Can you imagine flying with a pilot that only nails 80% of his landings? How about going under the knife with a surgeon that has a 75% success rate? Or having your house built by construction workers who measure lengths and angles with a confidence interval of 10%?

Absurd, isn’t it?!

We know the importance of mastery for success in the real world. So, why is it that we don’t value mastery as a foundational practice in our education systems? There are really only two possible answers. Either we don’t believe kids need to learn all the standards we have set before them and their teachers, or we don’t have the will to change our practices and be honest with parents and students about where students are really performing. Or both.

There is a growing consensus that not all students need to learn all the standards typically defined by state departments of education. More and more, we are recognizing that all students need a foundation of literacy: reading, writing, communicating, numeracy, scientific, and civic. And then their paths may take different trajectories depending on their aspirations, abilities, and opportunities.

Sadly, though, structures today prevent the kind of personal learning needed to support these notions. Instead, we continue to group students by age throughout their school careers and insist that they get instruction on the same thing in the same way on the same day, regardless of whether they learn it or not. Students (and teachers) get a specific amount of time for this content and then they must move on. Equally frustrating is the learner that needs to endure instruction related to content she has already mastered.

And, if the expected learning outcomes are organized the way the writers assert, then they are intended to build or scaffold on prior knowledge. With this assumption, the lagging student’s situation spirals quickly. Do the math. If a student only gets 80% of what he is to learn each year, in elementary school alone the learning can be calculated by:

K = 80%

1 = 80% of 80% of K = 64%

2 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 1 = 51.2%

3 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 2 = 41%

4 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 3 = 32.8%

5 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 4 = 13%

Is it any wonder that 1 out of 4 eighth graders in the United States is functionally illiterate? Functionally illiterate! While these numbers are certainly arguable, the concept is clear. Social promotion and our current model of schooling is failing the majority of our students. If you don’t believe me, just check out the percentage of students scoring below basic and basic on your state accountability exams. Basic is not on grade level. And, many of these students are many years below grade level. (See my first blog.)

It’s time that we get honest and real about what students know and are able to do. It is unfair to continue to communicate to students and parents false assurances in the form of satisfactory grades when in reality, students are not on track to be ready for college, career, or some other future goal. And, it’s time that we break the mold for class structures, schedules, and calendars. Let’s replace them with a model where students learn what they are ready to learn next, master it, and take as much or as little time as they need to do it.

As schools explore scenarios for bringing students back to school, it will be more important than ever to make sure we know where each student is and put a plan in place for each student to successfully move forward. Superintendents and staff need to be hard at work right now overhauling the system. Boards need to be setting expectations for systemic change and preparing to support the superintendent by communicating effectively with parents, the community, and the media about change and why it’s needed. Policy makers and state departments of education must remove any legislation or funding models that require seat time, that students attend school a specific number of days or hours, or any other practices that prevent schools from implementing flexible learning practices driven by individual student’s needs. Requirements to report rigid schedules and seat time in student information systems need to be eliminated. Carnegie unit courses need to be replaced by proficiency-based learning experiences and instead of discrete content domains, those experiences need to be based on real world learning where content domains are integrated and relational. Traditional grading practices need to be replaced by mastery-driven, competency-based reporting systems.

Yes, this is a huge undertaking. But, the adage “pay me now or pay me later” applies. Failing to prepare our children to be successful, productive members of society not only puts a financial burden on its citizens, but dooms the country to take business and industry abroad, devolve from leading with inventions and innovation to mass producing you-name-it, and destroying quality of life. It’s time to take an honest assessment of the situation and fix it.

Let’s do it!

Updated: Jun 17

(Updated June 17, 2020)

We have entered an unprecedented period in which e-learning has moved from an option that was "nice to have" to a "necessity". This period is creating a new landscape for educators, parents, and learners. Many companies, individuals, and organizations are offering a plethora of free e-learning resources for K-12 students to encourage and support distance learning. Resources that go above and beyond for e-learning are marked with a star (☆).

We know we've missed great resources! If you have any you'd like us to update this list with, please leave a comment or reach out to us via the Contact Us page! Thanks!

Age of Learning (Preschool - 8th Grade)

Amazon's Future Engineer, free computer science options (Grades 2 - 12)

• American Museum of Natural History, "Ology" Studies and "Explore" for a variety of science-based learning

American Panorama, visualize data through maps

Arcademics (Grades 1 - 6), Free Math, Spelling, Geography web-browser games

Arizona State's Virtual Field Trips

Arizona State's Ask an Anthropologist

Arizona State's Ask a Biologist

Babbel, learn a new language (K - College) Currently free for 3 months.

Bark (For Students & Parents), Introduction to safe e-learning and online practices

Big Universe (Grades K - 12), 17,000 eBooks in a variety of topics

Boolean Girl (Ages 8 - 18), learn to code! STEM.

Bunk (Grades 8 - 12), History-based, thoughtful articles about world events

Chalk Academy, Multi-lingual learning resources (Primarily Chinese/Korean)

Classroom Cereal, Grammar practice worksheets

Curriki (Grades K - 12), Resources in Math, Science, Language Arts, & more!

Data Nuggets (Grades K - 12+), scientist based data and research in a variety of areas

Discovery K12 (Grades K - 12), 16,000 lessons, eBooks, Quizzes & Tests in all standard subjects

Dr. Roger's Math Neighborhood (Grades 8 - 12) Advanced math explanation videos

Educational Insights (Grades K - 6), Reading/Language Arts worksheets

Education Modified, resources for special needs students (Spanish version available)

Exploratorium, Covid-19 science learning

FLINN, science videos and live labs & FLINN High School Science Activities

Great Minds (Grades K - 12), instructional videos in Math, Language Arts, Science

Hand2Mind (Grades K - 8), Math activities

HippoCampus (Grades 8 - 12), 7,000 videos in 13 areas

Khan Academy (Grades Pre-K - 12), Videos on a variety of subjects (ELA reading included)

Legends of Learning, standards aligned Math & Science games

Learning Resources (Grades K - 3), Inspire playful learning

Loving2Read (Ages Pre-K - 8), adventures for kids in Science, STEM, Math, and more

• MEL Science (Ages 5 - 16), Live Webinars & Library of Chemistry experiments/articles

National Constitution Center (Grades 6 - 12), eight-week series of interactive, daily courses

OpenStax (Grades 8 - 12) Opensource textbooks in Math, Science, Social Sciences, & More

PandaTree (Ages 2 - 10), daily Story Time in Spanish & Chinese

Phet (Grades 6 - 12), Over 650 million free simulations in Physics, Math, Chemisty, & more

ProjectExplorer (Grade 3 - 12), 250+ Free Videos/Lesson Plans

• Rubenstein Center for White House History (Grades K - 5) & (Grades 6 to 12)

Scholastic Learn at Home (Grades K - 9)

Smithsonian Distance Learning (Grades Pre-K - 12), expansive collection on a variety of topics

Sophia (Grades 9 - 12), take courses for college credit! Currently free until 7/31/2020

Varsity Tutors Learning Tools (Grades 8 - 12), a free collection of resources for standardized testing enabling students to increase scores. Includes interactive questions and flashcards.

Virtual field Trips (Grades K - 12), destination-based videos for Social Studies, Geography, Etc!

Virtual School Day (Grades K - 12), Incredible virtual classroom learning opportunities across 9+ subject areas. (Check out their science courses!) Many free options.

Virtual Summer Camps (Ages 5 - 18), Operating from June through August 2020, over 300 half-day learning camps encourage learning in everything from Minecraft to theater.

Walkabouts (Grades Pre-K - 2), Integrates movement with Math, Reading, & Language Arts

The above listed resources are fantastic, free, and available for anyone with an internet connection. Just the same, there are also a multitude of learning experiences that can be had outside of the traditional classroom. Bake a cake with your child. Take apart an engine. Collect chicken eggs or milk a cow. Build a Lego fort. Have a conversation about current events. Think outside the box. Here's a thought to leave you with:

"Support education in all its forms. Overcome the bias of the cookie-cutter approach to education which presupposes that all worthwhile knowledge can only be attained from a traditional setting. Challenge the idea that school is the only place to get a worthwhile education."

- Mike Rowe, 2017

“Defining problems is far more important than generating solutions.” - Cuban

“Generating solutions to the wrong problem, or for a misunderstood purpose, may create ‘innovation,' but it won’t necessarily create positive change.” - Raab

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.” - Einstein

If we are to realize improvements in the American education system, we need to start with a clear definition of the problem. While there are many symptoms of the problem, at the root of the issue is a basic and foundational question. Once we become clear about the purpose of schooling, we can focus on the real issue of how to improve the system to the goals aligned to that purpose.

So, why school? Or, more precisely, what is the purpose of the U.S. school system? At the root of the issue of how to reform schools is a lack of consensus about the purpose of schooling.

Typically, a flip answer to the question of “Why school?” is to provide all children with the opportunity to get an education. Giving just a little more thought to the issue, though, it becomes clear that this is a more complex issue. To what end is the education intended? What are important elements of the education? Is the education for the individual’s or for society’s benefit? Is an opportunity sufficient or is an education required? Who determines whether or not the education has been realized? What seems to be a simple question quickly becomes complicated and, when one considers it even further, complex.

Is it really important that we think deeply about these things? one might ask. It is. “If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?” And, as importantly, if you don’t know what it is you are trying to achieve, how will you decide what strategies to use to achieve it? This lack of clear direction guiding hundreds and thousands of teachers in a school or district results in chaos, inefficient use of resources, teacher/student/parent dissatisfaction, and underperformance. And, the confusion isn’t limited to what happens locally. The involvement of legislators, state education departments and even local school boards, among others, becomes problematic rather than helpful. Laws, policies, requirements, funding, and other decisions drive school systems to specific goals, but those often are in conflict with each other. Further, these perhaps well-intended, but often tunnel visioned decisions become more problematic as they don’t consider unintended consequences for their implementation in the “real world”.

Erin Lynn Raab, in her December 2017 thesis Why School?: A Systems Perspective on Creating Schooling for Flourishing Individuals and a Thriving Democratic Society, describes schooling as a teleological system and argues that the improvement of American schools will require a systems approach that begins with a deep understanding of its purpose, the values that must be evident in the system, and goals. Personal experience concurs with Raab’s position.

Again, then, what is the purpose of schooling? Many have documented the history of American public schooling and the evolution that has occurred. Most agree that at its inception, the purpose of schooling in the United States was to socialize citizens. Over time, however, other purposes for schooling arose. These included intellectual purposes, such as developing reading, writing, and math skills; economic purposes, such as preparing graduates for jobs; developing capacity in students to live pragmatically and successfully in their current environment; creating emotionally healthy children and adults; creating lifelong learners; and more. A Google search on the purpose of education turns up numerous articles, books, papers, websites, and blogs. And, the advocated purposes seem to be as numerous as the sources promoting them. There are even websites inviting the public to express their opinions about what the purpose of school should be and, again, there is no clear consensus. There are recurring themes, however. Among them is a growing belief that schooling is to develop the individual student, a purpose that appears to be 180° from the original purpose.

The lack of consensus for the purpose of school speaks more to the complexity of schooling than disagreement among stakeholders. While there are a few voices that advocate strongly for this purpose or that, it is more likely that posing the question elicits responses similarly to the blind men describing the elephant they are touching in the well known folktale, with each describing what he is experiencing and what is relevant to him. To carry the analogy further, it is far more feasible that the purpose of schooling is really a system of purposes that must co-exist in delicate balance.

Raab’s Meta-Framework is useful for organizing thinking about these purposes, as the goals or aims of education seem to align neatly with her four domains:

Briefly, Raab uses two axes that juxtapose opposites. The Individual-Collective axis contrasts the purposes that relate to the individual’s benefit from school with society’s, or the collective’s, benefit. The Intrinsic-Instrumental axis contrasts the process of schooling or the means, called the Intrinsic extreme, with the outcomes, or the Instrumental extreme. This 2 X 2 matrix results in the four domains:

  • Individual Human Possibility: This domain refers to what is typically termed “education”. It is the development of the individual students to achieve his or her full potential.

  • Individual Efficiency: Here, the focus is still on the individual, but on his or preparation for future life, e.g. to get a good job, to go to college, to achieve recognition.

  • Social Possibility: This domain focuses on sustaining or creating a desired culture and society. While it focuses on indoctrinating individual students, the purpose is for the benefit of society which requires the school to create an environment which will promote those values.

  • Social Efficiency: Here, the focus is on outcomes that will benefit society, such as making sure there are enough doctors, welders, and farmers to meet society’s needs and to support economic growth of the society.

The aims or goals for school aligned with these domains include things like:

  • Preparing youth to live in a democracy

  • Developing good citizenship in youth

  • Instructing youth in religious doctrine

  • Assimilating youth into a society

  • Creating emotionally healthy youth

  • Teaching youth math, reading, and writing skills

  • Preparing youth for college and/or career

  • Developing analytical reasoning and critical thinking in youth

  • Producing the nation’s needed workforce

  • And more

Raab asserts that all four purposes need to be present simultaneously and that the purposes for schooling don’t change based on environment or era, but that the aims will vary from place to place and from time to time. She also acknowledges that one or more purposes may be more dominant than others depending on events and circumstances.

Given that efforts focused on supporting only one of the purposes can be counterproductive for other purposes, it becomes clear that a systems approach is warranted and that schools are indeed highly complex entities.

While some advocate for a common understanding across the United States of the purpose and goals for schooling, this is unrealistic. Not only is it unlikely to achieve that kind of consensus, but it also cannot be legislated. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the context may have an impact on the balance of purposes and goals, so this discussion is always evolving. It is incumbent, then, on each local community to determine the purposes and aims for schooling and to revisit this discussion regularly.

Coherent Governance©, a derivative of Policy Governance© developed by Randy Quinn and Linda Dawson of the Aspen Group International, LLC, provides a process for district leadership to engage in discussion about “ownership” of the district, as well as the purpose, value, and results desired. This is a good place to start. To fuel the discussion, boards might want to read Raab’s thesis or use the survey provided by Wesleyan University at Alternatively, Sepati Ingera, LLC welcomes the opportunity to support your work by facilitating these discussions. Give us a call.

© 2020 Sepati Ingera, LLC.