Why isn’t the traditional education system up to the task?

The traditional education system was designed in the industrial age of the early 1900’s. Technology was expanding, the population was growing and we needed an efficient system to prepare a workforce for the new economic era. Drawing upon the Prussian school system, American schools used a one-size-fits all model to ensure everyone developed the foundational skills in numeracy and literacy. Beyond that schools ranked and sorted students to determine which students would be able to move on to higher education and which would move directly into jobs in factories and farms.

It’s not that the traditional education model is broken. It simply is not suited for the aims of public education in the modern age. The social movements of the 1960’s and continuing today are changing our expectations. No longer are people limited because of their race, culture, or gender. We expect our schools to ensure ALL students thrive in school and beyond. That doesn’t mean that all students will reach the very same outcomes at the very same performance levels. We want our students to be high-flying as they discover their potential.

Expectations for foundational skills are increasing as well. Have you read the small print on your health insurance or mortgage? Every day living requires strong literacy and numeracy skills. Furthermore, jobs today require students to be problem-solvers, strong communicators, and to think creatively. Modern factories require people to use their brains to analyze, evaluate, and work collaboratively to discover solutions. So does launching a small business. These higher-order skills require a different type of learning experience than memorization and comprehension. Students need to be engaged in learning to apply academic knowledge and skills to challenging real-life problems. Sitting at a desk, listening to a teacher and taking notes simply won’t do the trick.

Finally, we know much more about how students learn than we did a century ago. Students aren’t empty vessels into which knowledge can be poured. Students have to be active learners. They need to develop the building blocks of learning such as growth mindset, metacognition, and self-regulation to fully engage in learning. One-size-fits-all approaches don’t work as well as approaches that recognize that students bring different knowledge, skills and experiences into the classroom. But how are supposed to personalize and build higher levels of knowledge in a system that was designed to do the opposite? We can’t. Which is why we have to change.

There are 10 primary flaws in the traditional system that perpetuate low achievement and inequality.

  1. Traditional education focuses on a narrow set of academic outcomes. But, we know it takes more than reading and math to thrive!
  2. Traditional education assumes that people’s intelligence is carved in stone – that there smart people and not smart people. But, we know that intelligence can grow with effort.
  3. Traditional education is bureaucratic. But top down rules and regulations are demotivating for students and adults.
  4. Traditional education focuses on covering standardized content. But this doesn’t engage students, it can even alienate them. Relevance, engagement, and motivation are key.
  5. Traditional education intervenes to support kids only when they are behind. But why not provide kids with supports when they need them before they ever get behind?
  6. Traditional education uses standardized tests to measure how much students learned. But by the time we know this, it’s too late! We need assessments for learning so that students are getting feedback to help them move forward.
  7. Traditional education is subjective about measuring learning.Good enough” in one class may be the same as failing in another. Variability is a problem! We need the same expectations for all students that are held consistently within and across schools.
  8. Traditional education doesn’t tell students or parents where they are in their learning or what they need to do next to progress. Too many students don’t know they are off track until it is too late – after the test, after the report card, or when they can’t graduate. Students need to know where they are in real time.
  9. Traditional education uses A-F grades based on assignments and behavior. It helps to rank students, but A-F grades don’t actually help students fully master everything they need to learn. Students need meaningful feedback based on learning targets and opportunity to revise until they succeed.
  10. Traditional education moves students forward even when they haven’t learned what was expected and doesn’t let them move beyond their grade level. This widens learning gaps and, over time, makes it increasingly hard for kids to catch up. It makes teachers’ jobs harder as they have to serve classrooms with wider and wider sets of skills. Schools can organize themselves to provide learning that repairs gaps, keep students on track, and allow them to soar above grade level.

This section has been adapted from Sturgis, C. & Casey, K. (2018).Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA:iNACOL.

Questions to Consider

  • Which of these 10 features of the traditional school are present in your school? Are there some that you think are meaningful and should be maintained? Why? Are there some that you think are problematic? Why?
  • What do you think is the belief about how students learn upon which the traditional system is based?
  • Which flaws has your school or district addressed? What did you learn from making that change? How can you build on this success?
  • Which of these flaws resonates most with you? Which might be a good place to start?
  • Which of these flaws might be most challenging to address? Why? Who will you need to engage to build support or overcome barriers?