Pass or Fail: Rethinking School Design for Better Learning Outcomes

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

When it comes to getting rid of our current pass-fail system, I have developed six strategies (click to see them all). A rehaul of design in our K-12 schools is a big component in making this shift a reality.

Redesigning America’s schools involves many levels of change and would take a considerable amount of time. Nonetheless, there is immense potential in the effort, including the opportunity to identify and learn from those aspects of the American education system that have been successful in the past, as well as those that continue to be successful today. There is also the opportunity to learn from systems used in other parts of the world, and to look at alternative assessment models, such as those found in various European countries. The multi-age classroom approach has a great deal to offer as a model that would reduce some of the most negative elements in the current system, especially the anxiety many students experience in the school setting and their lack of excitement regarding the experience of learning.

The ultimate goal of a redesigned system is the revival of the passion for learning within this nation. One of the qualities the founding fathers had was curiosity and a love for intellectual development and study. The talent that existed among those who founded this nation is something that could, even today, help rekindle a national passion for learning, innovation, and creativity. The need for such a rekindling is becoming ever more crucial because of the importance of knowledge and innovation in a global economy.

Inspiring students to be creative, analytical, and resourceful in their thinking will likely have many other effects. The cost of retention and social promotion policies includes high unemployment rates, reliance on public benefits, high dropout rates, and many social and emotional issues that manifest as problems of self-esteem. Creating a passion and a capacity for learning would help to teach American students to take care of themselves, boosting their self-esteem.

A characteristic of our times is that new ideas and new technologies are rapidly making old systems obsolete. Depending on the quality of his or her education, this can either be depressing or an inspirational challenge to the American worker. An individual who has enjoyed a high-quality and inspiring education that fosters critical thinking and an appreciation of knowledge will be able to overcome the challenges of a global marketplace instead of being left behind by change.

An interesting application of this notion is offered in a report on the knowledge economy itself. Powell and Snellman suggest that the modern automobile is becoming less of a dumb collection of nuts and bolts and more of a smart machine that applies computer technology to improve safety, economy, and environmental friendliness at the same time as it provides more entertainment and better automotive performance. Although the technology that supported the initial development of the car, the innovations of Henry Ford and the pioneers of the assembly line, are now almost entirely obsolete, innovations are rapidly transforming a relatively limited piece of technology into a sophisticated product with multiple functions.

The innovators of the future will be those who can take existing products and transform them into something so new as to be almost unrecognizable. This is abundantly clear with the car and numerous other products, like cell phones or computers. Ultimately, the American education system should be focused on preparing Americans to be capable of this order of innovation.  Even within the education system itself, we should be striving to do more with the resources that are already available, becoming more efficient and aiming for a higher purpose.

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