'Metaschool': The Education of the Future?

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In the May 1992 issue of The Atlantic, George Leonard May, declared "the end of school" -- or at least the end of education as Americans then knew it. May's prediction:

By the year 2010, if we are to survive as a democratic society, our children will have to learn in a variety of new ways, some of them already on the drawing board, some unforeseen. None of them will involve a teacher in the front of a classroom presenting information to twenty or thirty children seated at desks.

Before he reveals what exactly this school of the future might look like, May details the problems with American education reform leading up to 1992. He pins the beginning of the reform movement to a 1983 report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, which asked for a longer school day and year, more homework, higher standards for college admissions, better textbooks, more rigorous grading, and a nationwide standardized testing system.

The release was met with interest and approval, garnering major media attention and government interest. Governors took up the cause, approving increased spending on education. But, as May reports, throwing all that money at failing schools didn't really do much, and here's why: 

A Nation at Risk set off a firestorm of interest and approval. All three television networks did shows on education. Newsmagazines ran cover stories on the subject. Governors throughout the nation scrambled to get on the band-wagon and create their own commissions and task forces on school reform. Public-opinion polls showed a willingness, even an eagerness, to spend more on the schools. In an amazingly short time--as touted in the Department of Education's follow-up report, The Nation Responds--the more-of-the-same movement was well under way.

No movement to improve the schools gets all it asks for, but this one got more than most. From 1978 to 1983 total spending per public school student, from kindergarten through high school, adjusted for inflation, had remained stable. From 1983, when A Nation at Risk was published, to 1991 per capita spending, adjusted for inflation, increased by 30 percent.

With what results? Blacks and Hispanics have shown some real improvement in reading and writing, and students in general have made small gains in math scores. But even with more and more teachers devoting up to half their time preparing pupils for achievement tests, today's students nationwide are scoring little better, or even worse, in reading and writing than did their predecessors. The painful truth is that despite the spotlight on schooling and the stern pronouncements of educators, governors, and Presidents, despite the frantic test preparation in classrooms all over the country and the increased funding, school achievement has remained essentially flat over the past two decades.

The failure of this well-intended, well-executed movement toward reform summons us to think the unthinkable: we can no longer improve the education of our children by improving school as we know it. The time has come to recognize that school is not the solution. It is the problem. Take a look:

• Clearly, human beings learn at different rates. This doesn't mean that slow learners are less intelligent than fast learners; they're just slower. Yet by and large, school as we know it forces everyone to learn at the same rate or be declared uneducable.

• When we human beings first emerged on this planet, our ability to cooperate gave us an advantage over larger and more powerful creatures. Throughout history we have worked together and learned together to further ourselves and our species. Today if you need help, you're likely to find a friend or a fellow worker who will bat the problem around with you, check out your ideas, offer suggestions. Yet for the most part school is set up to teach competition rather than cooperation.

• A certain amount of self-confidence and self-respect is an essential precondition to learning. Yet by and large, school is set up to humiliate publicly those who, for whatever reason, are unable to come up with the right answer when called upon.

After diagnosing the problem, May presents his solution: "metaschool."

We must summon the courage to recognize that the present system is entirely inadequate to our present educational needs. We must move as swiftly as possible to end it. We must empower our educators to create interactive learning environments rather than merely presenting information to passive students. We must shift our national educational goals from improving school as it is to building something beyond it--call it metaschool.

He details two models that were moving toward his ideal, including a school in Modesto, California, the Evelyn A. Hanshaw Middle School. Then-principal Charles Vidal explains the alternative school to May as "something entirely new and different -- a new building, a new kind of teacher, a new educational concept, a new way of thinking of our kids. We don't call them students. We call them citizens." Beyond promoting their students to citizens, the school differs from the average learning environment, having students sit around tables, rather than in rows; ensuring computer access in every classroom; and creating an interdisciplinary curriculum, where related knowledge is taught in different subjects.

May expected that "our children will have to learn in a variety of new ways" and that "None of them will involve a teacher in the front." Well, it's 2010, and that didn't exactly happen. Though we've seen the rise of alternative schools, like the KIPP schools and the Harlem Children's Zone, the American education system still largely consists of those less traditional institutions that the government continues to throw money, with programs like Race to the Top.

And how specifically has the Evelyn A. Hanshaw Middle school fared?

Looking at the school's Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) scores over the years, not too well.* The 2010 report shows only 32.1 percent of students proficient or advanced in English and only 25.7 percent proficient in math. This doesn't show much improvement over ten years from the 2000 STAR scores, which show only 32 percent of eighth graders scoring at the national average for reading.

In retrospect, it seems May's diagnosis of the problem was surer than his predictions about the solution. But perhaps that might have been predictable.

Read the rest of May's "The End of School."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives.

* Standardized testing scores are not the only measure of a school's achievement or success, just a useful metric at analyzing the progress of a school.

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Rebecca Greenfield is a writer based in Brooklyn. She was formerly on staff at The Atlantic Wire.

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