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Flip education model: Use testing as helpful tool not trial by fire

    As the presidential campaign warms up, so is the rhetoric regarding Common Core — the Obama version of W’s No Child Left Behind. NCLB was a big fat failure and Common Core is following in its footsteps. That’s because they are both based on the same faulty strategy.
Al Ortbals    The picture of the American education system as failing is not an accurate one. To be sure our public schools have too many children who fail — who drop out early or graduate with little knowledge of any of the subjects they’ve supposedly “passed.”
    But most of the doctors at our most prestigious hospitals, our NASA scientists and engineers, the people who develop the self-driving cars and map the human genome, are products of our public schools, too.
    NCLB and CC are both based on the same faulty strategy. They aim to raise up the lower caste of our students by threatening them, their teachers and administrators with harsh consequences if they don’t meet certain standards. Common Core upped the ante by upping the standards. That just produces more failure.
    Meanwhile, the fundamental educational model that has been used for centuries is pretty much still intact. We group children together; take them through a lesson plan; and test them at the end. Some get As, some get Fs and the rest fall in between but they all move on to the next lesson. Testing is used simply to assign a value to what has supposedly been learned, not as a sampling of their knowledge, to determine for each student what they get and what they don’t so that the teacher can then go to work creating a  customized plan to help each of them over the humps.
    Testing in this manner becomes a diagnostic tool instead of a trial by fire.
    A few years ago I did a story on the Coca Cola Valued Youth Program. The program was developed in Texas and the Coca Cola Corp. was so impressed, it decided to fund it. The program matches “at risk” high school students with “at risk” elementary school students. Both have been identified as great candidates for academic failure. The high school pupil is assigned an elementary school student to tutor, which seems like throwing a boulder to a drowning man. But, the fascinating result was that it helped both. The high schoolers now felt responsible for their charge. They felt like they had someone who — maybe for the first time in their lives — was counting on them and they couldn’t let them down. Since its inception, it’s helped more than 33,000 students stay in school, graduate and move on to productive careers.
    Something similar is the Kahn Academy. Salman Kahn was a New York stockbroker when his 12-year-old cousin asked for help with math. As she lived 1,000 miles away, he created a lesson for her via the Internet. It was such a help to her that she passed it along to friends and family and they passed it along and so on, branching out into requests for help on a myriad of subject matter. That was in 2003. By 2009 the demand had spread so far that he quit his job on Wall Street to devote full time to developing and distributing his lessons. As of April 1 of this year, his Kahn Academy tutorials have attracted nearly 3 million subscribers and his program has been taken in by the Bill Gates Foundation. By the way, Kahn is a public school graduate.
    I think that our approach to education is all wrong. Group learning needs to be replaced with individual learning. Everyone learns in different ways and different speeds. Why do we try to stuff everyone into the same sausage factory and expect everyone to come out with the same results?
    The problem with American education is it’s a one size fits all. That was probably necessary before but now we have the technology to flip the model on its head. If we made better use of technology so that students could work through subjects in their own way with teachers acting as tutors to identify problems, recognize their learning patterns and help them over the bumps, I think we would achieve far more than we do with threats, tests and reprisals.
    Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at or (618) 659-1977.

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