I’ve been reading a book about education reform, called The Eden Conspiracy: Educating for Accomplished Citizenship, by Joe Harless, © 1998. Even though it’s two decades old, much of it is still current.
He compares two fictional communities: Medianville and Eden. As he lays it out,
They are twin in every respect—same size, same state, have comparable industries and businesses. They are the same in economic, racial, and ethnic makeup, and so forth. Eden and Medianville both sought to improved education in their cities, but they took very different approaches to education reform.
Medianville did some typical education reform actions:
1. Increased teacher salaries.
2. Reduced teacher-student ratio.
3. Toughened grading policy.
4. Grouped students by ability.
5. Provided more audio-visuals.
6. Instituted “Teacher of the Year” award.
7. Encouraged “back-to-basics.”
8. Formed alliances with local businesses.
The results after a decade and a half?
· No improvement in reading scores (60% deficient).
· SAT scores flat, no improvement.
· 36% first-year college students require remedial courses.
· High school dropout rate 25-30%, no improvement.
· 97% of high school seniors at or below minimal or adequate level.
· All but a few “A” science students fail to solve basic science problem/question.
· One third who take Calculus in college drop or fail the course.
· 25% believe the sun rotates around the earth.
· 50% cannot use a bus schedule. 15% cannot address an envelope.
· Under 10% can compute what borrower pays on $850 loan at 12% interest.
· 30% cannot make change.
· Under 50% can find New York on a blank map. 75% don’t know when Lincoln was President or in what half century the Civil War occurred, and half fail to know other basic history facts.
· 75% of applicants for entry-level jobs at the largest industry in the area fail basic literacy test.
Cost per student has increased 50% (adjusted for inflation) from pre-intervention period.
There are also social outcomes. Violence has increased. Homicide is the second most frequent cause of death in teens and young adults. One third of young women get pregnant as teens (increase of 200% since 1960). A third use illegal drugs. Among high school dropouts, half end up before a judge in 5 years. Most who go to college fail to get a degree. Employers say the young people they hire are deficient in writing, basic math, oral communications, working with a group, and basic computer skills.
Harless reveals, after introducing these two cities that the data for Medianville is real. The interventions are proven to fail.
I would add that, in the following two decades, the same interventions are being done, to similar effect. The only significant rise is cost per student.
What about the other fictional city, Eden? In short, he uses an accomplishment-based approach, which requires some explanation. And he involves the entire community—a conspiracy of parents, teachers, business owners, and essentially everyone in the community (thus, the book’s title).
I’m still just halfway through reading the book, but I remain unconvinced that his solutions will solve public education. Personally, I believe parental responsibility and free market are the roots to nourish for better outcomes.
But I’m willing to look at the ideas to see what families can use.
He creates a chart contrasting the two education systems [p. 34].
There’s a main principle that I think might be worth further examination. Harless suggests that, rather than brainstorming possible solutions and trying whatever combination some committee chooses, the stakeholders should look first at the desired outcomes. Both cities aim to improve education, but they picture the outcome differently.
It’s near the top of the chart above. Medianville sees the purpose of education as to “provide opportunity for the young to acquire knowledge of traditional subject matter.[i]” Eden sees the purpose as to “produce graduates who have skills, knowledge and attitudes to become accomplished citizens.”
OK. So Harless’s way is more future based, more relevant to the students’ post-school world. We still need to know a definition of “accomplished citizens.” But, once we do that, Harless says, the next step will be to identify what accomplishments are needed for such citizens—what can they do consistently?
Designing instructional programs, he believes, comes from starting with the end in mind.[ii] So, we start with “accomplished citizens,” and work backward from there. What does this result look like?
He offers this list of what characteristics such a society has:
· Exists under a democratic form of government.
· Is lawful, orderly, ethical, and safe.
· Allows freedom for its citizens—within the law.
· Allows freedom for enterprise—within the law.
· Provides equal opportunity for its citizens.
· Values the family as the basic unit of society.
· In partnership with the family, provides protection and development of the young.
OK. My interest is piqued with those last two. Here at the Spherical Model, we know that the family is the basic unit of society—and that strong families doing their job is necessary for civilization, which is what I think he’s talking about here.
His list isn’t very exact. Those are the ends to have in mind. What are the accomplishments, or outputs? Whatever they are, they need to be concrete, measurable actions. These outputs, he says, must be a noun [p. 52]. The focus must be on an end result, not a process. For example, “Madame Curie won the Nobel Prize.” The prize is an accomplishment, or output. Another example is, “Mary produced the highest number of sales.” The sales, which can be counted, are the output; having more sales than others is a specific measurable output.
I will just mention here that he is not talking about what has been called “outcome-based education.” Some of the words may be used. And we could contrast them fully another day. But outcome-based education mainly means that curriculum should have goals—such as being able to pass a test. Often it has been pretty much just another iteration of the interventions Medianvillle took (see list above).
So, with measurable outputs in mind, he offers these accomplishments of good citizens: [p. 53]
· Obedience to the law.
· Informed voting decisions.
· Contributions to stable environment.
· Resolution of interpersonal conflict.
· Contributions to community improvement.
I agree those are desirable behaviors. But I don’t think Harless has given us good examples of measurable, countable nouns; he’s still pretty focused on behaviors. Nevertheless, if you want these outcomes, what goes into them?
Knowledge, skills, information, and student attitudes are inputs in education. Given these, we want the student to be able to perform processes such as problem solving, finding information, and making decisions so that they produce accomplishments of value to the goals [p. 53].
So, there’s the current way: start with subjects, teach what teachers say needs to be known, and then let the student figure out how to make that relevant. And there’s the alternative he suggests: start with what results we want (good citizens, civilized adults), and work back to what outcomes are needed for those results (laws are obeyed, votes are prepared for and cast, interpersonal conflicts are amicably resolved), back to what a person needs to know, or be able to do, in order to accomplish those things—inputs needed to get the results.
That’s what determines curriculum.
Let’s say a contributing adult manages his money—spends less than he earns, pays bills, etc. He would need to know some math—specifically adding and subtracting to balance a checking account. He would make spending decisions based on what he knows is in his account, and whether something fits in a budget—more math.
If he needs a loan for a car or house or other major purchase, he needs to know how interest works—so he’d need enough math for that. There are formulas he can look up, so he might not need to have them memorized, or be able to figure them in his head, but he would need to know how to put his information into a formula to figure the results—and understand the effects. He should know that paying back a loan with interest is more expensive than paying for something up front, so he must be able to weigh the pros and cons.
When the math becomes relevant, the student learns it better. Get a high school boy to figure out how to afford a car, and he’s a lot more motivated than when you say he has to solve so many pages of problems in order to earn a grade.
There’s truth in that—when it’s relevant, students learn more readily. I’m still not sure how we can get there from where we are in a public school system.
In the two decades since the book came out, I think his method has been tried in a number of isolated private schools—but no public school systems. In a private school, you already have committed parents—because they’re paying good money and will insist on seeing results.
If we had real local control in a public school district, maybe some measurable change might be possible. But as long as local school boards are filled with teacher-union-approved candidates, meaningful change can’t happen. Also, as long as federal and state governments keep a tight grip on education, local areas don’t have the freedom to break free from the tried-and-proven-to-fail standard approaches.
Meanwhile, individual families can “conspire” against the system—by educating their own children. When they do, it’s good to have an end in mind.
If I were to brainstorm outcomes for a young adult, I might include,
· Reads books and articles for interest and enjoyment at least several times a week.
· Keeps current on world, national, and local news, always attuned to source and bias. Shows this ability in conversation.
· Forms opinions based on study, and articulates opinions with supportable points, while respectfully hearing and considering opposing arguments. Shows this ability in conversation.
· Displays good manners—both for social grace and for showing respect and kindness to others.
· Finds opportunities to work, and serves well in those opportunities. (Has a resume. Fills out job applications. Works in entry-level jobs followed by higher-skilled, better-paying jobs.)
· Manages time, money, and things—budgets, balances accounts, pays bills, keeps commitments, cares for laundry, buys and cooks healthy meals.
· Improves skills and increases knowledge base in field of work as well as other interests.
· Maintains good physical, emotional, and spiritual health—seeking expert help as needed.
· Spends plenty of quality time with family; makes family a high priority.
“Adulting” is hard—and so is raising children into mature adults. But it’s not rocket science. There’s a lot of curriculum that could lead to these outcomes. There’s also a lot of information/direction/advice—some worthy of college courses—available online, much of it for free. And a lot of this comes pretty naturally from living in families that model and pass along civilized behavior.
What we need is freedom from a system that asks nothing better than “What should students learn in each subject each year?” and spends exorbitant amounts of money repeating failed strategies.
What we need in education is more family, more free market, and more relevance to real life.
[i] It’s interesting to see that top education leader Iceland has recently instituted schools with cross-disciplinary topics, as described in “Finland to Become World’s First Country to Get Rid of All School Subjects,” Nov. 11, 2016.
[ii] This is my rephrasing of what he’s doing, and it may sound familiar as one of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.