Remodeling Schooling: A New Architecture for Preschool to Precollege Instruction
by Dick Schutz - September 02, 2002
A plan is presented that replaces the age/grade x school subjects structure of schooling with a structure of sequenced courses leading to incremental capability certification.
Nearly 20 years ago, in 1983, the federal government issued a report, A Nation at Risk, claiming that the risk stemmed from the poor performance of the public schools. Clearly the report got it wrong. The US is stronger today than it was then. The public schools, not the nation, were and are at risk. Although the report stimulated a national effort to improve schooling, schools today are instructionally no better than they were.
WHAT REMODELING IS ABOUT
The “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2002 offers new hope with its requirements of instructional “programs based on scientifically based research” and its accountability intentions. However, it’s possible to drive fleets of trucks through the double “based,” “based” requirement, and many of the vehicles will be carrying garbage. Moreover, the time frame for the full realization of the accountability intent is 12 years, anticipating that many children in a full schooling generation will be left behind.
That’s the dark side. The bright side is that all the elements necessary to realize all the hoped-for outcomes of schooling for all of America’s youth are currently within the state of the art. All that is required is to arrange the elements into a workable system, and that’s what this document does. The architecture is a verbal description of a design that can be immediately implemented, with immediately observable benefits. The architecture is not a magic bullet. It will require time and effort to effect. At each step, however, the justification and desirability of further effort will be self-evident.
The proof of the architecture is first in the logic and then in the doing. The logic offers a leap in instructional performance at a significantly reduced cost. Yet it is clearly possible that there are flaws in the logic, and it is certain that bugs will be discovered as the architecture is operationalized. In this sense the architecture is Mod 1, in a series of models that can be anticipated in the future.
The architecture is “open standard” rather than proprietary. Individuals, organizations, and institutions in every sector are free to collaborate/compete in exploiting the architecture for the benefit of schooling. Moreover, the nature of the architecture permits the participants in schooling—kids, teachers and administrators--to play an active role in designing and implementing as well as benefiting from the architecture.
This document uses the term “remodel” in the common sense meaning of altering only those aspects that will result in a more attractively livable environment. Ironically, the weakest aspect of current schooling is in the accomplishment of its primary institutional function—reliably teaching kids to be self-sustaining, contributing individuals.
Schools currently do a superb job of nurturance and care-providing, functions that are valuable to society, and are actually more complicated than the primary instructional function. By concentrating the remodeling attention on instruction, it is possible both to shore up performance in that area and to relieve stress that is currently frustrating schooling participants across the board.
PRINCIPLES GROUNDING THE REMODELING
The architecture relies on a few “self-evident truths.” Anyone who is bothered by any of the propositions is best advised to tune out now, because they will likely be bothered by much of what follows. The points depart from current schooling practice, and collectively they provide a vantage point for a new view of the preschool to precollege instructional territory.
THE CURRENT ARCHITECTURE OF SCHOOLING
Every schooled individual has experienced the system, so we all understand it, and like the air we breathe, we take it for granted without much thought. Even education scholars take the architecture for granted as immutable and unalterable, and begin any analysis having accepted the defining characteristics as “that’s school.”
Before setting out to remodel schooling, brief examination of the current architecture is useful.
Preschool to precollege instruction is organized in terms of a spreadsheet matrix, with successive “age/grades” as the rows, and ‘’school/subjects” as the columns. This structure was invented by the Greeks, elaborated by the Romans, maintained during the medieval period, brought to the Americas by the colonists, and has survived without question to the present.
The structure was apt in the days before Gutenberg, when the intent of schooling instruction was to cram encyclopedic knowledge into the noggins of a favored few. That bygone era has long passed, and the structure has long been logically obsolete, even though it’s the only one we’ve ever known.
The structure has remained durable for two reasons. The first involves factors external to schooling. Up until the 1950’s, Americans found little fault with their schools. The few critics were content to work within the matrix. Universal education through high school was the goal—No problem with the quality, just provide more opportunity. What was not realized at the time, and has been little noted since, was that schools were maintaining their “quality” by deliberately or inadvertently forcing dropouts, with higher proportions of kids dropping out at successive grade levels. However, this was held to be a function of “access” and/ or individual limitations, rather than a function of shoddy instruction. Only when the goal of universal high school access was achieved in the 1950’s did the instructional weaknesses begin to show. The weaknesses have become increasingly glaring, but continue to be attributed to economic/environmental factors and/or to biological limitations of students.
The second reason the architecture has survived involves factors internal to schooling. Here the structure owes its durability to its pseudo-specificity. The 12 age/grade rows, (disregarding the quasi-grade Kindergarten) and at-least-6 subject columns that extend throughout the grades, yield a lot of cells to fill. And that’s just the beginning. Each school subject is further broken down into it’s own spreadsheet, with “Content” or some such rubric now forming the columns. All the cells get filled, and because the independent cells don’t add up coherently, a third dimension, “Strands,” is conventionally introduced. The strands are likened to the strands of a rope that have individual integrity but gain strength in combination. In reality, the strands are wishful metaphorical fictions that make “experts” happy but that have no operational impact upon kids and teachers since they are unteachable .
The structure very nicely accommodates the power structure of federal, state, and local school administrators, university professors, and textbook and test publishers. It provides a mechanism for each interest to do its own thing and to shift any responsibility for instructional shortcomings down to the lowest possible level—school principals, teachers, and kids.
The structure also provides a spurious continuity of instruction from grade to grade. Consider “Reading” for example. Instruction in “Reading” ostensibly goes on within every grade from K through 12. But the definition of what “Reading” amounts to changes at each grade. In the general world a task gets progressively easier as one works on it—but not so in Reading instruction. Here the task regularly morphs into something more convoluted, complicated, and confusing from grade to grade.
The template for replacing the “age/grade x school subjects” (AGSS) structure is the structure of “sequenced courses leading to incremental certification of capability” (3C) currently in use in the information technology sector and in other parts of the corporate world. The structure is as apt for the preschool-to-precollege schooling world as it is for the corporate world.
The 3C structure provides a clear definition in terms of accomplishment capability of each course and its relationship to other courses. In short, it defines a system of interconnected elements.
Course descriptions are common within the AGSS structure at the middle school and high school level, but the courses are typically defined in terms of discipline content rather than in terms of observable accomplishments. “English 101” can be operationalized in as many different ways as there are teachers, and there are no mechanisms to report what a student completing the course has learned.
Courses in the AGSS structure have defined time boundaries, commonly 50 minutes for a semester, quarter, or trimester. Courses in the 3C structure can be of any duration; the course consequences, not the time boundaries are the important consideration.
The tests used in conjunction with AGSS courses may or may not reflect the course instruction. Informing students in advance what is “going to be on the test” is considered bad form. The prime purpose of a 3C course is to teach to the Certification Test. The Certification Test directly reflects the course or course sequence instruction.
In the AGSS structure, the meaning of passing a grade or a course is ambiguous. Passing a Certification Test publicly attests to the acquisition of an observable capability.
A course in the 3C structure is a product that, like any product, is developed to perform specified functions. The product can be designed, constructed, and tested until it reliably performs those functions. Only when the product “works” should it be released; the proof of performance is an empirical rather than an armchair matter.
A well-formed course description will clarify the following:
Not all schooling experiences lend themselves to course descriptions; entertainment, games, and other forms of recreation come to mind. This does not mean that such activities are unjustifiable, only that they are not instructional—no new enabling tools are reliably acquired as a result of such experiences.
“Higher order mental skills” such as “problem solving,” “appreciation,” and “creativity” may also be difficult to specify. If so, it is because the ability to teach these abstractions is currently beyond the state of the art. We can value these abstractions and seek them as byproducts of functional capability. However, if the means for instructing the “goals” as certifiable accomplishments are not available, it is a delusion to pretend that they are.
A third area, that currently occupies very large amounts of instructional time, concerns “factual information.” Before the Internet era, long-term human memory was the only mechanism for storing and retaining such information. Today, if it’s on the web, it doesn’t need to be in your head. The focus of instruction in today’s world should be on how to access, organize, analyze, evaluate, critique, contribute to, and otherwise interact with this dynamic repository. There may well be information that warrants memorization, but the great bulk of current schooling effort to transfer “content” information from external sources into human memory is misguided in today’s world.
HIERARCHIES WITHIN AND AMONG THE COURSE SEQUENCES
In the context of AGSS, it is conventional to view accomplishment levels in terms of letter grades, or by ranking an individual relative to a defined class of other individuals. In the context of 3C a different accomplishment scale is applicable:
These categories are applicable to learning any new capability. In general, it should be feasible to bring any individual, who has the prerequisites to begin a course sequence, up to the player level. The Prosumer and Pro levels are dependent upon how much time and effort an individual is willing to devote to reach the maximum of the individual’s physical potential. At the Prosumer and Pro levels, coaching may help to advance an individual’s capability, but these involve refinements that are of a different nature than the instruction relevant to bring individuals to the Player level.
The 3C architecture distinguishes a hierarchy of three stages of schooling in which course sequences are grouped. The levels recognize the increasing physical and social maturity of individuals but they rely on increased capability gained through instruction.
The course sequences in this stage focus on teaching the child to read. Beginning reading instruction may begin as soon as a child is able to speak in whole sentences and communicate in everyday language--age 3/4. By the time a child is 5/7 s/he should be a Fully Qualified Reader, capable of reading any word in the English language with the same facility s/he can handle spoken communication.
Keyboarding conventions also require instructional attention. Currently, keyboarding and reading capability are dealt with in separate course sequences. Current technology makes it instructionally feasible to integrate instruction in keyboarding conventions, composition, and reading. But the development of such instruction has not yet been done.
Architecting and crafting course sequences appropriate for Pre-Internet will require thought and some experimentation, but it is reasonable to anticipate that a Mod 1 set of course sequences can be constructed within a time frame of 2-3 years.
Most children (and many adults) use the Internet largely for playing games, email-chat-etc., and occasional simple searches. They do not see it as an accessible source for retrieving, organizing, and manipulating information. These tool capabilities can be instructed, in the manner of library and study skills. But the Internet also provides the basis for a very wide array of academic and personal-interest accomplishments. The course sequences in this stage are endless, and that’s why the instruction is termed TeraBasics.
Children, parents, anyone can participate in suggesting and specifying TeraBasic courses. The architecture will:
TeraBasic instruction may begin as soon as an individual is InternetReady, and since the course options are open-ended individuals may choose to opt into a course sequence through adulthood. However, a child by the age of 11/13 should have acquired a broad and solid set of capabilities that are personally and socially valuable.
A grownup is defined here as a person who has self-supporting employment, a co-supporting spouse/other, and/or is involved in college-level-or-above academic training. Most individuals will be motivated to take up GrownupBasic course sequences as early adolescents, and they will achieve Grownup capability earlier than is now typical. But as in each of the other 3C architecture stages, completion is a matter of capability—not age.
There is already activity afoot within both the academic and corporate worlds to structure and construct systems of courses via Internet linkages of various sorts. The academic world refers to their efforts as “distance learning,” indicating that the institution rather than the individual is paramount. The corporate world refers to their efforts as “e-learning” (“e” for electronic), indicating that the economics of information technology is paramount. However viewed, the course sequences will vary both in quality and quantity in the foreseeable future, and both the academic and corporate worlds have considerable untapped capability to forward the effort.
The architecture’s service to individuals in this stage is to be a personal “expert guide” or “personal coach.”
COURSE SEQUENCE CONSTRUCTION
Course construction applies the standard engineering model of iterative empirical trials, modifying the product in each iteration until the product is functioning efficiently and effectively. This is a radical departure from the prevailing way that course materials are written and published. However, it is the only tried and true way to reliably accomplish a functional instructional intent.
The construction process involves the:
The simplicity of the process is deceptive, but with thought and iterative correction it can be accomplished.
CAPABILITY CERTIFICATION TESTING
Capability certification testing also represents a radical departure from prevailing “standardized achievement testing.” Because a capability certification test measures what has been taught, the results plot as a highly skewed curve, with high performance stacking up at the top of the curve. Standardized achievement tests cannot tolerate a curve of this nature. The standardized test constructor therefore manipulates the test to include matters that have not been taught but which some examinees have learned outside of the instruction. Lo and behold, the resulting “normal curve” generates the psychometric statistics inherent in standardized testing—at the cost of invalidating the test as a capability performance measure.
Capability certification tests are actually much easier to construct than standardized tests. They constitute straightforward and transparent opportunities for an individual to demonstrate the capability that has been the focus of the instruction. Many firms and institutions have the necessary expertise to construct such tests.
Remodeled schooling lends a whole new meaning to the construct “educational choice.” With instructional quality a given rather than a wishful hope, all parties involved in schooling will have a sound foundation for making choices that can be expected to have anticipated operational consequences. This, in turn will have an impact on the politics and economics of schooling that will make current consideration of “educational choice” look like child’s play.
THE REMODELED SCHOOL
With the monkey of instructional failure removed from their back, schools will be a much more relaxed and happier environment. In addition to the nurturance and care- giving functions they are now performing under adverse circumstances, school staff will be able to fulfill the role of counselor/coach—a role that is now weak both at home and at school.
Many activities such as sports, musical groups, clubs, and so on that are inherently group- based inherently require a social setting that schools provide. Some of these activities are currently getting short shrift. Other areas, namely sports, are receiving disproportionate attention. This unevenness can be straightened out in remodeled schooling.
With remodeled instruction a matter of 24/7, “compulsory attendance” becomes an anachronism. Kids need not go to school because they “have to go” but because they “want to go.” This does not imply that kids will “run wild.” Parents and/or government will likely need to mandate a set of options to “keep the kids off the streets,” but such options should be more satisfying to kids than the current “lock-in.”
The secondary effects of remodeled schooling on unions and teacher-training institutions will be as great as on the schools per se. Each will lose the monopoly power they currently enjoy. For the most part, “well qualified schooling staff” will require less, rather than more, academic preparation, and the issues of concern to unions and professional associations will also be altered. While traumatic to these institutions internally, the changes will benefit the common good.
READY TO START CONSTRUCTION
Education visionaries since John Dewey have looked forward to a system of customized schooling that recognizes and enhances the unique characteristics of each individual child. Heretofore, the vision has been pie-in-the-sky. Now, reasonable and feasible action can be taken to make the vision a reality.