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Saturday, November 22, 2014

In Response to President Barack Obama's Request for Educational Innovation: School Restructuring Could Improve Student Learning in Our Race to the Top

This article was previously published on Yahoo! Contributor Network, February 11, 2011. Let me warn you – is is LONG. But everything in this article still applies, so if you're upset about the way our school system is structured and you agree with me that some very innovative restructuring needs to take place, please continue reading:

On January 25, 2011, in his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama asked for innovation and creativity. And he challenged us: "...If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money."

I agree with President Obama when he states that "if we want to win the future - if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas - then we also have to win the race to educate our kids."

However when President Obama states that, "as many as a quarter of our students aren't even finishing high school," some drastic measures must be taken.

Why We Send Our Children to School
The reason we educate our children is because we want our children to learn how to think for themselves. We want to prepare them for life. We want them to be successful.
But what sense does it make for students to progress in accordance with the slowest learner in the class? And what sense does it make to slide students from grade to grade with only a D average?
If we truly want our children to be successful, we have to start thinking not only about the examples we are setting for our children and not only about our expectations of them, but also about how we plan to guide our children in ways that will improve their chances of creating successful, meaningful lives.
We have to ask if students are failing because they're stupid or if they are failing because our educational system fails to meet their needs?
What Defines Success
How do you define success? Money? Power? Beauty? Degrees? Certificates? Whatever your definition, success doesn't always happen by education alone. As a matter of fact, many successful people are high school dropouts. The reasons may vary, but often those students feel frustrated by the narrow learning environment in which they find themselves. What explains 126,330 students dropping out of school in the 2006-2007 school year (see source below)?
Schools place emphasis on reading, writing, spelling, math, science, history, and geography, but give little or no regard to music, physical activity, mechanics, building, or interpersonal skills.
Are educators placing more emphasis on passing than they are on learning?
The Goal of Education
While the goal of any educator is to teach children how to improve their cognitive skills by teaching them how to think for themselves, the goal should also be to teach them skills for which they are suited and in which they will feel successful.
From the first day of kindergarten, children come into the classroom with different skills. Some children are already capable of adding and subtracting while others don't even know how to count. Some children know how to write their names; others don't even know the letters of the alphabet.
Does that mean that children who know how to spell their names are superior in intelligence to children who never learned the skill? No.
It does mean, however, that those students who knew how to write their names were better prepared to enter kindergarten than were their fellow students.
Learning & Skills
What our educational system needs to recognize is that children have different skills sets, are at different stages in their cognitive development, exhibit different types of intelligences, and possess various learning styles.
According to Mark Smith (see source below), "Bringing forward evidence to show that at any one time a child may be at very different number development and spatial/visual maturation, Howard Gardner has successfully undermined the idea that knowledge at any one particular developmental stage hangs together in a structured whole."
Who is Howard Gardner?
Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard School of Education, is a man who disputes the belief that intelligence is a single entity that is inherited. According to Gardner, an increasing number of researchers believe "... that there exists a multitude of intelligences, quite independent of each other; that each intelligence has its own strengths and constraints..."
Howard, who graduated summa cum laude in 1965, studied the social sciences and investigated human nature - in particular, how people think. He believes that intelligence falls into different categories.
A Progressive Educational Model Requires Innovative Teaching and Recognition of Multiple Intelligences
Different types of intelligences, according to Howard are listed below, along with a brief explanation about each type:
Linguistic Intelligence
High linguistic intelligence allows individuals to express themselves well. They also have an ability to learn languages and are sensitive to spoken and written words. Writers and poets belong in this category.
Logical-mathematical Intelligence
The ability to analyze problems logically, recognize patterns, perform mathematical operations, and investigate scientifically (reason deductively), defines how people with logical-mathematical intelligence think. Scientists and inventors would fall into this category.
Musical Intelligence
People who perform, compose, and appreciate musical patterns and who have the capacity to recognize the differences in musical pitches, tones, and rhythms, comprise this category. Howard Gardner believes that some of these intelligences are connected, like this category and linguistic intelligence.
Because Gardner sees mental activity and physical activity as related, he believes that the ability to perform and coordinate body movements is a type of intelligence that requires people to use their bodies, or parts of their bodies, to solve physical movement problems. People agile in sporting activities, such as dancers and athletes fall into this category.
Spatial Intelligence
People who are adept at estimating distance and recognizing patterns in the area of space fall into this category. People with spatial intelligence think in three dimensions and have vivid imaginations. They are spatially oriented and able to manipulate images and puzzles. Sculptors, architects, and those in imagery careers exhibit spatial intelligence.
Interpersonal Intelligence
People who work well with others and who understand what motivates others, such as educators, salespeople, counselors and religious and political leaders exhibit interpersonal intelligence. They are good at communicating and may also be good at entertaining. Educators, social workers, and actors exemplify people with interpersonal intelligence.
Intra-personal Intelligence
The ability to understand oneself and what motivates oneself are examples of what constitutes intra-personal intelligence. People who are intra-personally intelligent understand their own feelings and fears. They could be philosophers or spiritual leaders. They would also work well in the field of psychology.
Existential Intelligence
Existential Intelligence is a type of intelligence that allows people to ponder, discuss, and tackle the deeper meanings of life and death. Philosophers are endowed with existential intelligence.
Naturalist Intelligence
People born with Naturalist Intelligence are concerned about nature and all things related to the natural world. Botanists, farmers, and geologists are examples of people born with Naturalist Intelligence.

Restricted Learning vs. Unlimited Learning
How many students would succeed in an environment where only music and kinesthetic (instead of only linguistic and mathematical) studies were taught? How many would fail?
Right now, what we offer students are only limited scholastic options. What if ALL students were given the opportunity to study classes that were geared more toward their own particular learning styles and intellectual preferences?
For example, instead of teaching only English, Math, History, Geography, and Science, with an occasional Physical Education class thrown in - as the education system stands now, educational institutions could include classes that might appeal to a broader range of students, such as:
Arts/Crafts/Patterns/Design, Building/Construction/Woodworking, English/Reading/Creative Writing, Ethics/Morals/Values, Farming/Gardening, Foreign Languages, Geography/Global Events, Health/Personal Hygiene, History/Current Events, Interpersonal Development Classes (including self-esteem motivational classes - click the link for ways to integrate self-esteem improvement methods with Interpersonal classes), Intra-personal Development Classes, Life Skills (i.e., cleaning, cooking, baking, paying bills), Math/Geometry/Algebra, Mechanics/Engineering, Music (appreciation and theory), Philosophy/Critical Thinking, Physical Education/Sports, and Science/Astronomy/Biology/Botany.
By offering more educational options and opportunities, students may find subjects that appeal to them and that hold their interest. When children proceed from one level to the next, they will discover the value of learning, and their desire for learning will move beyond the classroom and extend into adulthood.
Learning Styles
In addition to the different types of intelligences, another process contributes to the way students learn - learning styles. Until recently the different learning styles included the following ways students learned and retained information:
Students who learn visually understand what they are learning better when they are shown pictures and demonstrations.
Students who retain information better when they hear presentations learn better through auditory lessons.
Kinesthetic learners touch and feel in order to learn and retain information. A "hands-on" approach to learning is more effective for kinesthetic learners.
Richard M. Felder, Hoechst Celanese Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Barbara A. Soloman, Coordinator of Advising, First Year College at North Carolina State University, developed an additional list of the following learning styles:
Active and Reflective Learners
Active learners involve themselves in activities related to what they are learning while reflective learners, after learning lessons, take time to absorb the information. According to Felder, "Everybody is active sometimes and reflective sometimes."
Sensing and Intuitive Learners
Sensing individuals get the facts, use established methods to solve problems, are patient and practical, tend to memorize facts well, and prefer information that has a real-world connection, whereas Intuitive learners prefer discovering possibilities and relationships, abstractions and innovation. They don't like memorizing facts. Felder writes, that "Everybody is sensing sometimes and intuitive sometimes."
Visual and Verbal Learners
The only difference between this category and the categories mentioned above (Visual and Auditory separately) is the combination of the visual with the auditory. Felder and Soloman state that "Good learners are capable of processing information presented either visually or verbally."
Sequential and Global Learners
Sequential learners learn in a linear fashion, one step at a time, logically piecing information together, while Global learners see the whole picture first, grasping complexities without initially understanding how they understand what they have just learned.
Combined Learning Styles
Additional studies suggest that a combination of learning styles contributes to overall learning and the ability to retain information. Teachers around the globe are combining touch with sight and sound to provide a better learning experience for their students. Children who are exposed to a combination of learning styles tend to retain the information better than those students whose teachers merely recite monologues or require reading with no discussion.

Levels Instead of Grades
Providing the best learning environment for our children should be the goal of educators and parents. The way schools are structured today, though, some children enter school far more prepared than are their fellow students of the same grade. The teacher must teach the least prepared student while those who have already learned their lessons wait for the unprepared students to catch up.
Two of my grandchildren, for instance, already knew not only how to spell and write their names, but also how to recognize and write all of the letters of the alphabet before they entered kindergarten. One of my grandchildren already knew how to add and subtract on paper and in his head. Students who know the material being taught have to wait for the rest of the students to finish their assignments before they can move on.
If schools were structured with levels instead of grades (explanation below), kindergarten students who already knew how to read the alphabet would go to the level of learning for which they were most prepared.
In a levels learning environment, as opposed to a grades learning environment where entire groups of children go from grade to grade regardless of how well or how poorly they've done, children who excel in certain subjects in a levels learning environment, would be put into a level where they would most likely learn and not lose interest. Schools would be structured to accommodate the CHILD, not the grade.
Assessments of Progressive Levels Learning
Master Educators (explanation below) who possess the skills to transform our current grade system into a progressive learning system (levels learning) would establish the goals and guidelines for each level and would then structure each class to accommodate the various levels of learning.
Students entering school would take a test to assess their current level in each of the categories listed above (from Arts to Science).
Once their level was assessed, they would be placed into one of the following categories:
Entry Level
For beginners who know nothing about the subject being taught.
Beginner Level
For students who have some idea about and experience with the subject matter.
Intermediate Level
For students who have succeeded in learning everything that was expected of them in the Beginner Level.
Advance Level
For students who have succeeded in learning everything that was expected of them in the Intermediate Level.
Professional Level
For students who have succeeded in learning everything that was expected of them in the Advance level. The Professional Level would prepare students for a career.

Who are Master Educators?
Master Educators will comprise a group of assessment coordinators from a variety of disciplines who will create a blueprint for each level, design the goals that will bridge one level to the next, and construct the new learning levels from the ground up. They will then assess the success of schools that implement the new structure.
How many years would each level take?
Each level, depending upon the subject matter, could take anywhere from one to four years (or more) to complete.
Not every class would be taught every day. Like one successful school in Clifton, Illinois, students would learn in "blocks," with some classes being taught on Mondays and Wednesdays, while others would be taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and still others on Fridays, for instance. Some classes might be combined - ethics, for instance, could be interwoven with every class.
In a levels learning atmosphere, testing would still be necessary - grading, as it currently stands, would not. A simple pass/fail grading system would suffice, though teachers should comment on exemplary work.
The likelihood of cheating diminishes substantially when students receive only pass/fail grades. Students who fail would have to remain in one level until they met the requirements for passing that particular level (as determined by the Master Educators who designed the guidelines for each level).
Obviously students of various ages would share classrooms as each subject was explored. A five-year-old could likely find herself in class with an eight-year-old. A levels learning environment is geared toward recognizing and developing each child's strengths instead of grouping children together as a whole, based only on age.
Knowing the Basics
Master Educators would assess the specific levels each child should achieve in each subject. If the goal is truly to prepare children for adulthood and provide the best possible learning opportunities, parents and educators would be remiss if they neglected to address the basics. Academic basics should be mandatory and what necessitates "mandatory" would be determined by the Master Educators.
In a levels learning environment, instead of an entire class graduating from one grade to the next, students proficient in a variety of subjects would graduate to the next level. One student, for instance, might be at the entry level for English, the intermediate level for math, and the advance level for music. Each child progresses differently and would be educated according to his or her needs.
Example of Progressive Learning Levels
Instead of gearing learning toward the least prepared student, teachers would teach classes of students who are on the same level.
Take building classes, for example - students at the entry level might play with building blocks while learning colors, shapes, and sizes.
At the beginner level, students might build a variety of objects and learn about construction, the way homes are built, and the materials and tools needed for building them. They might also discuss famous buildings around the world.
At the intermediate level, students might be introduced to geometrical concepts as they produce angles, height, and depth.
At the advance level, students might study computer graphics programs and blueprints.
And at the professional level, students would learn about building in a way that prepares them for a career in the building field, possibly working as interns in their chosen profession.
Not every student would achieve the level of professional in all subjects.
Expectations & Implementation
All students should be required to learn how to speak and write English correctly, to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, to balance a check book, to read at a certain level, and to know as much about our Constitution as do immigrants who become U.S. citizens.
In order to provide a well-rounded education, students should experience at least the entry and beginner level of each class mentioned above (and beyond for some subjects). Certain expectations about learning and retention should remain as they are today, and schools should adhere to standards currently in use. The style of extending that knowledge, though, should change.
As the child advances, the structure of classes would become more focused. After a student completes the advance level, the educational emphasis should be placed on the professional level for which the child is most likely to succeed and in which the child shows interest.
The structure for teaching would have to change as well. Instead of teaching kindergarten through second grade, teachers might teach entry-level and beginner classes. Those who previously taught middle school might teach intermediate classes, while teachers who instructed high school students might want to teach the advance or professional level.
The best procedure for creating the type of learning environment for optimal success is the implementation of integrated subject matters. In teaching history, for example, instructors would expect students to write papers using correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Science could include mathematical concepts, and history could cover music and art as part of its curriculum. Cooking/Baking is an obvious choice in helping students learn math skills along with life skills.

No Tolerance For Malicious Intentional Bullying
In order to create the type of ambiance that is critical for learning, strict adherence to a "No Tolerance" policy should be implemented for a variety of disruptive behaviors. Consequences should be clearly stated. In addition to any type of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse (bullying), no school should tolerate guns, drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol. Master Educators would establish rules for a No Tolerance policy and school administrators and educators, instead of ignoring those policies, would be required to strictly enforce the rules.
Pros of a Levels Learning Environment
Creative teachers will learn to combine lessons by incorporating current events with spelling, for instance, math with music or building with art - any variety of learning combination that will improve student performance and interest. As President Obama said, "What we can do - what America does better than anyone - is spark the creativity and imagination of our people." A levels learning environment will require teachers to be more creative.
Students would feel better about themselves if they knew they were learning something that gave them a sense of worthiness and independence. Absent for a lot of children today, especially those who slide from grade to grade feeling as if they are failures, is hope - hope for a better future. Classes geared toward preparing students for a career would give students a sense of accomplishment, self-worth, and hope.
Students equipped with interpersonal and intra-personal skills, who are "self aware" and "others aware" stand a better chance of interacting with their peers than do students in a grades level environment where all students of the same age graduate from grade to grade together even though a percentage of those students pass with only a D.
Only in the current school system do students interact all day with several children who are exactly the same age. In the work environment, in neighborhoods, in society in general, people of all ages interact with each other. In a levels learning environment, children will interact with other children of various ages.
Students who care about their schools and their learning environment and who enjoy learning will be less disruptive than students who "get by" from grade to grade and merely "pass" from grade to grade.
A levels learning environment would give students who might have failed in a grades level environment an opportunity to excel in ways they never thought possible. Also, students in a levels learning environment might be less inclined to bully or to be bullied.
Schools that recognize and honor the different intelligences and learning styles would be better able to place students in classes where they would most likely succeed.
Cons of a Levels Learning Environment
Too many parents are uninvolved in the education of their children. We have to hold parents accountable for encouraging education in the home. Forcing parents to read books to their children or to spend time with their children might be difficult, if not impossible, in some situations. The new levels learning environment should demand parental participation, and if schools can't get parents to participate, Master Educators should devise constructive ways to persuade parents to take an interest in their children or devise alternatives in cases where parents refuse to become involved in the lives of their children.
Another problem with a levels learning environment is that many people are frightened by change, even if the change is positive.
In a levels learning environment the educational system would have to be completely restructured, and instructors would have to completely revamp their classes in accordance with guidelines set by Master Educators.
Teachers would have to recognize the different intelligences and adapt their teaching techniques to accommodate students with different learning styles.
These "cons," however, could also be "pros."
Teacher Accountability in a Levels Learning Environment
Along with assessing student performance, teachers would have to be held accountable for their own actions as well. Students would grade the teacher.
Tenured teachers are not necessarily quality teachers. They should be tested every few years to maintain the integrity of the levels learning environment, and they should take advantage of learning opportunities presented to them through the school system. The world keeps changing, and education has no room for teachers who fail their students (pun intended). We need quality teachers who care about their students.
Teachers should also be paid in accordance to the importance society places on the education of our children. If we value our children and their education, we should value the teachers who instruct our children. Based on salary alone - as a nation - we appear to value actors and athletes far more than we do educators. We need to reevaluate our definition of "value."
How We Measure Importance
Pushing students from grade to grade with only a barely passing grade does nothing to improve a child's sense of self esteem, nor does it do anything to improve that child's chance at a successful career. We neglect so many of our children when we don't recognize how valuable their contribution to the world can be if only we encourage them, stimulate their desire to learn, and contribute to their self confidence.
Children see how the world measures importance. People who entertain us are highly valued. President Obama recognized their distorted perceptions when he said in his State of the Union Address, "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline. Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don't meet this test. That's why instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top."
In our "Race to the Top," we cannot ignore the 126,330 students who dropped out of school in the 2006-2007 school year, nor can we ignore the high number of students who continue to drop out of school. A country focused on excellence and achievement in its "Race to the Top" should consider each individual child as having merit and value. Our collaborative goal should be to nurture the talent that each child brings with him or her into the classroom and accompany each student down his or her own personal path to success.
A levels learning environment would measure each child's progress, gently guide each child from one level to the next, and reward that child with an American Dream that is not only a wish, but a promise - a promise we made to our children when we told them that they were "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
A levels learning environment will enable students to pursue their dreams, live the lives they were meant to live, and experience the freedom of choosing a career in which they will excel. It will teach them how to co-exist with people of all races and all religions. It will teach them not only to tolerate people who are different, but also to celebrate those differences.
President Obama continues to challenge educational institutions with his Race to the Top challenge, requesting $1.35 billion for the fiscal year 2011 budget. According to the government's own education site, "Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform. Race to the Top winners will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow as they too are hard at work on reforms that can transform our schools for decades to come."
In Closing
What I have offered here is a comprehensive program that is ambitious and optimistic but also achievable. Our current school systems fail far too many students, and I'm not talking about just grades. We need to challenge ourselves to come up with better alternatives to the current system of education, and we have to offer our children a brighter tomorrow.
If you believe learning in levels will improve the chances for educational success, is more beneficial than the current grades system, and provides more opportunities for children than a grades environment, please CLICK HERE to send an email to The White House. Leave a link to this article in your message, and explain why you think a learning levels environment would benefit children.
I leave you with one last comment made by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union Address: "So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn't discourage us. It should challenge us."


  1. Long, but educators seem to like long. (And I agree...elementary schools would be less traumatic if they were more like colleges, in terms of having course levels rather than trying to put kids the same age in the same grade!)

    1. Priscilla, I'm sorry it took me so long to respond. I wanted to thank you for your support. I doubt if I'll see this program implemented in my lifetime, but I wanted to put it out there in case one day somebody sees the benefits of a levels-learning environment as opposed to a grade-level structure.

  2. I love the ideas expressed here. Mixed-age grouping and free schooling or unschooling seems to be a good way to combat the problem of grouping all kids of the same age group in the same level. Some kids advance faster or slower than others and need less or more instruction, based on individual skills. You've seen my piece on free schooling ( You may also enjoy this one:


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