This was written by Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

By Arthur Levine

At a recent Ohio campaign stop, Rick Santorum criticized America’s public schools as an artifact of the industrial era and recommended homeschooling as the alternative. He was right about the problem, but wrong about the remedy.

Here’s the problem. Like every other social institution in the nation — government, health care, banking and media — our schools were created for a different time. America is moving from an analog, national, industrial economy to a digital, global, information economy. All of our social institutions were designed for the former, so today none is working as well as it once did. All seem to be broken. They need to be refitted for a new era.

Our schools are products of the industrial era, which put a premium on establishing common processes in organizations. They resemble the assembly lines that typified the period. In age-based groups, in batches of 25 to 30, students attend 13 years of school, lasting 180 days per year, taking five major subjects for lengths of time dictated by the Carnegie Foundation in 1910. It is a time-based model, which assumes all children can learn the same things in the same period of time.

Today we realize this is not true. Moreover, we know that as individuals we can’t even learn different subjects in the same period of time. The current system is analogous to taking your clothes to a laundry and having the proprietor ask how long you want them washed. That doesn’t make sense. We want them clean, however long it takes. Yet our traditional schools focus on wash time — on process, not outcome.

While Mr. Santorum is correct in saying we need a new approach, homeschooling is a throwback to an even earlier time than the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution. Mr. Santorum said most U.S. presidents homeschooled their children. In fact, it’s been 49 years since a presidential family homeschooled a child. The last, the Kennedys, did so only technically: Caroline Kennedy actually attended school with 10 classmates at the White House.

For some families, particularly those who are well-educated and have the resources or circumstance to permit one parent to stay home, homeschooling is certainly a possibility. However, fewer than three percent of Americans are choosing this option.

We need a broader solution. We need 21st-century schools, designed to overcome the failings of the current education system, serve all our children, and prepare our students for life in a digital, global information economy. Information economies, unlike industrial societies, focus on outcomes. Time and process are variable.

The schools of the 21st century would be rooted in this change. They would focus on outcomes, on student learning rather than a set amount of teaching. They would be time-variable, allowing each child to progress by mastering skills and knowledge rather than following a common fixed calendar. Education would be individualized, tied to each student’s strengths, weaknesses and needs, rather than employing today’s one-size-fits-all approach. Methods of instruction would be tied to each student’s most effective learning style, employing teachers, tutors, peers, technology and self-study, using lectures, seminars, simulations, tutorials and more. Textbooks would change from the familiar volumes to electronic works that recognize students’ progress and provide just-in-time material unique to each student’s learning needs. The teacher would become less the instructor at the front of the room than a diagnostician, prescriber, instructor and evaluator for each student.

This is not some fantastic vision of the future. The School of One, a public school in New York City, already mirrors many of these features. New York City is attempting to bring the model to scale by creating the Innovation Zone — 160 schools across the city striving to create the 21st-century school.

There is a growing bipartisan consensus that the current model of schooling is anachronistic. The school of the 21st century, which promises to serve our children and our nation far better, is coming. We already know what it will look like. The only question is how long it will take. This is the moment for the educational equivalent of a Manhattan Project to create it. It can be sponsored by the federal government, a state, or the philanthropic community, but it needs to be done now.


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