention or promotion. There can be alternative strategies for supporting students who do not perform well on assessments. Assessments themselves can be used for different reasons, to achieve different goals, and to establish different levels and types of understanding focused on the educational needs of students.
The very goals of education require that the American educational system be redesigned. But what should these redesigned goals be? The original goals of public education in the United States concentrated on developing productive and engaged citizens with a well-rounded knowledge in different subject areas. It was thought that such citizens would be capable of applying knowledge and skills to function within society, and could become providers. The American education system also had a goal of producing citizens who understood the workings of a democratic government and were prepared to participate in the governing of the nation. It was assumed that students should be familiar with the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, with the sciences and advanced mathematics, with literature, art, history, and politics.
The purpose, in other words, was set beyond the basis of attaining employment upon graduation from high school. Rather, the purpose was more about having a foundational knowledge and the ability to apply knowledge and skills, to analyze and infer but also to appreciate new ideas and concepts, and to be able to work with them.
21st Century Graduates
It is far easier to help a mind perform a single function than to work on developing a mind that can adapt and perform many different functions. The current graded education system has the lesser goal of producing graduates who can, after many years of conditioning, regurgitate information under high-stress situations. Essentially, our graduates learn to follow rules or instructions passed on to them.
First and foremost, a modern American employer requires an employee who can follow instructions. Analytical thinking, innovation, and creativity are not valued commodities in the current education system. We can see this in the design of standardized testing. Multiple-choice questions, which so many standardized tests use, do not allow for independent expression of ideas. Indeed, many students with a natural capacity for higher thinking can find themselves struggling with standardized testing simply because they are thinking at a higher level. In their analytical thought process, some of the more advanced students go beyond the “simple” answer to a test question.
Perhaps the original goal of education should be reconsidered? Does developing and preparing individuals to be productive citizens seem a more worthwhile educational objective?