Back to the Future in Education

Remember the paradoxical movie title “Back to the Future?” Over the years, many have proclaimed that’s what we should do with public education…go back to the educational fundamentals of the past to better educate kids for the future.

They say lots of this modern stuff – spiral curriculum, meaningful learning, holistic curriculum – doesn’t work as well as mastering multiplication tables, memorizing vocabulary, and so on.

Well, it appears the Obama administration is about to adopt an educational policy that goes back to get to the future…sort of.

Remember the one-room school house of yesteryear? Children of all ages and all learning levels were grouped together with one teacher. Those teachers taught children to master the three Rs while personalizing instruction for each as he or she advanced beyond those fundamentals.

A sometimes highly successfully remnant of that one-room school house model continues today. These are home schools where parents personalize instruction for children of different ages.

Last week, the Obama administration announced plans to re-focus its national Race to the Top education reform program. For 2012 it will award grants to school districts willing to revamp school structure and pedagogy to focus on “personalized instruction.”

A Reuters reporter briefed on the change wrote: “To win a share of the money, districts must come up with a way to personalize education, so that each child can advance at his own pace and explore his own interests, the rules state. Districts must also ensure that students move on only when they have truly mastered a skill – not when they have completed a packet of worksheets or listened to a semester of lectures.”

Now, that sounds like the one-room school house of old.

But, of course, you have to add the modern stuff Race to the Top requires: connecting student data with college outcomes; rigorous evaluation of teachers, principals, school boards and superintendents; and overhauling classrooms and student support services.

The innovation that makes “personalized instruction” possible in today’s crowded classrooms is instructional technology. Such tools allow teachers to act more like coaches and tutors than lecturers, like those parents who home school.

This change may be good news for Mississippi which has been unable to obtain a Race to the Top grant. Prior grants went only to states willing to implement tough, prescriptive changes at lowest performing schools. This year’s program allows individual school districts or coalitions of schools districts to compete for $15 to $25 million grants.

Still, the changes required by Race to the Top will be challenging. Few administrators and teachers, especially those in the targeted poorer school districts, have the experience, much less the commitment, to shift to the “personalized instruction” model.

Going back to go forward will be hard, but so is getting to the top.

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