Why Don’t Schools Specialize More?

The U.S. education system operates under a “one-degree-to-rule-them-all” mentality. But what if it didn’t? If we let schools specialize, we can make huge gains in teacher retention, dropout rates, and college preparedness.

Imagine a machine that makes widgets. It makes widgets from many different inputs, but for each new input, the mechanic has to adjust the settings on the machine. If the input stays the same, the machine produces widgets at lightning speed and lasts 25-30 years. However, if the inputs frequently change, the machine produces widgets at a sluggish speed and extra wear and tear causes the machine to break down every 2-5 years. Stop. If you thought this was a story about widgets, you missed the point. If you substitute “teachers” for “machines” and “students” for “widgets”, what you have is a story about the how the U.S. education system operates now.

This system has many problems. One is that students have different intellectual capacities. To anyone who’s worked with a variety of students, this is completely obvious. But, in the age of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, there is a mistaken tendency to believe that all children have equal intellectual capacities. Of course, that wasn’t Gardner’s point at all. His point was that students have different talents and learning styles.

A second problem is that, if students have not met the standard for what is considered grade-level proficiency, there is no consequence. Students are passed through kindergarten to high school basically for showing up. True, graduating high school requires a bit more effort, but not much. For low-income communities where the high school graduation rate is only 50%, students who graduate are performing at an eighth grade level.

For teachers, this model causes a lot of difficulties. School districts require teachers to “differentiate”—to adapt their teaching methods to accommodate the varying abilities, learning styles, and interests of their students. Indeed, districts invest a significant sum of money to provide teachers with the skills they need to differentiate. Because many students enter three grade levels behind the standard curriculum, this is a challenging task. Teachers and unions often respond by calling for smaller class sizes. If they had, say, 16-18 students per class instead of 26-30, differentiating to each student would be far less challenging.

Unfortunately, that solution is quite costly. It requires far more teachers (nearly 50% more) for the same number of students. A simpler and more efficient solution is to differentiate at the school level: allowing schools to specialize in teaching methods, level of rigor, and content. This kind of school choice is not a silver bullet, but it will allow teachers to differentiate less, and increase the satisfaction of students who will have a greater choice over what they study and how they study it.

Imagine college-preparatory math and science academies, schools of art that specialize in music and theatre, communications or cultural studies. Other schools would focus on specific learning styles; kinesthetic learners, for example, could attend a school where the majority of instruction is primarily physical. There would also be room for remedial and technical schools, where students who are unsatisfied with the traditional liberal arts curriculum can specialize in skills that will prepare them for adulthood and the job market.

If we allow schools to specialize, we’ll kill two birds with one stone: teachers won’t have to work as hard and students’ achievement will skyrocket.

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