Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Suggestions how to improve the U.S. education system

A paradigm shift is needed
The U.S. education system, as many other education system, is still stuck in an industrial age paradigm that does not prepare young people for the knowledge age. There are two basic kinds of change: Piecemeal and systemic (Reigeluth, 1999). Currently, most educational reforms happen in a piecemeal fashion that try to "fix" the existing system. What is needed is a radical systemic reform.

1) The current U.S. education paradigm is based on the "conveyor belt" analogy of the Industrial Age. All students learn the same content in the same amount of time. As Campbell and Monson (1994) state "This may be a model of efficiency, but certainly not for effectiveness". The current paradigm of standardized education allows for valid comparison of students with each other and sort them out efficiently, but does not aim to educate every student (Reigeluth, 1992). When an educational system holds the time of instruction constant, achievement must vary. It is well documented that students learn at different paces. What is the alternative? Instead of grouping students by age group that passes through the education system, schools need to give each learner the time he or she needs to reach the learning goals.

2) Besides the Industrial Age paradigm, the U.S. education system still uses elements from the older Agricultural Age: The three month long summer break was intended to allow children to help during the harvest on farms. Instead of one long summer break, the U.S. could introduce several shorter 2-3 week breaks spread out throughout the year. Research provided strong documentation that the long summer break increases the achievement gap between poor and middle class students (See Summer learning loss and The Case Against Summer Vacation). This also links to the main reason for the education achievement gap in the U.S.: Poverty (or "socio-economic disadvantage") (See Poverty is key factor to improve U.S. education).

3) A dual education system, with an academic and a vocational pathway, offers students valuable alternatives. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have a well-structured vocational school system as found in many European countries. In Finland, around 50% of students choose vocational school over University education (See The Finland Phenomenon). In the U.S. there exists no alternative to high school, and the current high school curriculum was created to prepare students for higher education not a vocation. In other words, a seventeen year old in the U.S. has only one option: He/She is either a high school student or a dropout (See Americas misplaced disdain for vocational education and Strengthening vocational education could improve U.S. education).

Instead of piecemeal reforms, like "No child left behind" that encourage standardization and assessment (=> sorting), the outdated paradigm itself needs to be changed (See Changing Education Paradigms). Changing the content (educational content standards) or assessment (standardized tests) is not sufficient to meet the needs of the Knowledge Age for the very structure of education discourages self-guided learning, initiative, and creative diversity.


Campbell, R., & Monson, D. (1994). Building a goal-based scenario learning environment. Educational Technology, 34(9), 9-14

Reigeluth, C. M. (1992). The imperative for systemic change. Educational Technology, 32, n11

Reigeluth, C. M. (1999). What is instructional design theory and how is it changing? In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-Design theories and models, vol 2: A new paradigm of instructional theory. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates


  1. On the whole, I agree with your suggestions... but there are some important constraints to consider.

    Regarding the first point, "schools need to give each learner the time he or she needs to reach the learning goals," who will provide this instruction? Our current classroom structure dumps 25-40 children on one overworked educator. How is s/he supposed to provide individualized pacing and instruction? In order to achieve this goal, reform would need to have dramatically more favorable student-teacher ratios and schools would need to have classroom/work spaces that could accommodate them. On a related note, how do we know when a student is "progressing normally but slowly" versus "just slacking off"? How do we determine the proper pace but still maintain a good level of challenge and a push to grow?

    On the second point, getting rid of the "three month long summer break," how do we renovate schools that are currently unusable during the summer months? Many aging schools are not air-conditioned, or at least not sufficiently to handle higher summer temperatures.

    Lastly, regarding the "vocational school system," how will we place students on one track or the other? Or will it be up to the students and parents to choose? Can placements be changed? If the schools "track" students, what assessments will be used to ensure fair and accurate results? How many students will be unfairly pushed into "vocational" paths due to the high levels of racial bias and profiling in this country? Moreover, will this system merely reinforce class-based segregation and "class roles"? The children of doctors, lawyers, etc. already have many more opportunities in life, and likely envision broader career opportunities for themselves. Children from "working class" families already have less money and fewer opportunities. How can we help students make good decisions about their careers while promoting upward growth instead of lateral stagnation?

    Overall, I agree that we need reform and I agree with the principles of individualized instruction, longer school years, and preparing students for careers with or without college. However, these kinds of recommendations cannot be made in a logistical or cultural vacuum. We have to face the realities of how and whether they can be implemented fairly. That is, the recommendations cannot remain "principles," but need to be accompanied by specific plans of action.

  2. Totally agree with your suggestion... Very nice post and good information here... Thanks for posting that....