Monday, January 30, 2006

Education Philosophy Needs Change: Here's How

As thousands of Kentucky high school seniors turn toward the home stretch on their secondary education, now might be an appropriate time to look at methods to improve the way we teach our kids. One simple step could make a big difference.

The time has come to break the mold on the way we educate Kentuckians.

Taxpayers have been mighty patient waiting for schools to improve as we pour in tax dollars year after year. If the goal for increasing school spending has been to graduate more students who can't do college-level work, then we are succeeding. Since it isn't, now may be past time to concede that a lack of funds is not holding us back so much as a problem with our philosophy.

We must now change our approach in order to change our future results.

The one thing that we can do to improve the prospects of our next group of high schoolers is to quit tying class credits to the amount of time spent sitting in a classroom.

Teachers get paid based on time spent in the classroom. But students benefit from what they learn. So if the question is "Who are schools for?" and if the answer we want is "educating students," then awarding class credits and diplomas the same way we pay teachers and administrators -- by the hour -- makes little sense.

A year spent in a high school class currently earns a student one Carnegie Unit. Mastery of a subject is not required -- a "D" is sufficient. You just have to put in your time.

That sounds a little like jail, doesn't it?

Nearly two in three of our high school graduates require remedial courses to even start college. We spend more money on education every year and get test results that do not reflect that increased commitment. Kentucky Economic Justice Alliance recently called for $337 million in annual spending increases for schools. For what? They don't say and I can't imagine.

This is getting a little ridiculous, don't you think?

Wiping out the Carnegie Unit would not cost taxpayers anything. If students could walk into a class and demonstrate mastery of the subject matter on Day One, they could move on to other academic pursuits at no cost to the taxpayer whatsoever.

I would love to hear a member of the education establishment try to prove why eliminating the Carnegie Unit system would be a bad thing. Actually, this approach could expose what is wrong with our public schools. Schools get money based on how many bodies are filling up their facilities and for how long. It should come as little surprise that this approach does not yield optimal results for students. Turning this old system on its head and promoting students on their learning schedule would put the focus where it belongs.

A good case can be made that very few students derive maximum benefit under a system that demands timing their learning curve to our agrarian-era school calendar. Better students tend to suffer under the Carnegie Unit system because the pace in the classroom is too slow for them. Struggling students suffer because the pace is too fast. It seems that we are paying a high price to keep the flow of education moving at a middling speed that doesn't fit -- and doesn't work for -- too many of our students.

We are already utilizing distance education in our high schools. This can be expanded at minimal cost to assist students in achieving subject matter mastery when they are ready.

Student misbehavior takes up an increasing amount of school resources. This could be turned into an advantage without the Carnegie Unit system. When students determine the speed at which their learning takes place, they will have less time or opportunity to be bored with school.

Our kids are capable of doing more in school and many of our dedicated teachers lose sleep trying to figure out how to help them succeed. The Carnegie Unit was established in 1907 and, clearly, doesn't fit in a world where everything else is customized by technology to fit the individual.

Like everything else in a free society, the Carnegie Unit can be done away with when the people demand it. What do you think?