Public schools have lost their way. They have strayed from their important historical mission of educated individuals to be productive and effective citizens. Ever since Thomas Jefferson’s lofty vision of what education should do, public schools have gradually sunk into a purposeless, subject-guided effort of standardizing students with a narrow, limited curriculum. Expensive high-stakes testing, large class sizes and countless rules and regulations occupy valuable time and resources that direct teachers' efforts, making it impossible to concentrate on students and their personal needs.
Subject-matter-based education discriminates against all but a few who may be strong in language and mathematical reasoning. It denies proper recognition of children who are strong in more important human talents: leadership, creativity, initiative, curious inquiry, organization, emotional sensitivity and other social skills needed to be successful in adult life. Schools also discriminate on the basis of socio-economic status. The affluent are rewarded for their abilities and the poor are denied the equal opportunity of developing theirs.
What should be done? Utah should lead the way toward a student-oriented education system that has many advantages over subject-controlled education. Under an SOE system, many contributions are attained with a reduction in bullying, dropouts, failures, anti-social acts and school-induced suicides. Some of the other benefits of SOE can be easily identified:
1. SOE develops the unique gifts and talents of each child.
2. SOE gives all students a foundation of strength and confidence.
3. SOE encourages and establishes creative imagination.
4. SOE promotes cooperation and minimizes competition.
5. SOE uses an unlimited body of subject matter to nurture self-development and growth.
6. SOE eliminates the need for honor societies, group graduation and designation of valedictorian, or similar designation now awarded to very few students.
7. SOE fosters curiosity, student initiative, autonomy and self-responsibility.
8. SOE makes it possible for every child to be a "winner" at something.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of student-oriented education is its aim to help every student realize their great worth as a unique individual. It is in stark contrast to subject-based education that tries to make students alike in knowledge and skills. Earl Kelly said it best: “If people were not unique, one person would serve just as well as another. It is therefore our differences which make us valuable.” Student-oriented education actually magnifies positive human differences!
Student-oriented education is the only system that deliberately helps each person realize who they are — how important and valuable each person is as the only one in the whole world that has the gifts, talents and abilities that she or he has and helps each one realize the responsibilities that go along with this knowledge. Knowing who you are gives you amazing power and confidence, traits that are usually lacking in those who have been educated in a subject-oriented system. As Frank Smith, author of the "Book of Learning and Forgetting," said, “All learning pivots on who we think we are and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.”
We often hear that children are our most important product or that all children are equally valued. Yet, our education system contradicts those values. Gunner Myrdal stated it well. He argued that there was a fundamental dilemma between our values of democracy and equal opportunity and the realities of discrimination. It is time for us to establish congruence between expressed values and committed actions. It is our moral obligation to our children and can be established by implementing student-oriented education. Let us begin today!
M. Donald Thomas is a retired superintendent of schools and a national education consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lynn Stoddard has 67 years of experience as a teacher, principal and education leader. He can be reached at email@example.com.