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A Blueprint for Reinventing Education

By Marty Nemko

The U.S. has long ranked #1 among the G-20 nations in per-student spending on education. Yet U.S. student achievement continues to trail in international comparisons, with fewer than half of high school graduates reading on even a satisfactory level. Employers widely decry the skills even of our college graduates.

Yet the proposed solutions remain basically unchanged, for example, "Reduce class size." despite little evidence for its efficacy let alone cost-effectiveness. And when you think about it, class size reduction won't help and may hurt! For example, if you're a student in a class of 15 versus one of 30, the teacher spends 1/15 vs. 1/30 of time on you. Is that likely to increase your learning so much as to justify saddling the taxpayer, especially in these tight-budget times, with the great cost of doubling the size of America's teaching force? (Don't forget that you'd have to build twice as many buildings!) More important, consider that, to lower class size, schools would have to dig far deeper into the barrel of teacher applicants. Wouldn't you rather have an excellent teacher with 29 classmates than a mediocre teacher with 15?

Yet teachers' unions, capitalizing on the intuitive appeal of lowering class size, convince legislators and the public to continue to push for it. Given the lack of supporting data, could the unions' primary motive be merely to get their members the same pay for less work?

Not shackled by such motives, here is my plan for reinventing education. It has far greater potential to be a game-changer:

SuperTeachers. Some teachers are terrific, many are far less so. Now imagine that every student in America, rural or urban, rich or poor, could get top teachers, and at lower cost.

Impossible? Not at all. Nation's-best teachers--for example, of algebra--could, in collaboration with an expert on online education, create immersive, simulation-rich, interactive courses, to be available online. Paraprofessionals would, at the school site, provide the human touch, answer student questions, etc.

Of course, the teachers' unions have and would fight this, and because they have powerful lobbies, will likely continue to prevail.

An approach to improving teaching that would be less effective but more likely to gain teacher's union support: Have prospective teachers trained by master K-12 teachers rather than by university professors who are too often theoreticians who have never taught K-12, let alone been masters at it.

Criticality-selected curriculum. We should ensure that kids graduate with the knowledge needed by most people before we try to teach knowledge needed by few.

For example, could anyone reasonably argue that it's wiser that all high school graduates have taken four years of math filled with quadratic equations, geometric proofs, and trigonometry than a course in rational decision-making? For example, think of how many people graduate from high school and even college with A's in algebra and geometry yet when faced with a decision on whether to buy a house, get involved in a volunteer activity, invest in a business, etc., poorly assess the probability and magnitude of the risks, rewards, and opportunity costs.

Shouldn't learning conflict resolution skills be prioritized over ancient history? How to critique a research finding over the atomic structures of the periodic table of the elements? Ethical entrepreneurship over foreign language? (How well do you speak that foreign language you studied in high school for years?)

Before requiring students to study simultaneous equations, the Doppelganger, and quarks, shouldn't students take a course in life skills: for example, budgeting, interpersonal communication, comprehensive sex education, and parenting education? What could be more important than learning how to be a good parent?

To not make such curricular changes is to be guilty of the very elitism that many educators, activists, and politicians decry.

More big projects. Students are minimally motivated by assignments such as worksheets, reading textbook chapters, and math problems 24-96, the evens--or the odds. Students are far more likely to be motivated, for example, by participating in a play to be performed for the entire school, building a robot for an interschool competition, creating a student newspaper, or preparing for an after-school debate tournament open to students and families, just like sporting events. Speaking of which, evidence and common sense suggests that a debate program would improve thinking skills more than any other school activity.

Flex classes. If you wanted to start learning, for example, Greek, would you choose a class for beginners or one in which advanced students comprised half the class, and thus in which much time was spent on material that was (ahem) Greek to you?

Both logic and metaevaluations indicate that placing high- and low-achieving students in the same class is unwise. Yet to avoid certain minority groups being overrepresented in lower-level classes, we now, ever more, mix high- and low-achieving students in the same class. That causes too great a teaching challenge for most teachers and is one of many examples in which, increasingly, education decisions are based more on politics than on pedagogy.

The best answer is not rigid tracking but what I call flex classes. For academic subjects, place students in classes by achievement level but conduct frequent reviews to ensure that all students, especially children of color, are given the opportunity to move up (or down) to fit their learning needs. Non-academic school activities (art, PE, lunch, etc.) could and perhaps should include a wider range of students.

Chronically disruptive students must be placed in special classes. One child should not be allowed to trample on 29 children's right to an education. If a student, despite the teacher's best efforts (with the principal's help,) continues to disrupt classmates' opportunity to learn, that child must be moved to a special class taught by someone with special skills in working with such kids. Mainstreaming sounds good in theory but too often doesn't work in practice.

Begin career exploration in elementary school. Finding an appealing career can motivate many students. And that would reduce the problem of many high school and college graduates having no idea what career to pursue. The marginal validity of career "tests" suggests that more value may come from guest speakers, field trips, and watching videos of people in various careers. Remember that career "test" that said you should be a forest ranger or funeral director?

Give students a choice: a college-prep or an equally high-quality career-prep curriculum. No matter how hard I wish or how hard I work, I will never be even a decent artist, basketball player, let alone engineer. I just can't picture things in three dimensions. Jeez, I can't even remember faces well, even though I use every trick in the book.

Wouldn't it be wiser for me to focus on building on my strengths in language and verbal reasoning rather than to insist on my spending most of my school day remediating my visuo-spatial weaknesses? Yet increasingly, in the name of high standards, even high schoolers who read on a sixth-grade level and who have more ability in making or fixing things or as entrepreneurs, are force-fed a college-prep curriculum replete with Shakespeare, protozoa, and analysis of the War of 1812. In California, you can't get a high school diploma without passing an exam based on a college-preparatory curriculum. Not surprisingly, this causes many to drop out of high school.

And when academically weak students do go on to college (today, many colleges are open-admission even to the grossly underprepared), they disproportionately drop out. 200,000 students each year who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class go to so-called four-year colleges. Of those, 3/4 of never graduate, even if given 8 1/2 years!

And even if such students manage to defy the odds and graduate, they are unlikely to impress employers. Overwhelmed with applicants, most employers today yawn at applicants with a 2.5 GPA in sociology from Southwest Missouri State. A new report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Great College Scam, indicates that 60 percent of the increased number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 work on jobs requiring just high school!

Meanwhile, such graduates usually have learned little in college. Their mean growth in reading, math reasoning, thinking skills, etc., is unbelievably low. The new and authoritative study, Academically Adrift found that 36% of all college students' learning skills grew not-at-all in four years! And those who did grow, showed small gains.

Not only do most of those students not graduate, learn little, and be no more employable than if they hadn't gone to college, they incurred huge student debt, and suffered the boredom and ongoing assault to self-esteem that comes from being forced to spend years studying academic material for which they are unprepared.

Perhaps most important, such students incur huge opportunity cost: what they could otherwise have done with their time. High school students, who, the longer they're in school, fall further behind, are more likely to derive personal and career success by avoiding college. Instead, many would be wise to choose a path that prepares them for a good career straight out of high school, perhaps augmented by a post-high-school apprenticeship, training in the military, or on-the-job training, for example, at the elbow of a successful, ethical entrepreneur. Ironically, America now has an oversupply of college graduates and an undersupply of, for example, machinists, chefs, retail managers, and entrepreneurs, all of which are jobs that can't be offshored.

Thus, high schools and perhaps even middle schools, should offer a choice of a high-quality career-prep as well as college-prep curriculum. If my own child, through grade 6, showed clear signs of being unlikely to succeed in a college-prep curriculum, I'd encourage him or her to choose a career-prep path, which, yes, taught her reading, writing, critical thinking, etc., but in the context of preparing her for a career that doesn't require college, for example, robotics repair or entrepreneurship.

Mentor-centric curriculum. Transformative change is most likely to occur one-on-one. Students, K-20, should be given far greater opportunities for peer and adult mentoring. For example, a website could match protégés and mentors.

Use scaled-down high school campuses: only for extracurricular activities. Especially as America's debt becomes ever more unsustainable, it's unwise to maintain, let alone build large high school campuses. Students should do most academic work at home (iris-recognition software would ensure attendance,) with SuperTeacher-taught classes (see above) with interactivity provided by videoconferencing software, bulletin boards, email, and phone exchanges with students and local tutors. Later in the day, students would go to scaled-down campuses, primarily for extracurricular activities and tutoring.

Now what?

That's my blueprint for reinventing education. I encourage you to send your reactions and suggestion:

Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. specializing in the evaluation of education from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught there. 600+ of his published writings are free on

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