Conceived for a Different Time and Purpose

1908 Ford Model T ad from Oct. 1, 1908 Life ma...

The Ford Model T was a great car.  A car for the masses that was much better than the horse and buggy.  We’re talking 20 Horsepower, top speed of 45 mph, with 13-21 mpg…not too shabby.  The concept of an affordable car, and the accompanying manufacturing process, was innovative in 1908.  Many would say it was a catalyst for significant change in our country.

We don’t see too many people driving the Model T down the highway any more though.  Why is that?  The Model T was conceived for a different time and for a different purpose than today’s automobiles.

Just like our educational system.

Think about most of the schools across the US.  Each year students are grouped according to their ages into grades.  They matriculate through 13 different years of K-12 education.  Attending school for 7 hours a day, 180 days a year – with much of that time sitting in assigned desks, typically facing the same way…toward the teacher.

Our system of education was designed to sort and select students; to prepare them for either industrial jobs or college/academic jobs. It’s how I learned; it’s how my grandparents learned.  It worked for me; it worked for them.  It just doesn’t seem to be working anymore.

We’re trying though…  Educators most everywhere are hard at work, especially over the summer months, to improve schools.  Right now teachers are meeting in teams, administrators are planning ways to make next year better than the last.  We are continuously improving education in our country.  We try the latest and greatest in educational reform.  Through hard work and countless hours, well-intentioned teachers and administrators are able to move some measures of educational success by a percentage point or two.

We are hard at work doing tune-ups, oil changes, and rotating the tires of our Model T.

Think about any recent initiative that your school has undergone.  It has/had merit.  At its core, the idea is good for kids – heck, we wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t.  Yet, we aren’t seeing the payoff we would like.  Why is that?

Take the concept of “re-dos” – the idea that when a student under-performs on a classroom assessment the teacher has designed a process by which the student can “re-do” the assessment.  A very noble idea, grounded in the worthy concept of mastery learning.  However, in the educational system that we are burdened with students don’t have time in their schedules to do the re-take, they can’t stay after school because we don’t offer a late bus, teachers are too busy with meetings or choose not to engage with students outside of contract time.  The end of the semester comes and teachers are forced to sort students into various grades that attempt to quantify a semester’s worth of learning in a single value A, B, C etc…  If the grades aren’t in by some pre-determined, arbitrary deadline then the teacher, student, and parents have extra forms to fill out and counselors are left in limbo as far as scheduling the next sequential class in the upcoming semester.

Why do we make it so hard for good educators to do the right thing?

The answer is because the purpose of K-12 education has changed – we are no longer expected to sort and select students.  In fact, quite the opposite.  We now want to ensure that all kids are successful and prepared for future success – ensuring all students have mastered the skills necessary.

We cannot continue waste our valuable resources – human and financial – putting new tires on an old car.

I was watching a movie recently, a remake of an old, yet great, TV show – The A-Team.  In a particular scene the team finds itself falling through the sky in a tank that is attached to an inadequately small parachute.  Through some movie magic and some suspended disbelief on the part of the viewer, the team uses the main gun on the tank to steer their descent.  One observant character described the event by remarking “they’re flying a tank”.

What do you think?

  • Do you ever feel that way in your school?
  • As a school leader, are you trying to fly a tank?
  • What is the biggest barrier to overcome when you think about truly fulfilling the purpose of modern education?

One final thought…

A thought-provoking YouTube clip that I had stumbled across a while back contained a great quote that went something like this: “We have spent the first part of the 21st century perfecting the educational model of the 20th century.”

As of now, we have finished our 13th school year of the 21st century.  Many of us don’t drive cars that are 13 years old – we certainly don’t settle for our doctors treating us with medicine or performing surgical techniques that are a decade old.  So why do we continue to settle for an antiquated educational model for our kids?

Next year’s freshmen students will be the last cohort of high school students born in the 20th century.  Their high school experience will be minimally different than it was 13 years ago, yet the world around them is dramatically different.

What if we believed in our Mission Statements?  What if we believed in the success of all kids and our actions backed that up?

I believe we can do better.

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