Why Isn't Every Kid an 'A' Student?

scott walker in his madison office

American education is weird, flawed on its face. They offer to teach their students, asking pretty substantial sums for this teaching — often upwards of $20,000 per student per year for public education and more than $50,000 a year for college — with the general expectation that some students will fail or quit. In another area, we'd call them swindles.

What's more, in colleges, many of those students end up assuming student loans that are bigger than a mortgage, are not dischargeable through bankruptcy, and too often are for a degree that has no job prospects much better than jobs involving french fries and soy decaf lattes.

It would take far more than one article to explain how we got here, but at least one of the root causes is the Prussian model of education we adopted early in the 20th century. And no, I'm not using the ad Hitlerum fallacy here — our model of education is literally Prussian, coming from educational reforms instituted in Prussia and eventually throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire long before Hitler. The goal was to teach the masses, who were assumed not to be capable of a more advanced education, to become literate and tractable workers in the increasingly industrialized German-speaking state.

The model is essentially industrial, suited for the times: students are raw materials that progress through a series of work stations ("grades") allocated by age cohort, with their progress and eventual quality judged at each stage. Individual capabilities and interests were largely ignored, and the results were mainly measured by how much of the raw materials passed through the whole factory with at least a marginally acceptable final delivery.

And yes, of course, this is a mildly hyperbolic overstatement, but only mildly. The educational system disoriented not toward successfully teaching individual student, but to pushing a mass of students through as a group.

Of course, we then apply quality measures, and grade students performance, A through F or some variant.

What confounds this whole model is that students are individuals: some students are unusually gifted, or especially gifted in specific areas like music or chess; some other students are, um, not gifted; and an increasing number of specific learning and cognitive differences are being identified and treated, with greater or lesser success.

Simply on the basis of statistics, this is a guarantee that some children will be left behind, and some will be stultified by the lack of challenge.

Of course the parents, who are the purported customers at least of K-12 education, don't like having their own child scraped off on the jamb of the educational doorway; they want their kids' grades to be better. This results in pressure on the students, pressure on the teachers, but the structural contradiction of trying to fit individuals into what is inherently a collective model can't be resolved by simply applying pressure. The result of that is that rising grade averages are rewarded, whether they represent reality or not.

Within the structure of American education, there are other reasons that I'll be writing about in the future, but honestly I think many of them would be resolved if we just decided that k-12 students are individuals and directed education to teaching them as much as possible without treating them as identical workpieces on an assembly line.

Although that seems radical, that's only because we adopted the industrial model long enough ago that we've forgotten there were other models. I've written several times about one-room schools, which weren't stratified into strict grades; another model is apprenticeship, where the contract is to teach someone a trade in some length of time. And of course, we have the current example of homeschooling, where homeschooled students tend to score better on the SAT.

All of these models concentrate basically on one thing: mastery of the required topics.

There is research that supports the idea of a different, mastery-based model. What's become known as "Bloom's two-sigma problem," first described in The Two Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-on-One Tutoring, observed that mastery learning with feedback from a tutor produced two standard deviations (the "two sigmas") better outcomes than traditional classroom teaching.

The problem, of course, is how to provide one-on-one mentoring for every student. Anecdotally, homeschooling seems to give better outcomes, as did one-room schools, and the key observation there is that the students don't work one-on-one with a tutor all the time. Instead, they study independently and work with their tutors or mentors in short one-on-one sessions. This is also the model we use at Wyzant, where I mentor computer science and programming students.

That may be the key: one-on-one mentoring can be provided to many students through the internet, where doing so in person would be impractical. Other solutions, like an "inverted classroom" or online instruction, might also be part of it.

As Bloom showed, however, taking a radical, mastery-based approach does promise to raise achievement overall by two standard deviations, which corresponds to raising C students to the level of A students in traditional classes.

Maybe everyone can be an A student if we just rethink our expectations and methods.