When these variables combine to lead a significant percentage of students to “withhold [their] best effort in learning,” it is not only the students themselves who suffer. Our present system of public education is not effectively serving the interests of students, parents, or society. The basic assumptions of the system are flawed. We are attempting to force children to learn and/or coerce them into learning, instead of harnessing the power of their natural curiosity. What little success we do achieve with the present system comes at a steep price. Students become so focused on grades and points that they fail to develop an appreciation for the intrinsic value of being well-educated. Their natural desire to learn often gets lost in the process. We need to rise to the challenge of constructing an educational system that promotes and nurtures the devotion to learning that is an essential ingredient in a good education and a prerequisite for life-long learning.
For the most part, students seem unconvinced of the need to alter their behavior or attitude. With few exceptions, they seem blissfully unaware of the fact that our educational system is considered to be in a state of crisis. They are extremely complacent about their own educational progress, however meager that progress might be. Realizing significant improvements in student achievement will be impossible unless we succeed in changing the attitudes of students toward school and learning. Altering students’ perceptions and modifying their behavior can only be accomplished through the enactment of meaningful reforms. We will not achieve significant improvements with superficial changes or by simply encouraging students and teachers to try harder within the present system. All of the reports, books, articles, goals, aims, objectives, and mission statements in the world will have little effect on student performance if we cannot convince the intended beneficiaries of the system (and its primary participants) to devote more time and greater effort to learning.
We must reexamine the philosophical foundations of our public education system. We must enact reforms that offer meaningful alternatives to those students who are not being well-served by the present system. At the same time, we must remember that there are students and parents who are happy with the system that is in place. Even if they are offered meaningful alternatives, some students, perhaps even a majority of students, would choose to follow the same basic course of study that is mandated for students at the present time. An educational program consisting of the current comprehensive approach found at the vast majority of American high schools should continue to be one of the basic choices offered to students and their parents. There is nothing in the reform proposals that follow that would force any student or parent to accept changes with which they disagree. Those students and parents who prefer the status quo would be free to continue with our present approach to schooling.
The reforms proposed herein can be divided into four basic categories: Providing a full range of meaningful alternatives to students and parents who are not satisfied with, and do not feel well-served by the present system, improving the quality of instruction, eliminating practices that result in students being promoted beyond their ability to do the work expected of them, and restructuring the governance system within our schools to give students, parents, and teachers a more active role. These reforms are based on three self-evident truths: We learn most effectively when we are learning something we want to learn or recognize a need to learn. There is intrinsic value in being well-educated. The primary mission of public education should be the development of the skills necessary for informed participation in civic affairs.