It seems that the American educational system is in a perpetual state of reform. Everyone agrees that current and past systems do not work, yet every so-called solution is another dead end. With each new sales pitch, textbook or academic initiative comes the same frustration. Our children are failing. PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, states the following: “The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.”

In repairing this broken system, we seem to be very clear on the what, somewhat fuzzy on the why and clueless on the how. This system of teaching and learning was not designed to serve the diverse population, social conditions, and the multitude of learning challenges we face today. Throughout my career as an educator and educational leader, one of the questions I am often asked is: How can we build a curriculum that will satisfy the needs of such a diverse population with varying degrees of academic exposure? I believe this question is at the core of our educational dilemma. Now depending on where we are on the political timeline, that question could be answered differently. If we were in the Industrial Age when our current education system was modeled after factories to produce the American workforce, the answer would be simple; either you succeed or drop out and get a job. If we were living in the era prior to Brown vs Board of Education, the solution would be, deal with the resources you have under the misconception of “Separate But Equal.” The modern era gave us No Child Left Behind. This standards-based platform held school districts accountable for their success or failure with state-wide assessments. This one-size-fits-all approach fails to address diversity and social challenges. NCLB is not a curriculum; neither is its counterpart, the Common Core Learning Standards. The Next Generation standards were supposed to right the wrongs of Common Core, however it is also a list of standards that poorly reflect diversity or pedagogical practices, doing very little to address how teachers teach. Today, Critical Race Theory tries to approach education from a lens of diversity and awareness. Unfortunately, it has become the latest political football in the game of educational reform that is an integral part of the polarized political landscape that is America, the result, stagnation, misinformation, and unending gridlock.  

Part of the problem is we still categorize education as “General Education” and everything else is a subcategory or outlier. We need to start realizing that those subcategories and outliers are our student population. What is a general student? Merriam Webster defines general as: “Belonging to the common nature of a group of like individuals, GENERIC.” Our education system is anything but generic. The New York City Department of Education breaks down the following: 

13.3% of students were English Language Learners

20.8% were students with disabilities

73.0% were economically disadvantaged

Race or ethnicity:

40.8% Hispanic

24.7% Black

16.5% Asian

14.8% white

This breakdown doesn’t even reflect the students with unclassified social emotional needs. 

If we are going to rebuild this system, we must start from the ground up and understand who we are designing it for. This eliminates the need of forcing different groups into a curriculum that doesn’t fit or apply to them. These groups are the mainstream. It’s time we built reflective curricula and assessments for all students. Here is an example, ELA (English Language Arts) is broken down by age, grade and level, as are all major subjects. This means that every 3rd grader, roughly 9 years old, will be learning the same thing at the same time. Here’s the problem, in a class of 25 students, no two are alike but we expect them to conform to the same material, the same level of accountability and the same assessments. Maybe this was more effective in a homogeneous society, (and I even question that) but in today’s classroom, student needs are more complex and diverse. 

We need a curriculum that is designed to be guided by learning rather than teaching, for example a curriculum on animals should include the following: regional, vocabulary, language, culture, reading comprehension and student experience to name a few. This is all student perspective based. Basically we are understanding that this topic will mean different things to different students with multiple correct answers. We must teach with students, not to students. What the students bring to the classroom is an integral part of the learning process. You cannot build a curriculum, unit, or lesson plan without knowing who you’re writing it for. Some may still ask, how can we create a lesson for every type of student? You don’t have to. The lesson plan should be created to have opened avenues to fit the needs of all students 

We live in a capitalist society; there is no doubt that this level of reform would increase the education budget exponentially, but so does infrastructure, war, space exploration and government debt. Educationdata.org states: “The nation puts 11.6% of public funding toward education, well below the international standard 15%.” However, the lack of priority does not fall solely on the government. Marketwatch.com stated that Americans spent $100 billion annually on sports alone. We have a great deal of work to do if we want to address our education problem with authenticity and earnestness. Keep in mind this article is not for teachers; it’s for policy makers that affect teaching, and a reminder that we must include teachers and students in the decision-making process, and just maybe we can start to have conversations on the how in education.

Clarence Williams Jr. is a retired assistant superintendent in the New York City public school system. He holds a doctorate in educational leadership, a master’s in education administration, a masters in multicultural education. He has a k-12 license in special education and educational leadership, has worked as an educator and leader in the public school system for over 30 years and is an adjunct professor.

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