Chapter 3

Lack of Systems Management Has Kept a Lid on School Achievement

Key Understanding: Schooling is structured today much like it was a century ago and it is not up to the 21st century challenge of optimizing learning opportunities for all children.

Our nation was founded on the principle of individual freedom and empowerment. Colonists and early settlers therefore wanted local control of education.  We have sustained and continue to value the idea of local control. Our challenge today is to retain this value of local control while also benefiting from the potential power of systems.

This was not a big problem in the 1700ís & early 1800ís because most work was done on individual farms or in separate shops by craftsmen.  Thus, education compared well with what was happening in other organizations. If viewed in systems terms, this could be referred to as a primitive method of organization in which the total work is divided up among individuals or small groups who then did pretty much the same generic jobs.

The further development of the Industrial Revolution by including the innovation of assembly lines in the early part of the 20th century did have some effect on education.  In order to take care of the educational needs of a vast influx of immigrants to our country and the increased school attendance of current residents and to prepare them for the fairly unskilled jobs in factories, students were put in graded classes and then moved from grade to grade much like an automobile on an assembly line. But unlike an automobile assembly line, students were required to move from grade to grade on the school assembly line ready or not. Can you imagine that same method in producing quality automobiles? The front windshield goes on whether the car is ready or not?

Problems Using Our Current Educational Methods

Today, we cannot afford anything but the best in educational opportunities for all students. Education must be organized and managed to ensure that each learner can effectively participate in and take full advantage of living in todayís Information Age.  The costs are too high both in dollars and in lost learning opportunities to have anything but the best to allow ineffective educational methods to continue without change.

Our current emphasis on the need for school reform was stimulated by the 1983 release of the report A Nation at Risk, in which it concluded that:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

Two key reasons for our poor achievement include:

1.      Teachers are not in a position to make professional decisions backed up by sufficient  resources as part of a total system capable of analyzing our educational needs, conducting the needed research, producing the most effective tools and methods, and organizing how each student can best be helped to learn at optimum levels.

2.       We are currently stopped from applying most of what we know about learning because of our sole reliance on separate, self-contained classrooms.

Teachers in todayís self-contained classrooms find themselves unable to direct resources and are severely limited in providing the variety and specificity of interactions that would optimize learning for all students.  This results in teachers having to treat their students as somewhat generic and basically offering all students the same curriculum with the same instruction and learning activities regardless of the unique needs, characteristics, and readiness of their students. Because of limited resources and flexibility, most students today of necessity are treated as if they were simply receptacles to be filled instead of active learners to be guided and nurtured.

In reality, each student is actually a unique and active learning system. As such, each student needs to be regularly engaged in positive interactions, receiving what he or she needs to grow, and in turn producing results of value to other systems (teachers, curriculum, peers, parents, technology, community, Ö) and the educational macro system as a whole.  Major problems occur when systems are disconnected from or out of synch with other systems.

Educational activities today are often out of synch.

Every Additional Learning Principle We Can Apply Boosts Student Achievement

The problem is, very little of what we know about learning is consistently applied in todayís classrooms. Thatís a pretty discouraging thought. Looked at in a positive way, though, it is exciting to envision a future in which we apply more and more of the powerful learning principles we already know, or will discover, to each studentís school experiences.

This is illustrated by the supposedly true story of a prosperous farmer during the early days of the automobile who decided to buy one of these new vehicles. Not realizing its full potential, he hooked his horses to the car and proudly sat in it and waved to people as he traveled around his farming community. Can you imagine that proud ownerís excitement when he found out the car had its own motor and could actually propel itself? Thatís the kind of excitement that comes as we fully realize that students donít need to be pulled around with horses, but can best propel themselves when given adequate resources and opportunities.

When you consider the many learning principles and tools that are not yet in place for students to benefit from, take note that even a 5% increase in learning rate can mean big differences in achievement over a period of time. In ten years, it can mean an added three years boost!


Total Reliance on 19th Century, Self-Contained Classrooms Results in the Violation of Many Important Learning Principles

The following is just a sample of learning principles and opportunities that are restricted by relying solely on separate, self-contained classrooms with teachers having virtually total responsibility for the education of twenty to forty students, but without the power to make professional judgments backed up by being able to  move or direct resources. Teachers are not at fault. Many of them apply heroic efforts to try to do the almost impossible without adequate system support.

Consider the following learning principle violations common today: 

  1. In order to learn something new one needs to have mastered the prerequisites (Bloom - Mastery Learning). The problem is most classrooms have some students who already know what is going to be taught that day and will be bored, some have the prerequisites or prior learning that enable them to learn readily what is to be taught, while others have not yet mastered the needed prerequisites and sadly are doomed to failure unless corrective action is taken.

  2. Students in classrooms today vary widely in basic academic skills. For example, in typical 7th and 8th grade classrooms, some students are only able to perform at 3rd and 4th grade levels; others at 11th and 12th grade levels. Teachers must choose the grade level to direct their instruction. This leaves many students trying to cope with instruction outside their optimum challenge level for learning.

  3. The amount of practice or repetition needed to master a skill or concept varies widely among students.  A student with an 85 IQ may need 16 times the repetition to learn a concept or skill than a student with a 120 IQ. What is a teacher to do?

  4. Students vary in their ability to process new information in their head. Some students have less than half the mental working space (conscious short-term memory) of other students and face more difficulty filling in the gaps that occur in any instructional or learning activity. This requires different pacing and support for different students.

  5. Research points out the importance of time-on-task with relevant skills. That means that the more time a student spends engaged in a relevant learning activity, the more he or she will learn.  The problem is many, if not most, students are spending time on the wrong learning activities. All things being equal, if a student needs to learn addition with carrying next, that is what he or she should be working on. Students who only occasionally work on appropriate learning activities are like lamps that are disconnected most of the time.

  6. Logical thinking ability develops in sequential stages, and students in a classroom are often at different stages. Some students are at pre-operational, some at concrete, others at formal thinking levels.  Instruction given at a different level than a student is ready for will be either wasteful or harmful. A student who has not yet established the thinking capacity for number conservation will need additional hands-on, concrete math activities. Students given instruction requiring formal (abstract) thinking who are not yet at that level will think of themselves as inadequate and possibly stupid because they canít answer the questions or complete the assignments at those thinking levels regardless of their effort and motivation.

  7. Students differ in their ability to use or even know about learning strategies.  There are major differences among students in how they approach learning. It is estimated that twenty-five percent of a studentís learning power is related to his or her ability to selectively apply effective learning strategies. Many students do not even realize they have this power or how it could make learning faster and easier. In most classrooms today, there is no systematic teaching and practice of learning strategies, much less monitoring and coaching individual students in their use of learning strategies that fit their own development and unique capabilities.

  8. Students differ in behavioral control and willingness or ability to cooperate. Some students could well benefit from increased freedom in their learning activities so they can stretch and grow. Other students require tight control.

  9. There are great differences among students in their ability to direct and initiate purposeful action on their own behalf. Some students can take the lead in their own success efforts, other students need to be directed constantly.

  10. In the largest educational study ever, the key factor in student success was found to be his or her belief that what he or she does makes a difference. If everything is controlled by the teacher with little room for student initiative, how can this be fully developed?  (Coleman Report. See also De Charms concept of Origin instead of a Pawn.; Attribution theory)

  11. The usual heterogeneous classroom experience often doesnít empower.  Example, a student may improve his or her test scores from 30% to 45%, which is a 50% improvement, but may still receive an F.  Students that already know the material to be presented are not challenged to stretch their abilities.  The learning experiences and evaluation are teacher directed and controlled, and therefore the student may not attribute success to his or her own efforts. 

  12. Intrinsic (internal) motivation is what makes learning most exciting and can sustain student effort for long periods, but learning activities in a self-contained classroom must of necessity involve mostly extrinsic motivation, such as grades and praise.

  13. Because of the knowledge explosion and the information age we live in, it is important for students to pursue interests and talents as early as possible.  Studies of high-achieving adults consistently demonstrate the importance of identifying and nurturing early interests in childhood . Lock-step methods used in schools not only do not encouragement the development and pursuit of individual interests, but even handicap the pursuit of those interests by dominating a studentís time during the school day with a one-size-fits-all curriculum and then giving homework on general subjects that takes away from the time available after school. In many cases of high achievement, these early interests had to be nurtured at home through exceptional parenting or even home-schooling. Why should schools be a handicap to the early recognition and development of personal interests and talents? (Bloom, Benjamin S, Editor.  Developing Talent in Young People, Ballantine Books: New York, 1985.  Pincus, Cynthia, et. al. The Roots of Success,     )
    (Greatness: Who Makes History and Why. Dean Keith Simonton, The Guildford Press, New York, 1994)  

  14. Research has proven the importance of connecting success efforts with personally selected or accepted goals and mission. We are now very aware of the importance of having goals and a mission in achieving success, but in todayís classroom there is almost no plan to bring out each studentís goals and mission and then connecting learning activities and resources that he or she can use to reach those goals and mission.

  15. Self-Contained classrooms restrict ďflowĒ opportunities in which students can feel the joy of having personally selected, meaningful, appropriate, and challenging goals and standards combined with opportunities to successfully strive to reach them.  (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990, Harper & Row, New York) Total reliance on self-contained classrooms of necessity restricts choices and the ability to follow through on interests when school directed time ends. For example, ďWe are through with our unit on astronomy.  We are now going to study earthworms.Ē

  16. Students differ widely in success skills.  Schools do not provide time and resources to teach students how to be successful.  Research indicates that individual student achievement is directly related to the combined power of a studentís basic IQ x Achievement Motivation and Time Management Skills x Positive Character Traits x Effective Learning Strategies and Availability of Support Systems. Try looking for the systematic teaching of these skills during the school day in the usual self-contained classroom.

  17. Successful intelligence includes how to select meaningful goals and then gathering resources and strategies to reach those goals.  We are severely limited in trying to teach success intelligence in schools as they are now organized. (Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life, Robert J. Sternberg, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996.)

  18. Low connection with the potential power of the home and community.  The nationwide Coleman Report and virtually every other study on learning and school achievement point to the home as the major power in promoting or inhibiting school achievement. It is estimated that 80% of the power to influence student achievement resides in the home, and that is why you can usually determine average school performance without getting out of your car.  More successful parents tend to have more successful children. We need to tap into this power and to provide all homes with whatever resources they need to do their best job in promoting the achievement of their children. (Colin Powel and Summit on Volunteerism; Steinberg, Laurence.  Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform has Failed and What Parents Need to Do, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)

  19. It is easy for low-achieving students to pick up the idea they are failures. Too many students consistently see school papers with low grades on them. They constantly face assignments and challenges that reveal gaps between their current abilities and the standards at which they are expected to achieve. If given appropriate learning challenges, however, many of these students could start seeing themselves as capable of learning anything they needed to learn given the right circumstances and support.

  20. The current system of isolated, self-contained classrooms prevents the creative development of new paradigms of how increased learning opportunities could become available.  Even if research clearly identifies an effective learning principle, method, or tool, it would have to be individually adopted by hundreds of thousands of teachers in separate, and mostly isolated, classrooms. With teachers unable to call upon and direct resources, they often donít have what they need to adopt new, more powerful learning methods. Implementation of effective learning principles, methods, and tools should be designed by experts and need to be built-in to a managed, coherent system of education and not left to chance

  21. Students are often trapped in lock-step instruction and canít get the special instruction they need because it would mean they would  miss out on the general lessons given in the regular classroom that all students are expected to receive.  Problem areas, then, that hold students back are usually not corrected. Benjamin Bloom in Mastery Learning points out that the spread of achievement among students increases through the grades. If all students are to have a fair chance of success, they need access to personalized help pinpointed to their priority needs. In industry, there has developed the concept of just -in-time learning and training so that all workers have the chance to be successful and meet expected standards. Schools need to do no less.

  22. What a child knows is often not connected with what he or she is to learn next.  The next lesson is usually what will be given to all students and is already determined before the classes are even formed.  Learning in this way is non-systematic.  There is often not even a clear continuation of general lessons from one grade to the next.  The first of every school year is often a repetition of much that was supposed to be learned in the last. This is due mainly to the large number of students who didnít master the material before going on. Students who did master the material still have to go through the motions. There are also wide teacher differences in expectations and styles.

  23. The current lock-step method of instruction combined with grading on the curve interferes with the development of student mastery, which is a key to continued solid achievement. In most classes, 60% is a passing grade and 70% accuracy is considered an average grade, but it is far from mastery and is a weak platform for further growth. Therefore, strong students usually continue strong, and weak students become even weaker.

  24. There is a danger in lock-step instruction because completing assignments becomes the focus instead of learning new skills and concepts. That is why students stop when the assignment stops.  That is not natural, but an artifact of our current educational system.

  25. Valiant attempts are sometimes made to be aware of different student learning styles, but the self-contained classroom affords limited opportunities for their application.


We currently use only a small fraction of the variety of learning opportunities and tools that could be available. 

The following is only a sampling of the rich variety of potential learning activities, settings, and opportunities that could benefit students. The usual unsupported, self-contained classroom is able to use only a very few.

Self-contained Regular Classroom
Large Group
Whole Department in School
Whole School
Across School + Feeder Schools
Whole District or Part of District
City-wide Groups (+ even wider)
Across far-flung Networks, National and International
Small Group
Learning Teams
Project Teams
Multi-Age Teaching and Tutoring
Peer Tutoring
Self-Directed Individual Study
Individual Projects
Working with a Partner or Buddy
Talent and Interest Teams
Talent Development and Use
Learning Modules & Centers
Programmed Learning
Skill Tournaments
Academic Sports
Mentoring and Being Mentored
Games and Play
Computer Assisted Instruction
Interactive learning using computer & telecommunications
On-line courses
Distance learning
Computer assisted learning
Chat rooms
E-mail questions and answers, opinions, on-line mentors
Subject Awareness Video Tapes, CDs, DVDs
Specific Purpose Video Tapes, CDs, DVDs
Subject Awareness Audio Tapes & CDs
Specific Purpose Audio Tapes & CDís
Seminars and Question Circles
Visitations and Field Trips
Community Service
Business Internships and Apprenticeships
Apprentice to Individual or Team
Construction of Learning Materials
Outside Speakers and Workshops
Testing and Prescriptions
Occupation Shadowing
Distance Learning (on-line)
On-Line Assisted Projects
World Wide Web
School Service (Environment, math, etc.)
City Library
Talent or Interest Conferences & Displays
Parent and Family Contributions and Support
Volunteers, including Senior Citizens & Business Employees
Goals, Plans, Challenges
Activity Cards (Maybe homework cards on-line)
Textbook Assignments and Worksheets


In a self-contained classroom, how is a teacher to do much of the above, and the many other possibilities that could potentially exist?



 We don't have to leave it this way! We now have a window of opportunity to take off the lid and open the box so everyone can have unlimited learning opportunities!


The Good News is:

  1. The technology is here, and even greater capability is rapidly developing.  Information in all media forms can now be digitized, stored, and made instantly available at little or no cost

  2. We are now in a new millennium.  The excitement of starting a new century with a new vision of Education for the 2000ís can propel us to greatly increased educational opportunities for all.

  3. Knowledge about how people learn is coming together. We need to apply it.

  4. Public education is at risk. There is increasing pressure for alternatives to public schools, such as   home-schooling and private schools. We are now more motivated than ever to improve learning opportunities for everyone.

  5. The Information Age generates a need for lifelong learners.  We need more than a K-12 curriculum; we need a throughout life curriculum. Education is now the concern of all.

  6. If we are to compete in a competitive world economy, we must do it with knowledge. Optimum education for all is a necessity.

  7. Our knowledge of systems and comprehensive management can give us the means to design and benefit from an educational system truly fit for the 21st Century.