Instructional Efficiency in Schools Requires
Individual Uniqueness Drive Classroom Assignment

suggestions by Ken Wear
to improve educational outcome

I am unique; you are unique; each of us is individual; we are not equal. Our United States, the greatest nation the world has ever known, is gradually slipping behind -- check the statistics if you think otherwise -- through refusal to act on that simple fact. What can be done to improve outcomes of education? We must re-think priorities and classroom organization if there is to be improvement.

Ask any parent who wants his children to be successful. He supports schools because reading (with understanding), computation and science are crucial to success. And preparation for success must forever be the primary goal of education. Anything that interferes with preparation for success is contrary to our purpose in organizing and maintaining schools.

The fundamental question in schooling is how best to pursue the imparting of knowledge and skills. Does society wish each product of the educational system to be equally versed in knowledge of civilization, to be equally adept at arithmetic, to read with equal facility? If that be the case it is obvious that the dedication of resources must be consonant with each individual's peculiar strengths and weaknesses; that is, dedication of resources must inherently be unequal. Conversely, if we wish the dedication of resources to be equal, then we must accept that the results will be unequal.

Of course supplemental information is desirable, such as knowledge of his body and how to protect it, or knowledge of country and awareness of other cultures. But we must concern ourselves with producing a classroom climate that most efficiently -- unless cost is no object -- contribute to success. Order in the classroom is fundamental; I won't address that. But for efficiency -- getting the most for the money -- requires that students be organized by degree of attainment; mixing students without regard for prior attainment -- diversity -- does not produce a favorable climate for success. And diversity should not be allowed to trump requirements for success.

With increased diversity in any one classroom, either the instructor must prepare more individualized lesson plans and limit instruction time to any one lesson plan or he must cater to a selected portion of the class. It should be evident that other students will have a lesser interest, and the stage is set for increased chaos. To counter the adverse effects of diversity either class size must be reduced or additional instructors must be available. So, as diversity is increased, either costs go up or education suffers. I argue for greater homogeniety in the classroom, that diversity should be a secondary or tertiary goal, that efficiency -- getting the most from student time, instructor time and resources -- should be a paramount concern.

We are forced to recognize that each of us is endowed by his genes with strengths and weaknesses that are peculiarly his. Be it immune system that makes us selectively susceptible to certain diseases or resistant to others, or visual or aural acuity that lets us discern colors and sounds, or muscular power and control that lend to athletics, or mental agility that confers a quickness of response, or physical stature or other features that distinguish us visually from others. Assume each child is born with the same brain capacity even though it may be organized differently; it is pointless to argue that one is superior to another. Each of us possesses a set of characteristics and traits that sets him apart as a unique individual. It is contrary to Nature to assume we all fit the same mold and have the same needs. The structure of our educational system should reflect the individuality of students as well as their common interests and abilities; common sense suggests it while fiscal sanity demands it. If that requires reform -- or even parallel public and private educational systems -- then so be it.

Our first concern should be children and their preparation.

The object of education should be to enable the individual to fit into his environment, armed with the knowledge and skills necessary to surviving and, hopefully, adapting well. Not only basic skills such as reading and arithmetic, but a foundation of knowledge in health, science and other building blocks of wise choices. As well as values such as cooperation, thrift, respect for each other and his peculiarities, industry, self-reliance, . . . As a society we must decide if our schools are to be holding pens for restraining youngsters until they reach the age they can no longer be controlled, or if we are intent on preparing our young to use their innate abilities in pursuit of their personal independence and/or advancement. Most of us recognize the impact of education on society; if we as a nation wish our country to be second rate, that is our choice; that is the American Way.

Educators should be concerned for the quality of their product. Moves in recent years toward home schooling and other alternate arrangements for education ought to awaken educators to the unhappiness shared by many parents in the performance of our public schools. Control by the teachers union will never replace concern for the students. Unions do what unions were intended to do: advance the interests of their members without regard for consequential damage; they must never be allowed to control our educational enterprise in order to advance their selfish interests.

The work place is a significant part of life for most of us, and it may be here that a lack of preparation first becomes a noticeable handicap. Apart from honesty and industry and a sense of teamwork, an employer is entitled to feel that a high school diploma signifies a certain level of proficiency in language and arithmetic and other basic skills and knowledge. Should the high school diploma signify only that the holder has survived so many years of attending school, the document serves no purpose other than massaging the ego of its holder. As an employer I learned quickly how to assess the value of a diploma.

One of the primary components of schooling (and the education that hopefully results) is to help the individual learn his peculiar strengths and weaknesses and then to help him develop his strengths and develop strategies for overcoming the weaknesses that can hinder him. As schooling progresses individual traits become increasingly obvious and our values become increasingly important as we recognize and respect the peculiarities, the uniqueness, of ourselves and our fellows. We will not all be equally successful in each task set before us because of differences in either talent, preparation or motivation; that is simply part of being unique.

Why does one child perform better than another? It is a combination of learning environment, innate ability, motivation and resultant effort, preparation and personal priorities that dictate rate of progress. In my view a student will progress most efficiently if presented with a modest but sustained challenge. From experience we know that a student loses interest if there is no gradual progress; once a topic is mastered, continued repetition induces boredom. At the same time, we know that a challenge that is consistently beyond a student's ability will result in frustration and loss of interest. Moreover, a mind that is not engaged in the subject matter at hand will wander, and that is the source of unruly behavior. Either no challenge or too great a challenge produces essentially the same twin results: no progress in learning and classroom disruption.

It has been an educational catastrophe to assign students to a grade level on the basis of either race or age without regard for earlier educational attainment. Youngsters who have not mastered a minimum level of performance in third grade simply are not prepared for fourth grade and cannot be expected to perform well; it is educational lunacy to assign them to a level to which it is known beforehand they cannot perform. Granted there is social justification for advancing an entire class together so friendships can be retained and nurtured. And there may be economic justification in "mainstreaming" students to get them through school regardless of attainment. But justification does not educate.

Moreover, it is a heedless waste to fail to recognize and provide for the educational needs of those possessing outstanding abilities. The future of our society will be determined by these rather than by the lesser gifted, who must necessarily assume roles of followership: Of this we may be certain.

I am a strong advocate of busing students. But only for the purpose of placing each student in an environment where his specific needs can be addressed. Those performing markedly below grade level should be bused to centers where they can receive the more individualized attention needed to bring up their performance, while those of obviously greater than average ability should also be transported to sites catering to youngsters of their ability.

Educators are continually faced with the choice whether to advance or retain a student. It is educationally destructive to advance an unprepared student. It should be equally obvious that down-grading the level of challenge results in unacceptably slow progress. Ninth grade should indicate a specific range of topics mastered and degree of proficiency, and assignment of students to the tenth grade should be in recognition of their proficiency in the ninth grade; assignment on any other basis is both cruel and wasteful of educational resources.

That last thought: 'wasteful.' Efficiency in the use of a student's time and effort ought to be a concern. As should efficiency in the use of instructional resources, including the instructor's time and effort. Efficiency in application of instructor resources requires student assignment on the basis of past mastery and proficiency; willy nilly assignment on any other basis requires the instructor individualize lesson plans not only for the particular group of students but for each specific student. What a waste! For the sake of efficiency, as well as economy, students should be organized so the instructor knows upon first greeting a new group of students that each student in the group is near the same threshold of mastery of prerequisite materials and therefore what materials can be readily mastered during the term. And, if mastery is not the goal, then, pray tell, what is the goal?


There must be options. Discussions of public versus private versus charter schools, as well as the recent drive to establish tax credit programs to fund scholarships, suggest it.1(To view footnote, click here). (The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has been pushing for allowing parents greater control over their children's education; their programs warrant discussion.) I suggest that giftedness deserves special attention; for a discussion of giftedness, click here. My personal experience, which forms a backdrop for these comments, is found by clicking here. Moreover, I offer a specific suggestion for organizing the sequence of instructional units, hence classrooms and the school, to foster academic achievement. To view this, click here. You can return here using the BACK button.)


Someone must take the initiative to bring sanity into classroom assignments, else we will continue to pump out illiterates from our schools and leave the brightest unchallenged.

1(FOOTNOTE)
Our founding fathers saw fit, because of the value they assigned to it, to separate religion and state, and we can see the result in a tremendous diversity -- some call it chaos -- of religious offerings. So there is a religion or non-religion to suit every calling. Few youngsters can, without the assistance of responsible adults, make appropriate choices, yet there results a network that is wholly adequate to serve all. Because of the importance of education, is it possible we rely too heavily on government to provide an educational environment for our children, that we should move in the direction of separation of school and state?

There is the parallel question of how parents, when moving, can select a neighborhood to take advantage of educational opportunities for their children.

Our founding fathers also saw fit to leave education out of the constitution altogether, leaving it to states and localities to do as they thought best addressed the needs of their local populations in regard to education, health care and other concerns. For a suggested constitutional amendment on education, click here.


To return to Contents of Ken Wear's Web Site, click here.To offer an opinion or seek further comment, you may send an e-mail that will pass my spam filter if you use as Subject -- I read your post about education reform -- exactly as you see it here. Click here for the e-mail form.


ADDENDUM:
Personal experiences: This is more personal and anecdotal. My first grade was in one room with one teacher and grades one through eight; there were two of us first graders. And I worked briefly as a substitute teacher in high school after my children had graduated from public high schools.

Any adult in charge of a group of youngsters, be it classroom or field trip or party or playground or assembly for such as Sunday School or FFA or Scouts, needs to have a means of commanding the attention of any one of his charges and to remind the youngster that he is still subject to authority. And I am convinced it is necessary that a responsible adult be permitted to escalate his efforts to physical acts, whether they be thumping with a ruler, spanking, tugging on an ear lobe, restraining a hand or arm: words, even shouting, have a limit in commanding response: and the adult needs to be armed with automatic permission to act. I agree that physical damage should be avoided if possible, but I submit that the good of the group needs to be balanced against the repercussions of not acting. That much said, we are forced to admit that the forcefulness of response is a spontaneous judgment call since we cannot guarantee there will be time for a mental recitation of potential grievances and the legally acceptable response to each.

A friend (now retired) had a fifth grade class with students automatically promoted from the lower grade. (It was school policy that no teacher could assign a grade lower than that assigned by a teacher in any earlier grade, performance notwithstanding.) She could verbally present her lesson material and make assignments, but there was no enforcement mechanism available to her other than calling on the principal to help maintain order. I recall well her frustration -- she was conscientious -- at trying to prepare and present lessons (and her delight upon retirement at being relieved of that daily ordeal).

Two of my own children remained in a public school during a single school year while the neighborhood composition changed radically and the school was inundated with youngsters ill prepared for their grade level. My two gradually ascended to classroom prodigies who were expected to assist the students experiencing difficulty. There was no thought for instructing them on their grade level. It was certainly not a learning environment for them so we were fortunate to find a parochial school that could accept them the following year.

It should not be surprising that performance of our public schools has deteriorated. To me the principal needs are 1) to restore to the classroom teacher authority to discipline his charges, harshly if necessary, physically if need be, and 2) to use earlier educational attainment as the principal basis for assigning students to their study groups and current performance as the basis for keeping them there.


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