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Why Education Reform Fails

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The problems with today's education system are more systemic than most people realize. The fundamental reason that almost all education reforms end in failure is because the basic premise of education reform ignores certain common sense issues grounded in reality. It takes 13 years (K-12) to education most people to a 12th grade academic level overall. If it did not take 13 years, then there would not be 13 years of education offered. Most education reform approaches go on the premise that with enough money and training, a school system can take a child in the 10th grade with a 5th grade reading level and somehow get him to traverse reading levels 6 through 12 in a 3 year time span. It cannot be done.

The other flaw in most education reform approaches is the belief that given enough money, a system can be reformed in a relatively short period of time by improving the overall quality of the school with new buildings, better teacher pay, and new books. The problem with this holistic approach to education reform is that we must understand that if we want a world class 12th grade class, we have to promote world class 11th graders into that curriculum. To have a world class 11th grade class, we have to promote world class 10th graders into that world class 11th grade program. If we carry this thinking to its logical conclusion, reform must start in kindergarten and will take 13 years on average to create a world class and completely reformed educational system.

There are other systemic problems that lead to the degeneration of our educational system. Peer based education is one of the primary approaches that have negatively affected education. Along with peer based education comes the bundling of educational material by peer groups as well. 10th grade math is bundled with 10th grade English without consideration of actual student performance. This bundling and peer based promotion puts an undue burden on educators to promote children in step with their peers. The result is unqualified students being placed in classes beyond their academic performance levels. Combined with the external dependence on book publisher cycles, these systemic issues deteriorate the very fabric of our public educational system. The Advocate Mastery Approach addresses these systemic shortcomings.

I. Mastering Knowledge

The current grading approach in today's school focuses on familiarity with material and not academic mastery of the material being taught. The letter grading system ranks what a student understands on a sliding scale. What the system fails to recognize is that over time, the letter grading system creates its own set of problems. A math student who advanced to the next math level with a C grade is being promoted to a higher learning level lacking 25% to 30% of the background knowledge needed to understand the higher level of math. I use math as an example because most people believe they are not good at math, when in fact, the issue is most likely they are suffering from cumulative math learning deficiencies that began in junior high. By the time they enter 12th grade math, the knowledge deficit over 6 years is substantial. Educators must teach to a wide range of differing skill levels complicating the teaching experience.

If the goal of education is to help students master a body of material to be considered educated, then clearly the letter grading system is failing in doing so. A mastery approach creates a better academic experience and outcome for both educator and student. The mastery approach identifies the core material that a student must learn to be considered educated at a given level, and then teaches the student to master that body of material. The student does not advance to the next level of learning until the current level of learning is mastered by achieving test scores in the 95% range.

Another part of the mastery approach eliminates progress grading. Progress grading is the practice of averaging a student's final grade based on tests and quizzes given during the academic cycle. Most students perform poorly on the final exam and are promoted based on this approach. The problem is the students who perform poorly on final exams clearly demonstrate that they have not mastered the material. That means that previous grades on quizzes and tests are of questionable value.

Progress tests and quizzes should only be used to assess a student progress. They are teaching tools to inform the educator on where more emphasis should be directed in the teaching process. As tools of true student retention, they are of little value. I say student retention, because the tests and quizzes do inform the teacher about what the student understands in the short term, but little reflects what the student will retain in the longer term. Implementing a mastery approach to learning forces other changes in educational approaches as well. One of the first that must be abolished is peer based education. If students are promoted by their demonstration of knowledge, then there is no longer a need to take age into consideration when evaluating a student's performance on academic subject matter.

II. Eliminating Peer Based Education

Peer based education is one of the primary approaches that have negatively affected education. Peer based education is the practice of teaching and promoting students according to age group. 1st grade students are promoted to the 2nd grade together, and so on. There is serious social stigma associate with not being promoted with one's peers, and it is this stigma that makes parents lobby schools and educators to promote their children, even when academic performance determines they are unqualified. Being left behind can dramatically affect the self-esteem of a young person and educators understand this. Because educators feel a great burden to promote students in lockstep, they create loopholes in the system to allow student to avoid parental pressure and peer stigma.

The bundling of educational content by peer groups also causes further negative pressures on educators. We have 10th grade math bundled with 10th grade English and 10th grade history, etc. When a student is at jeopardy in one class because of poor academic performance, pressure is applied to the educator by parents and students to move that child ahead with a deficient education in one or more peer bundled courses to keep that child advancing with their peers.

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Paul K. Lott, Sr. is the Advocate Regent of the Advocate Nations of Africa, LTD, a non-profit agency dedicated to creating sustainable change in the 10 poorest nations of Sub-Saharan Africa.

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