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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

Schools fundamentally flawed

By Randy Hitz

As a state and nation, we have been "reforming" education for decades, but the changes, though often positive, have not significantly altered the basic way our schools operate, and they certainly have not been sufficient.

Jason Agbayani, 15, looked through a copy of the Modern Biology book he used in his 10th-grade class at Farrington High School.


The last radical change in education took place around the turn of the 20th century as our nation moved from an agrarian and mostly rural society to an industrial nation with large urban populations.

At that time, information was a scarcity in many communities that did not even have libraries, and it was largely through the schools that individuals and communities obtained the information they needed to succeed.

The amount of information needed by most people was something less than a high school education. In fact, only about 10 percent of people graduated from high school in those days. By mid-century, the need for education had drastically increased, and almost 50 percent of people graduated from high school.

Today, it is widely believed that we need to have 100 percent of our students obtain at least a high school-level education.

The education system developed more than a century ago was not designed to educate all students at high levels. It was, in fact, designed to sort students and put them in tracks leading to different kinds of education and different kinds of jobs.

Tony Wagner, a Harvard professor and consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hawai'i Department of Education, makes this point clearly in his book "Making the Grade," where he calls for "reinventing" rather than reforming schools.

He says that our nation's schools are not failing. Rather, they are "obsolete."

Calls for education reform are well-intended, but often confusing. The "fixes" called for are usually more of the same — more days in school, more homework, more tests, more school boards, more professional development — or mere rearrangement of the governance structures.

Occasionally, changes supported with research, such as reductions in class size in early elementary-school grades, are made. But even these changes do not fundamentally alter the way education is delivered.

Finding a good solution begins with properly defining the problem. Are schools worse today than in the past? Are they failing?

By any objective measure, our schools are better today than they have ever been. SAT scores are up over the last few decades for all groups of students in spite of the fact that far more students take the test than in earlier years. The test began in the middle of the last century with a very small group of white, middle-class males intending to attend Ivy League universities.

Today, more than 50 percent of high school students take the exam. Graduation rates are far better today than in years past, and achievement scores for girls and minority students are better than ever.

The schools that we designed at the start of the 20th century are better than they have ever been. The problem is that they are not the schools we need today. Our schools must educate all students at higher levels and prepare them to thrive in, and contribute to, an information-rich and democratic society.

We cannot look to the past for answers on how to alter education. In Hawai'i, we cannot look to the Mainland, either. Every state and every school district in the nation is struggling with the same difficulties.

If we agree that fundamental change is important, then we can begin to work together to reinvent our education system. I suggest that this must include a discussion of higher education and early-childhood education, as well as K-12 education, since the same fundamental flaws of K-12 exist at the other levels.

The conversation must take place among educators, policy-makers, parents, business leaders, and the general public. I won't pretend to have the answers, but here are a few observations that may guide us:

• We know much more today than we did 100 or even 20 years ago about how people learn. We need to take advantage of that knowledge base by changing instruction accordingly.

• We have some consensus among business leaders about what kinds of knowledge, skills and dispositions they seek in employees. In addition to basic skills and knowledge, business leaders want people who have good work habits, are motivated, curious and respectful, and who are able to work constructively with others in finding solutions to problems.

• Early care and education has a profound impact on a child's ability to succeed in school and later life.

• We have consensus throughout the nation that standards need to be developed for students at all levels.

• We have consensus that all students need to be educated at higher levels than ever before, able to access and intelligently use the glut of information now available.

School redesign requires a true community effort if we are to address the kind of fundamental changes required.

Randy Hitz is dean of the College of Education at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.