School reform must be about learning

The current school reform rhetoric by politicians and the general public focuses on treating symptoms rather than causes, on how teachers teach and deliver information, rather than on how well every student learns.

School reform should be about improving learning, especially for students who struggle. If we want every child to succeed, every learner to complete high school, want to assure that every high school graduate will seek post high school training or education, then we must focus on learning, must insist that every student acquires the essential concepts, information, attitudes at each level of the school ‘ladder.’

Our present school system, including most charter schools, demand that every child progress at the same rate even though we have known for decades that learning is a variable.

Our ‘one size fits all’ approach and expectation that every child progress at the same rate will not be changed by increased use of technology, merit pay, on line or blended learning, charter schools, vouchers, standardized curriculum, extended school days and other supposed remedies. While some of these ideas are justified, desirable and can contribute to improvement, only when we get serious about mastery learning will reform efforts prove meaningful.

We know that almost every child can learn and learn well given time and incentive. Mastery learning demands that every learner masters concepts, skills, facts, and attitudes essential to success before advancing to the next level.

Mastery learning and continuous progress assure that every child succeeds. And success breeds confidence and curiosity, ingredients for continuing success. This requires much more flexibility in scheduling, and, for some, more time for learning than the present ‘lock step’ system permits.

When comparing the top 20 percent, or even the top 50 percent of American students with those of other nations we do well. But in today’s world the bottom half cannot be left behind. Research identifies lack of reading skills as the major factor in causing dropouts, almost always beginning with inadequate progress in the primary grades.

To implement mastery learning, especially in reading and in the primary grades, schools must engage in a paradigm shift in scheduling, student promotion and in staffing.  Mastery begins with assuring that, even in kindergarten, every child succeeds in mastering essential learning.  Each  child must be allowed to progress at their rate, rather than an arbitrary set time frame.

To provide more time for learning and teacher planning there will be an increase in cost but no more than what should be invested in our schools anyway. The current tradition of 20/25 students per master teacher should disappear.

Rather than performance pay, salaries should be based on roles and responsibilities. Some instructional duties can be performed ably by teacher aides, volunteers, interns and/or beginning teachers, freeing the master teacher for planning and complex instructional tasks.

We do need to make the teaching profession more attractive to the best and the brightest. We must insist that the classroom be a positive rather than a punitive environment, and removing those teachers who approach the learning process and children negatively can best be done by attracting positive, talented young people into the profession.

Certainly we want to incorporate technology in the teaching process. Contrary to the impression created by the obsession with technology, most Idaho classroom are at least minimally equipped, many well equipped. Granted, technological tools need to be constantly upgraded and/or added but, more important, teachers need training in incorporating technology into teaching and, even more critical, provided time to plan, and evaluate.

True school reform should be more than reshuffling the chairs and just doing something ‘different’.


Lilburn Wesche

Lilburn Wesche, Ed D. Experience — university professor of education, Dean of Education, Dean of Graduate Studies, Academic vice president (NNU and Seattle Pacific University); education consultant; Chair — NCATE Accreditation teams (54 universities-26 states) ; Member, NCATE Accreditation board; President, PDK chapters at Seattle University, SW Idaho; Public school teacher, coach, principal (Kansas and Idaho). "Education is more than answers; it is finding better questions."

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