What Should Education Look Like?

by Lisa Niebels
While the needs of our economy have changed, the educational structure has not.  It continues to use a top-down industrial model in which creativity and individuality are discouraged. In most schools today, the individual learner and the family’s role in personalizing the educational experience to meet the needs of each learner as well as the community are ignored.
It is time to reform our current compulsory educational practices.  One “reform” is already being attempted.  This has been the implementation of a high-stakes testing requirement for all public school students. While the goal of this is supposedly to provide every student with the skills needed for the twenty-first century, the result is sadly that many students are instead finding themselves without these skills— and also without a high school diploma. According to an article published in February by the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, students who do not pass the RI Dept. of Education’s “high stakes testing” requirement, slated for implementation in 2014, will not receive a diploma. Based on this year’s recently released NECAP testing scores in math, close to half of all students currently enrolled in Rhode Island schools may not graduate, and the proportions are much higher for some sectors of the school population.  For example, 84% of special education students, and 70% of all African American and Latino students are likely to fail.  Not surprisingly, the prospective failure rate is unevenly distributed throughout the state:  While 13% of Barrington students and 14% of those in East Greenwich may not qualify for a diploma, the figures climb to a dizzying 69% and 79% for those enrolled in Providence and Central Falls schools, respectively.
In our schools today we are cramming as much testable data into our children as possible and medicating the non-compliant ones in order that they meet the expectations of a fear-based culture.
What are the alternatives to the current ineffective educational system?  I have come to believe that providing students with personalized educational experiences is the most effective reform we could implement.  Learners and their families should always have the opportunity to be active participants in their education, and, for some, homeschooling may be the best approach.  Some schools also take an individualized approach.  I worked for over ten years at the Met School, which empowers high school students to “take charge of their learning” through internships and individual learning plans, and I have spent a year in Roger Williams University’s College Unbound program, which integrates personalized learning with other traditional offerings, classes and online learning.  According to College Unbound’s philosophy, “Requirements are learning goals, not courses— and different students meet them in different ways.”
Choice is ultimately what we need to offer.  Education is too important to waste on regimented learning taught with military precision and uniformity.  Such education will not enable learners to realize their full potential as human beings, and the adoption of high-stakes achievement tests will only serve to create a bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots in Rhode Island and elsewhere.
If you are interested in working to stop the defective, and potentially disastrous educational “reform” being promoted by Commissioner Deborah Gist and the Rhode Island Department of Education, please e-mail me at lniebels1@gmail.com.
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