Time to Abandon the Egg Crate Approach to Education

Advances in technology are enabling dramatic changes in education content, delivery, and accessibility. Instructional tool are evolving beyond lecture presentation and group work to video games, simulations, stealth assessment, and robots. Software is creating environments where students can direct the creation of their own knowledge with subtle prompts from teachers.

To take maximum advantage of these new tools, though, we need to abandon the egg crate approach to education. Simply stacking one change on top of existing structures does not advance student learning or teacher engagement. In his book Schoolteacher, Dan Lortie describes the cellular structure of the American education system. In colonial times, teachers worked in one room schoolhouses and teachers were responsible for teaching all subjects and all ages. As schools grew, students were divided into age groups and assigned to different classrooms.

However, this alteration has not lead to dramatic changes in the teaching profession. Classrooms are stacked on top of each other like “egg crates.” Teachers are responsible for their own materials and rarely interact with each other. Today, parents have more options with private and charter schools. But basic instructional approaches rarely deviate from traditional methods.

The main force behind the cellular school is bureaucratic momentum. The egg crate model of schooling places unnecessary pressure on teachers. Assigning teachers a piece of turf upon which he or she is responsible for everything stifles collaboration. Policy makers ought to encourage teachers to gain expert knowledge in specific subjects and work with others on techniques. Teachers ought to serve as the leaders of flexible education communities where collaboration rather than isolation is the standard.

One of the most powerful ways to counteract inertia in the classroom is technologies that free teachers to collaborate. Imagine a school were teachers work in sync with each other to educate students. A place with teams of teachers with specialized skill sets working jointly to teach, develop curricula, and design specialized interventions. A school with a cafeteria where robots provided context based foreign language instruction, a computer lab where student’s student played games that both motivated and provided high quality instruction, and a library where students took micro-lessons through massive, online courses to reinforce learning. In such a school, students could direct much of their own learning.

We need policy changes that facilitate education innovation. In many public K-12 schools, rules designed for an agrarian or industrial world limit flexibility. School finance focuses on seat-time requirements and apportions money to schools based on the number of days students sit in a classroom. Grade promotion is based on time in class as opposed to skill mastery. We need more flexible structures that emphasize learning as opposed to time spent in classrooms.

In addition, some K-12 schools and colleges discourage distance learning by not allowing credit for those classes or taking money away from districts when their students enroll in distance courses. These types of policies discourage innovation and make it difficult for students to access valuable learning materials through new delivery systems.

Lawmakers need to update privacy rules to allow for more robust data collection. Districts should develop tools to store this data into existing education data warehouses. Educators must engage parents to get their feedback and earn their permission to use new assessment tools. These changes will enable new learning approaches and student assessment.

Technology can create a truly meritocratic education system. In the status quo, we assume that all students need the same amount of time in the classroom to learn the required material. Yet if a student can demonstrate mastery of course material through self-directed learning, then spending hundreds of hours in a high school class is a questionable policy. New assessment technologies can more precisely detect student mastery. Providing students with more opportunities to learn and to demonstrate proficiency will help teachers focus on problem-solving and helping students needing special assistance. Ending the egg crate will liberate both students and teachers.

Darrell West, vice president of Governance Studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, and author of Digital Schools: How Technology Can Transform Schools. Joshua Bleiberg is a research assistant also with the Center for Technology Innovation.

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