It’s Time to Create the Educational System We Really Need

By James Rickabaugh, Executive Director, C.E.S.A #1 — Our nation is facing a challenge more important than fixing the national debt and even creating more jobs immediately, yet it is rarely mentioned on the Presidential campaign trail.

That challenge is to create an education system capable of meeting the demands of today’s society. Without an education system that has the capacity to rebuild our economy and serve our society’s needs, our long-term economic prospects are dim, making it difficult to imagine how our debt can be fully addressed or how job creation will be sustained.

 This statement is not an indictment of our youth or teachers or families. Our current system was created in the late 1890’s to serve the economy and society of that era. It was acceptable for most youth to gain some basic skills and prepare for work that would present relatively low intellectual challenge, was highly repetitive, and usually performed under close supervision.

Today’s society and economy require virtually all of our youth be educated at high levels. Attempted fixes to the existing system typically are more expensive and less certain to work than if we designed, developed and implemented a new system aligned with our needs today and with the capacity to educate all students to high levels. The problems with the system’s performance are well documented. What have been less discussed are the system-level solutions we should pursue.

The good news is that we know from research and experience what it takes to dramatically improve learning for all learners. World-renowned education researcher Benjamin Bloom documented in the 1980’s the dramatic power of personalized learning in the form of tutoring to increase student achievement.   Multiple studies showed students who participated in high quality tutoring, 1-1, 1-2 or 1-3, increased their level of learning on average two standard deviations above the average performance of students in traditional classrooms. That is a 98% difference! Equally compelling, the distribution of data was such that 90% of the students engaged in personalized learning achieved a level equal to the top 20% of learners in traditional classrooms.

It is not difficult to understand the dramatic results Bloom’s research revealed. When students are being tutored, instruction is tailored to the individual learner. When students develop misconceptions, they can be addressed immediately. Feedback on work is provided in real time. The level of challenge is calibrated to require the full attention and effort of the student, but still within a range where success is achievable. Student interests and strengths are tapped and leveraged to build motivation and accelerate progress. Dr. Bloom also documented that remediation in this learning and teaching relationship is almost non-existent.

At the time, Dr. Bloom did not have available what we know today about the brain, learning and neuroscience to inform instructional strategies and environments for learning. He also did not have access to sophisticated, highly flexible technology tools that exist and are under development today that can make this powerful instructional strategy scalable. Consequently, he concluded that such an instructional approach was not scalable at the time. Now, we are within reach of being able to approximate the tutoring experience for learners in person, digitally or virtually, working in small groups with other students or with an adult, or 1-1 with educators.

This is a challenge being taken up by almost two dozen school districts in Southeastern Wisconsin. Working with small elements of what will soon become a scalable model, these schools and districts are committed to unlocking the potential of personalized learning at scale. Leading indicators associated with the work are very promising and early achievement results show the potential of this approach. The school districts, working together in an action network, are sharing their learning, collecting a wide array of data, developing prototypes and carefully assembling components of a new educational system.

With the coordination and support of the Institute @ CESA #1, these courageous, pioneering educational leaders are taking up the challenge that politicians and policy makers are avoiding. While politicians and policy makers are “doubling down” on the unsuccessful reform strategies of the past decade, on-the-ground practitioners are setting about the work of creating the educational system we need and that has the potential to get learning right the first time for virtually all of our youth, not just the portion targeted by a 120 year old system design.

Follow our progress at our blog and connect to us on Twitter and Facebook.


Dr. James Rickabaugh is currently the Executive Director of CESA #1 and the Director of the Institute @ CESA #1. Previously, he was superintendent of the Whitefish Bay Schools, served as Midwest Regional President for Voyager Expanded Learning of Dallas, Texas, and served as superintendent for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, a south suburb of Minneapolis.  

 Jim was Wisconsin Superintendent of the Year in 2008 and Minnesota Superintendent of the Year in 1996 and received the Excellence in Educational Leadership Award in 2005 from the University Council for Educational Administration. He is also a co-author of Galileo and The Board and contributing author for The Master Teacher, nationally distributed subscription publications from The Master Teacher of Manhattan, Kansas.

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