What is the equation for American education?

At the dawn of the 20th century the equation for American education was 1 x 1 = 1.

The first factor—“1”—represents teaching and learning. The role of the teacher was the keeper and disseminator of all knowledge. The teacher would stand at the front of the room, largely lecturing or talking at the students. The students were mainly passive, seen as vessels to be filled by the expert teacher. Students sitting in rows listened, took notes, and focused on memorizing the information the teacher told them so that they could take the test to determine their letter grade (A, B, C, D, F).

The second factor represents school structure. By school structure, I mean how school is conducted. This would include our standardized curriculum and subject areas. It also includes daily school schedules, bells, different classes, seat time, assessment practices, grading, curriculum sequencing, learning environment, etc. The professional roles and responsibilities of teachers and administrators would also be included in this factor.

The equation’s product of “1” represents the results we expected from American schools of the time. We wanted students who were generally literate, civilized, and could leave school with most of the knowledge and the skills they needed, not only to begin working in American factories, but also for the rest of their life.

This equation for our schools held largely the same for most of the 20th century. However, toward the end of that century, as we progressed away from the Industrial era, the equation for American education needed to change. These more modern times demanded a different product from our schools— “2,” in this case. Schools had to produce workers and citizens that could first compete in a Cold War and then survive and thrive in an American economy that was becoming a more white-collar, knowledge-based economy. Students needed to be able to solve problems, apply their knowledge, think more complexly, and get to a higher level of learning (advanced classes, college, etc.).

To address the new demanded “product” and to make the equation work, American schools evolved their teaching and learning practices—the first factor in the equation. Schools expanded curriculum opportunities for students, offering more advanced classes and creating greater college-bound opportunities. Teachers began to emphasize students working in groups, integrating more diverse pedagogical approaches—not just lecturing. Classrooms evolved into more student-centered learning environments, where students became more active and played a larger role in their own learning. Additionally, we saw legislative mandates to provide supports and protections, like special education, Response to Intervention, English-language learner programs, and more to ensure all students could have equal access to the standard curriculum.

The equation of American education had become 2 x 1 = 2.

But expectations and demands have continued to grow. Needs like financial literacy, nutrition and exercise education, and social services have all been added to the equation. Then, as we approached the 21st century, we entered an era of unprecedented change. The needs of our country, economy, and world have changed dramatically. The knowledge, skills, abilities, and perspectives (often called 21st-century skills) students need today have increased exponentially. The “product” of our educational system hasn’t just increased, it has doubled—what is now needed is “4“.

The question is, if this is our current reality, what must be done to make the equation work?

Do we again look to the teaching and learning factor of the equation? The answer is no.  Teaching and learning have continued to evolve and improve in the last 20 years. We have added even more improvement and innovation: interdisciplinary learning, problem-based learning, differentiation, collaborative learning, flipped classrooms, blended learning, personalized learning, 1:1 devices, etc. Our current teachers are the most educated, diverse, professionally developed, and skilled our country has ever seen. But even these additions don’t solve the equation.

Our best and only viable solution to solve our current equation is to change the second factor—school structures. The reality is that since our teaching and learning has improved so much, our school structures are actually working against our teaching and learning factor. This counterproductivity is largely behind the feelings our educators have of being inadequate, overwhelmed, undervalued, uninspired, and disillusioned, causing far too many teachers to leave the profession.

Take interdisciplinary teaching, for example. We know this is highly effective for student learning, but for teachers to pull this off they have to work around and against subject area structures, lockstep curriculum demands, a far too rigid school schedule, and siloed school cultures. Teachers end up having to compromise aspects of what they want to and know what is right to do, and they have to work extra hard even to accomplish the compromised version.  It is no wonder why this practice hasn’t caught on and become mainstream in our schools.

School leaders and teachers alike need to come together and take a look at how we can transform our school structures. Upon closer inspection, this aspect of education has not been addressed since our modern form of education was created. Traditional school subject areas, bells, curriculum priorities, classes, seat time metrics, assessment practices, grading, etc., are all largely the same and are in serious need of redesign. We need to identify the skills, abilities, competencies, and knowledges that are essential to our modern times (e.g., critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, diverse literacies, engaged citizenship, student agency) and then design a new school structure that starts with these as our priorities.

Create authentic, real-world learning experiences—not classes and subject areas—for our students that go beyond interdisciplinary and become anti-disciplinary. Don’t have seat time drive our schools and student learning, have learning be the driver. Eliminate assessments of knowledge that can be Googled. Why are we preparing students for tests that computers can pass? Stop giving meaningless letter grades and give feedback to students on their level of progress in the important competencies (skills, abilities, and knowledges) relevant for their needs, their world, and their futures. Put students in a position to explore their passions and interests. Develop them as learners, not as students. Get rid of the bells and the factory-based schedules.

Reexamine the roles and responsibilities of teachers. Our best teachers shouldn’t have to make a decision between staying in the classroom or having leadership influence in their profession by entering into administration. Integrate career advancement within the profession by bridging the gap between teachers and administrators. Tap the knowledge and expertise of all staff. Remove the structures of the industrial model of education that only exist because we have never closely examined our practices in these areas. They are a real hindrance to transformative, lasting, highly engaging, and effective learning for our students.

And if we do this, maybe we can “solve” the equation of education before us: 2 x 2 = 4.

Paul Hermes is the associate principal of curriculum and instruction at Appleton North High School in Appleton, WI. He was the 2016 Wisconsin Associate Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHermesEDU and visit his education and leadership blog, Analogies From an Administrator.


About the Author

Paul Hermes is the associate principal of curriculum and instruction at Appleton North High School in Appleton, WI. He was the 2016 Wisconsin Associate Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHermesEDU and visit his education and leadership blog, Analogies From an Administrator.

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