There’s something wrong with public education today. More and more we’re coming to grips with this—and racking our brains trying to figure out how to fix it. But first let’s start with what’s wrong and move forward from there.

1. Forcing one-size-fits-all education instead of embracing customization: Every child is unique. And in today’s technology-driven world, customization is possible from the district right down to the classroom and student level. Yet students are still moved through school in batches, based on their age.

That’s because today’s education model comes straight out of the industrial era. As the world got bigger it became essential for the United States to produce more and more competent hands for the workforce. So we put five year-olds on the conveyor belt called public education in kindergarten and hoped they stepped off 12 years later ready to contribute to industry. At the time, it worked well.

Today we live in an information age, not an industrial age. But still, our education system functions like a factory where classes are the stations on the conveyor belt. At each station students receive a new part and move on to the next. In the end, they’re supposed to be uniformly prepared for higher education or to compete in the 21st century marketplace. (I came across this great video that literally illustrates this problem.)

But what about the student who learns differently? The one the new part doesn’t fit? The teacher might try a couple different approaches, but she has 25 other students to fit the part to. Usually that student simply keeps moving forward, missing a piece they’ll need one day.

Here in Washington, more than 14,000 students left the factory in the 2009-10 school year. Only roughly 76 percent graduated on time.

It’s important to note that many teachers do a great job differentiating instruction and teaching to individual students, not just the middle of the class. But they’re the exception, not the rule. And they personalize learning in spite of the system, not because of it.

2. Disconnecting School from Real Life (and the 21st Century): Today’s students are typically plugged in all the time. They read online, socialize online, play online. And as adults, they’ll be expected to research online, write online, program online, and so forth.

Yet when kids come to school, what are they expected to do? Power down and sit still.

Not only is school unplugged from their everyday lives, it’s not preparing them for membership in the 21st century workforce.

3. Not removing ineffective teachers: Over the years education has come to revolve more around the adults who make a living in it than the students whose future livelihoods depend on it. Despite the fact that having a good teacher is the single most important element in a child’s education, employee contracts make it nearly impossible to dismiss an underperforming teacher.

4. Using time and resources to benefit adults, not students: Have you ever wondered why so many students have regular “early release” days? In the midst of financial hardships that make it difficult to increase teacher pay, a growing trend is to reduce the days in the school year so teachers are paid the same amount for doing less work. While good teachers absolutely deserve higher pay, services to students must come first.

5. Restricting Choices Instead of Expanding Them: Having options is the most effective way to get needs met. And in education, where you’re dealing with unique individuals who have unique learning and life needs, it’s essential that families can research and choose the schooling option that’s best for them. Especially in Washington where charter schools are against the law, the student who can’t afford private school doesn’t have options. Online schools have considerably helped improve the situation, but the fact remains that a school system without choices hurts kids; it doesn’t help them.

Only a few kids can actually reach their potential in such a system. Wasted potential is failure. So in reality, the public school system is failing most of the kids who come through its doors, not just the ones who drop out.

These problems are pretty intuitive. Political persuasion aside, we can generally agree the above characteristics need to change. But why haven’t they already? Stay tuned for the next installment. And after that, I promise there will be good news (Here’s a hint: It has to do with digital learning).


[Reprinted with permission from the Freedom Foundation’s iLearn blog]