Using high-tech devices smartly can customize the age-graded school out of existence. But it won’t happen.
Nowhere in Parts 1 and 2 on age-graded schools did I mention the uses of technology. I have claimed in those two posts that, first, as a mid-19th century reform the K-12 organization has been a resounding success. It is the model for school organization here and abroad; its longevity as a reform is unchallenged. Second, while efforts to ungrade schools with teams of teachers leading multi-age classrooms have appeared from time to time, they have never seriously challenged the dominance of age-graded schools.
So what about high-tech as the vehicle for upending the age-graded school? Why not replace self-contained classrooms where teachers dole out chunks of curriculum in bite-sized pieces every day for 36 weeks with multi-age groups of students in ungraded schools where students learn individually and at their own pace from lessons tailored precisely to their intellectual needs? Or simply have students learn at home? No more teachers preparing lessons for 25 to 35 students. No more end-of-year high stakes test. No more kids failing a grade. No more social promotion. No more 8th and 9th graders taking algebra … No more age-graded school.
Not so fast. Read the words of former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, now CEO of a high-tech division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation:
As someone who led America’s largest school district for 8 years, serving over 1 million children, I believe technology can radically transform the way students learn by customizing instruction, and by helping teachers focus on each student’s areas of greatest need. But the key to capturing this potential lies as much inside our own hearts and minds as it does in any hardware and software we’ll deploy…. Technology’s greatest potential is as a vehicle for students to learn more deeply and individually, unleashing them from the limitations of learning in step with 25 or more peers with different needs and strengths. How much a student learns is defined by two things: the quality of the teaching curriculum and the amount of knowledge students absorb from it. Those are the critical things, and, fortunately technology has the potential to significantly improve both instruction and engagement. It can leverage world-class experts in teaching math, for example, exposing students around the country to the best teaching. It can engage students, by using analytics to direct them to particular lessons that relate to their specific needs. The possibilities are enormous if we apply true discipline to our tools and demand that they help students learn.
Klein is one sharp fellow. Yet in his paean to the revolutionary potential of high-tech where he mentions the School of One in New York City and virtual Khan Academy, nowhere in that article does he take the logical step of saying that age-graded schools can be replaced with ungraded organizations where lessons can be customized to meet the needs of each and every child.
Like installing a jet engine in a Model T Ford, Klein’s “revolutionary” use of technology to customize teaching and learning keeps the age-graded school in place. Hardly a fundamental change when the lockstep of traditional schools continues to prevail in organizing how teachers teach and students learn.
Champions of online learning and customized lessons who see high-tech as a “disruptive innovation” that will eventually lead to the disappearance of traditional schooling–yes, the age-graded school–are far less timid than Joel Klein. The NewSchools Venture Fund has shifted from funding charter start-ups to more technology in schools. Liberated Learning and a host of other books, articles, and bloggers tout how online instruction and its toddler cousin–blended learning–will transform schools, end teacher unions, and bring an educational Nirvana to all Americans.
So what’s up among reformers when it comes to new technologies that can, in their favorite word, “transform” the Model T Ford of schooling?
What’s up is that age-graded schools are here to stay. Why? In earlier posts, I identified the social beliefs of most Americans and the political importance of “real schools.” There is more, however. Every single policy touted by “no excuses” reformers from Common Core State Standards to NCLB to Teach for America to New Leaders for New Schools to School of One to charter schools to teacher pay-for-performance–each reform is married to the age-graded school.
That is why CEO Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, and the nation’s governors and state education chiefs, vociferous in applauding technology, are silent about ending the organizational structure of the age-graded school.