12-04-2016  2:14 am      •     

Like the rest of President Bush's proposals in his most recent State of the Union address, his central mandate for education in the United States is to stay the course — with a couple of new biscuits thrown in.

Bush wants to "lead the world in human talent and creativity," a noble goal and a pioneering tradition we established and maintained — until recently. Though Americans deem improving education as the single greatest domestic issue we face, our leadership in science and technology innovation is in decline. Other countries are finding ways to match and beat us at far less cost. Because we cannot compete on cost, we have to be smarter. It is our only option.

Instead of more tests, more money, smaller classrooms and more teachers, a real education president or a real education strategy would focus on putting together a national task force to come up with a complete new architecture for public education in the next 10 years. We put a man on the moon in eight. We can do this.


Bush, however, is opting to stay the course. This is a fatal mistake for our nation. We need to produce smarter Americans, but raising the standards in an obsolete system of education is no solution. In fact, 47 states are in various stages of revolt against Bush's primary educational policy, the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been decried as an unfunded mandate that causes states to provide dumbed-down tests to meet federal standards.

What we hear less about is the unseen fallout of this policy, the ethical misconduct in classrooms and rising dropout rates. Nationwide, schools are teaching to the test or actually teaching the test, and students are cheating in order to perform well for Big Brother. It is rampant.

Schools want to improve their rankings in next year's newspaper articles comparing area tests scores, and they want to ensure they receive federal and state assistance tied to scores. Tens of thousands of teachers have become cynical in applying a policy they know is taking students away from real learning. But, students want to avoid stigmatization and get into colleges. More than ever, education isn't about learning — it's all about test performance.

But are the schools that score well on tests truly better off? By many accounts, in schools with higher scores, students have pursued in-depth learning less, with increasing focus on the skill of passing tests. And though it's hard to get good information on the correlation between standardized testing and dropout rates — much of the data is fudged or not reported at all — many reports indicate that dropout rates are edging upward toward 35 percent overall and a startling 50 percent for African Americans and Latinos.

Many studies tie the increasing dropout rate to high-stakes testing. Statistically, it makes sense: If half your students drop out, and most troubled students drop out, then test scores will rise. During his State of the Union address, Bush mentioned a stay-in-school policy. How will he achieve this when his primary educational policy generates dropouts?
The larger question is: Why is anyone bothering to propose fixes to a system that's obsolete? Bush said he wants 70,000 new teachers for advanced placement education in math and science. Sounds nice, but the real problem is that our kids are so turned off to these crucial and magical subjects by a learning design that forgets to engage them.

America's pioneering compulsory educational system was born in the early industrial age. The system's design is more than 150 years old and woefully obsolete. We do not teach according to how we know the brain works. To begin with, we must organize and design around the dynamics of learning rather than the efficiencies of teaching.

And we are not using technology appropriately. In the world of the Internet, students can work with teachers to design a course customized to individual needs, learning pace and style. We are not involving communities in the education process in a way that really supports learning. We need to build a much more sophisticated volunteer effort and make use of communities of learning to put students in real-world situations where abstract learning can be turned into hands-on experience.

Instead of more tests, more money, smaller classrooms and more teachers, a real education president or a real education strategy would focus on putting together a national task force to come up with a complete new architecture for public education in the next 10 years. We put a man on the moon in eight. We can do this.

Edward Davis is an education consultant and author of the book Lessons For Tomorrow: Bringing America's Schools Back From the Brink. Reach him at www.lessonsfortomorrow.com.

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