Improving the Design of Educational Systems

Well this is an imposing title! I decided to use it to emphasize that we need new types of educational systems that not only prepare every student for success, but also allow every student to access the curriculum and thrive in the process of education.

Fairness and Inclusion

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) defines two dimensions of equity in education:

“Fairness, which means ensuring that personal and social circumstances do not prevent students from achieving their academic potential.

Inclusion, which means setting a basic minimum standard for education that is shared by all students regardless of background, personal characteristics, or location.”

2008 OECD

Pitfalls in Current Educational Systems

As the OECD reminds us, some of the very features that define American culture, such as choice, may in fact erode equity. ‘School Choice,’ for example, leads more savvy parents to pick and choose better schools, leaving less savvy parents to accept less good schools. Testing and diagnosing may in fact set up tracking from an early age and condeming poor performing students to poor performing classrooms. Even achievement can be used to create unequal schools:

“Selecting pupils on the basis of academic achievement tends to create great social differences between schools. It also increases the link between socio-economic status and performance – it tends to accelerate the progress of those who have already gained the best start in life from their parents – and is also associated with stronger performance at the top end of the scale in mathematics and science. So academic selection needs to be used with caution because of the risks it poses to equity.”

2008 OECD

Designing Educational Systems

One way systems fail kids right away is not knowing what to do with them individually. This should not be a surprise, as a system is designed to batch process the students. One way a system can fight this tendency is to design a way that at-risk students get the right help early on.

“One way of improving performance and preventing dropout is to identify at-risk students early and take action quickly. This means monitoring information on attendance, performance and involvement in school activities, and having a concrete response to improve outcomes and prevent dropout.”

2008 OECD

Formative Assessment

One of the most important ways that teachers help students is the use of formative assessment. They do this naturally and professionally, but when designing systems of education, modeling the professional care with which teachers see and assess students on a daily basis would be a huge step forward!

“It is possible to improve classroom attainment with methods such as formative assessment – a process of feeding back information about performance to student and teacher and adapting and improving teaching and learning in response, particularly with students at risk. “Reading recovery” strategies – short-term, intensive interventions of one-on-one lessons – can help many poor readers to catch up. For classroom interventions to work, however, teachers need support to develop their techniques to help those pupils who are falling behind.”

2008 OECD

Drawing Students Back to the Mainstream

Teachers and their best practices could be a great model for drawing students back into the mainstream of learning and designing a successful educational system.

“Many countries could usefully follow the Finnish approach to learning difficulties, which offers a sequence of intensifying interventions to draw back into the mainstream those who fall behind. It certainly appears successful: only 1% of Finnish 15-year-olds are unable to demonstrate basic functional reading skills, while the OECD average is 7%. “

2008 OECD

Teachers have the most natural feel for these critical steps of providing fairness and inclusion in order to establish equity. Designing systems that support teacher development through peer-to-peer, job-embedded professional development would go a long way to improving the design of educational systems that are more equitable.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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