K-12 public education, already in crisis pre-COVID-19, is on a steep downward trajectory — with the severe lack of instruction time, staggering learning loss, alarming dropout numbers, and serious student disengagement. With half of the schools closed nationwide a full year without providing in-person instruction, and only returning with reduced instruction hours despite heaps of additional funding, it’s overdue time for a K-12 redesign.
Before considering what a redesign might look like, we should first recognize that implementing the needed changes will require skilled and courageous leadership. It demands that leaders ask what needs to be done for students and then develop plans based on that knowledge. It requires responsibility for decisions and communication. It warrants working together with a “we” versus an “I” mindset. And, most importantly, it needs a focus on opportunities rather than problems.
Emphasizing problems can quickly become discouraging and overwhelming and result in blame-casting. Instead, we need to devote intense thought and energy to identifying and leveraging present opportunities that can open the door to more successful K-12 education.
Pre-pandemic, a K-12 redesign was in order, as the existing system was outdated — the educational approaches were not producing robust student learning for the majority of students. Seventy percent of students did not receive the education required for success in the 21st century.
The U.S. places pitifully among developed nations in the world for student achievement — 26th overall, 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 33rd in math — despite leading the world in education spending (over $720 billion annually). Now, more than a year after COVID-19 entered our country, our national K-12 public education system is in far worse shape.
The history of our government spending on K-12 education, which rises with each passing year, has proven that spending more money does not equate to increased student learning. So additional funding should not be viewed as the solution to improving U.S. education. Nor is it a prerequisite for redesigning the U.S. K-12 education system to achieve American student achievement scores on par with other developed nations.
The U.S. needs an education redesign, starting with a financial overhaul, if we want to remain competitive with China, and others, in the global economy. Educating our children and teens at a level comparable to these leading countries is the main goal. Instead of expanding our K-12 public education funding, we need to spend the already allocated, astronomical amount of funding smarter.
Within the existing system, funding formulas must be redesigned so that money follows students to where they attend school, known as backpack funding. Clint Bolick and Kate J. Hardiman explain, “Imagine the transformation if students were the primary source of public school funding. Schools would be focused on attracting and retaining students by offering a distinctive, high-quality, responsive educational product.”
We also need to acknowledge that some students cost more to educate than others. The extensive bureaucratic hierarchy and personnel infrastructure of public education critically need auditing and trimming. Private schools are able to function more effectively in both operations and cost without these and produce better student learning outcomes. Performance as opposed to seniority teacher pay, as well as the removal of tenure, must be implemented to create accountability for student learning. Adjunct teachers should be employed to better correlate fluctuating student enrollment numbers with staffing expenditures.
Additionally, a K-12 redesign financial overhaul warrants free-market education instead of the existing monopoly. Ultimately, we need choice and competition as the drivers to improve U.S. K-12 education. We can’t continue to embrace these principles for the majority of other less important products and services while resisting them when pertaining to our most prized asset and crucial investment — our children and their education.
Our country’s future demands, and children deserve, nothing less than schools producing superior student learning results and providing first-class customer service to families. The schools that fail to do so should not only lose government funding but should cease to exist. The U.S. must spend more wisely and redesign our education system to foster and require remarkable results.
Another system change warranting revision is the school calendar. Looking at the school year length of the countries leading the world in K-12 student achievement reveals a key correlation — the top performers have more school days per year. The following indicates the world ranking and number of school days by country:
The trend continues with the United States coming on the radar in 26th place with 180 school days a year.
Donald P. Nielsen, in Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education, advocates for both a longer school year and school day in the United States. He suggests the school day be extended to seven hours (it is currently six hours or less) and the school year moved from 178-180 to 205 days.
These changes would give U.S. students 33 percent more time in the classroom. Following the current schedule, Japanese students will graduate with two more American school years than U.S. students in the same 12-year timeline. Similarly, Singapore’s students will attend school a year and one-third longer. The shorter classroom learning time for U.S. students is reflected in their inferior performance scores on international exams.
The U.S. K-12 education system is based on time, not student achievement. Too many students exit the system logging the required time but not meeting learning proficiencies. Students should be promoted based on their competency, not the school calendar.
The current, flawed system uses time as the constant and achievement as the variable — students progress from one unit to the next based on teacher lesson plans and due dates instead of concept mastery. Similarly, students advance a grade each summer when late May or mid-June rolls around regardless of whether they achieve proficiency across all learning content. We have a factory model with a conveyor belt running at a consistent speed rather than being correlated to the student’s learning pace.
As any parent with more than one child knows, no two children are alike. Combine each student’s unique differences with his/her learning readiness, and it’s evident that a one-size-fits-all model won’t be effective. Yet that’s how our schools, designed nearly a century ago, operate today.
Nielsen outlines how levels, not traditional K-12 school grades, would be a wise alternative:
An achievement-based system would not have grades one, two, three, and so on, nor would it have letter grades A, B, and C. Students would start the year by being placed in appropriate levels and would remain there until they had met the standard of learning for that level. Children behind in their learning would be put in smaller classes with gifted teachers to speed up their pace of learning. Then they would move to the next level, regardless of whether or not the month of June had happened to arrive.
Obviously, these changes cannot occur overnight. But instead of maintaining our existing system, which fails to prepare 70 percent of students for success in life and the competitive career workforce, let’s get started with steps toward these ends.
With transformational leadership and stakeholder support, America can educate every student in every school effectively. Our K-12 education system can be transformed to better serve our students and our country by a redesign that includes a financial overhaul, a revamped school calendar, and a system based on achievement instead of time.
A complete redesign is not only urgently needed but has more possibility of success than in decades past. The COVID-19 K-12 educational shakeup presents an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.
Note: Full articles in the K-12 Redesign series include “A Financial Overhaul,” “School Calendar,” and “Achievement Instead of Time.” Future articles will explore additional components of a K-12 educational redesign.
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Fellow at Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education.
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