John Lennon’s immortal words apply to our quest to redesign America’s education system. One that is better for all stakeholders, especially our students. Our challenge: How do we extract ourselves from this century plus, time-based dinosaur of a public education system that we find ourselves stuck in?
I had a thoroughly enjoyable time speaking at the AdvancED International Summit in Washington D.C. this past June. I felt that my remarks fit perfectly with the opening remarks of AdvancED President/CEO Mark Elgart and provided the logical implementation answer to Keynote Speaker Sir Ken Robinson’s vision of what the future of education will be. Lots of nice people from lots of places came up to me remarking about how much they appreciated my comments. So, is that it? Beyond my remarks, Mark’s remarks or Sir Ken’s, what takeaways will attendees bring back to their school systems and begin to implement?
Incredulously, our nation’s system of education was not designed around learning. It is a system designed around time in which attempts are made to fit learning into that time. Sometimes it works, usually represented by A’s on report cards; sometimes it doesn’t work, represented by C’s D’s and F’s. Regardless, at the end of the semester or school year, A’s, B’s C’s D’s and F’s don report cards and students then move to the next level of learning regardless of whether or not they have actually mastered the previous level. Does this sound like a ridiculous system to you? Then why, after hearing the remarks of Mark Elgart, Sir Ken Robinson and me, do so many go back to their schools and systems only to repeat the fool’s errand?
As frustrated as I may sound in the above paragraphs, I’m actually quite optimistic. In August, for the first time, I, actually, heard the President of the United States talk about the promise of competency-based education! Less than a year ago, I saw an article about Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker promoting competency-based education. President Obama and Governor Walker on the same page! As the Sicilian said in the movie, The Princess Bride, “Inconceivable!”
Yes, there’s a new model of public education, and it’s coming soon to a school system near you. It’s called competency-based learning and, unlike the time-based model created in 1906 at a Harvard conference funded by the Carnegie foundation, a competency-based system is actually based on learning. “Genius!” you might say. No, not genius; quite the contrary. How come it took us over 100 years to figure this out?
Roadblocks to Progress
I have been all over the country trying to find someone willing to defend the time-based Carnegie unit system of education, and I can’t find one. Maybe this article will surface someone who would be willing to step forward and argue that we should continue to move kids to the next level of learning based on how old they are. This type of person, I am guessing, would be the one who might think that putting a new paint job on a model T and painting flames on the sides would actually make the car go faster. While it sounds like I’m insulting someone, I don’t think I am because, in 10 years of making this case, no one has actually come forward to debate the merits of keeping in place the time-based system.
Here’s the problem. If no one will defend the merits of staying in a time-based system, yet, the vast majority are involved in perpetuating a system that moves students to the next grade, regardless of whether or not they’ve actually learned the things that we believe they should learn, then we have a big problem.
What is stopping us from implementing a new model of education, one based on learning not on time?
So, what is our problem with moving away from a time-based system? Is it vision? Is it ignorance of even the existence of a different way of doing things? Don’t feel bad about that because the President of the United States is only recently getting onboard. Is it complacency? Is it the belief among educators who have often felt that this is just the latest in a long line of reform efforts and, if they just wait it out, this too shall pass? Is it leadership? What is stopping us from implementing a new model of education, one based on learning not on time?
Hope and Help for the Future
While it’s not happening as rapidly as I’d like, there are a number of groups and individuals around the country that clearly see the future of an American education system based on competency and are working tirelessly to change the system. There are some states that are aggressively leading this effort including my state of New Hampshire, Iowa, Maine, Wisconsin, Kentucky and more. None of these states has fully moved to a competency-based system, but each is committed and their leaders are working tirelessly to speed up this transformation.
Readers of this article should ask themselves whether or not this conversation is happening in their school systems and, if so, at what level. If anyone needs help, I'm an e-mail click away, or you can read my book, Off the Clock: Moving Education From Time to Competency (Corwin, 2012).
Your kids need you to do something significant. We can’t continue trying to get better and better at a system that doesn’t work for too many of our kids. We can do better. It’s time for revolution!