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Public Education’s Fundamental Structure is Flawed

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Wide Angle View Of High School Students Sitting At Desks In Classroom Using Laptops

This month, more than 47 million children will enter public education buildings across the country for the start of a new year. Although many aspects of this school year will be new for our children — new teachers, new classmates, new curricula — the fundamental structure of public education in the United States remains the same as it has been for about 180 years.

I have worked with children, families and educators for 24 years in the public education system as a speech-language pathologist and academic researcher. The biggest problem I see with our current age-based system is that it stands in contrast to what we know to be true about children and their development.

Children are not monoliths simply because they were born in the same year. Development happens along a continuum, with children mastering different skills at different times. They represent a multitude of strengths and weaknesses, yet our current educational structure operates on the assumption of homogeneity. As a result, children who do not conform are at increased odds of being diagnosed with learning difficulties or made to feel “less than” their peers whose development follows the standard quo.

This outdated model has been around since the 1840s, when Horace Mann, a Massachusetts politician, sought a more efficient process of educating American children. He adopted a model from Prussia that used military commands for their education: students grouped by age under the guidance of one primary leader. Mann brought this system, designed for efficiency and convenience, back to the U.S. with little data to show it would work for children.

To be sure, our current model of public education has worked for many. I am one. For those who live in neighborhoods with well-funded schools that are able to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers — those with power and privilege — public school provides a sufficient foundation.

However, public education does not work uniformly for all. Half of U.S. adults read below a seventh grade level. In Texas, more than 600,000 students are diagnosed with disabilities requiring an individualized education plan, and 1 in 5 drop out before graduation. Rather than being responsive to the diverse needs of a heterogeneous group of students, politicians and businesses — those without firsthand knowledge of children’s development — continue to remove aspects of public education known to be beneficial to children such as play, recess and social-emotional development.

In our current system, when a problem is identified like poor reading proficiency, the federal government creates a new policy to address the problem. State and local school districts are charged with implementing the new policy. Once the policy has been implemented, researchers are invited to measure whether the policy was effective in mitigating the original problem. Notice that in this process, input from educators is rarely, if ever, invited. As a result, our current educational reform model is a constant chasing-your-tail conundrum, resulting in incredible amounts of time and money spent with often little return on the investment.

What if we flip this problem-solving model on its head and begin with science? The collective knowledge of child development and educational experts across the country could radically transform public education. If we are serious about making education functional in the U.S., we need to create time, space and resources to plan a system responsive to and centered on the needs of children. We must give power and decision making back to educators and child development researchers — those with firsthand knowledge of children’s learning and development — and remove it from the politicians and businesses motivated by political power and monetary gain.

Our children are not monoliths, and their diversity is a great asset. They deserve an educational system that supports all learners, based on knowledge of how children learn best. We have the resources to make this model of education a reality. Let’s lay the 1840 model to rest.

Mary Beth Schmitt is an assistant professor in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin and a researcher in child language.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Waco Tribune Herald, Houston Chronicle, and the San Antonio Express News.

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