Regarding educational reform, I think there are two main dimensions to address: 1) Student socialization and culture, and 2) targeted student (and teacher) placement. (Though issues of teacher socialization and training are also relevant, in this essay I’m going to focus only on student socialization, which I think is the most critical issue in educational achievement; and, yes, in response to a comment to this essay on Facebook, that does include addressing parent socialization as well.) The issue of student socialization and culture involves how students are taught to be students and encouraged to engage in those behaviors most conducive to successful learning, both in the school and in all the years and hours outside of (including prior to) the school. The issue of targeted placement involves making sure that every student and teacher is placed in the environment most conducive to satisfying their particular needs (for students) and most able to exploit their particular talents (for teachers). In other words, neither students nor teachers are fungible (interchangeable) , and we need to stop acting as if they are.
Student socialization is really the critical factor in student success or failure: Those students who are better socialized to be good students will excel more certainly and in a broader array of contexts, whereas those who are not will require increasingly precise, expensive, and elaborate interventions (that are decreasingly successful) and will to varying degrees obstruct the education of those around them. Addressing student socialization requires both more attention to the role that time prior to and outside of the school plays in determining how students perform in school, and more attention to the role that kids play in encouraging/facilitating either educationally conducive or educationally counterproductive behaviors among one another both in school and out.
To address the socialization issue of what goes on prior to and outside the school, I think we need to implement a very robust volunteer tutoring and mentoring program, locally, statewide, and nationally. We have enormous social and professional resources, including a growing cadre of retirees looking for useful places to put their time and energy, and a huge need on the part of many students to be socialized into a sense of intellectual curiosity and how to feed the hunger for knowledge and comprehension that such curiosity instills. (To some extent, such socialization primarily requires careful nurturing of innate tendencies, because children are naturally curious.)
As for in-school, student mutual socialization, I worked on a research project years ago involving incentivizing mutual encouragement of positive behaviors in a target population (something I’ll call “group-mediated behavioral reinforcement”). The project was enormously successful, and can and should be applied to schools. We already have in Colorado programs like The Legacy Schools Project implemented by The Colorado Legacy Foundation, rewarding students for their own good academic work, but what if we extended such incentive-based programs to rewarding not only good academic work (e.g., passing an AP exam with a 3 or above, as Legacy does), but also helping others to do so as well, paying successful students for their recruits who also pass with a 3 or above? What you end up with is a positive pyramid-scheme of increasing numbers of successful students scouring the remaining student population search of recruits to train and assist in excelling academically.
Finally, targeted placement: We throw students with various and competing needs all together, and frequently don’t address any of their needs very well, particularly in failing schools. We need to identify student needs, and target their placement into schools that can specialize in meeting those needs. For instance, some of the most responsible and motivated students in the articulation areas of failing schools would benefit most from a college-like environment; others need military-like discipline due to the degree to which their own dysfunctional behaviors have become entrenched in them; and others still need more personal, emotional, and focused attention and nurturing. School choice does not really address this, because parents and students generally seek out the schools that they wish were right for them rather than those that actually are, or, in some cases, that satisfy needs and desires other than educational achievement. We need to find ways to target the assignment of students to schools in order to give them each what they really need, and to prevent those with incompatible needs from undermining the education of those around them.
“Targeted teacher placement” simply refers to the fact that we assign teachers too haphazardly, frequently putting teachers with less subject area expertise but great technical and classroom management skills in high performing schools and advanced classes, and teachers with extraordinary subject area expertise but poorer technical and classroom management skills in behaviorally challenging schools and classes, losing the comparative advantage of both and setting both up for failure or sub-optimal performance (which in turn means that the students in both contexts receive educational services inferior to what they would have had teachers been more strategically and consciously placed).
Clearly, all of these recommendations raise a host of issues, primarily involving the tension between centralized decision-making and local autonomy. But identifying the most fundamental, underlying factors affecting educational success and failure is a critical component of any truly robust and ambitious plan for educational reform. It’s time to move past the superficial panaceas and start focusing on the real educational challenges we face and on developing richer, deeper and more structurally penetrating strategies for addressing them.
(See also Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons, A Colorado Teacher’s Perspective on Education Reform, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve)