The Birth of an Idea

It was after thirty-two years of working with kids outside the classroom and compiling a resume of organizational and leadership development and problem-solving experience, from both an operations’ management perspective and as a consultant, that I began my work as a substitute teacher. It is from the melding of those experiences that I felt compelled to understand why the dedicated efforts of professional educators produced such disparate outcomes for children in our schools. I believed there had to be a better way to teach children. In fact, I have learned over the course of my career, there is always a better way if we open our hearts and minds to the possibility.

            It was during a week-long sub assignment for a middle school math teacher that I experienced an epiphany.

It is not very often that a substitute teacher has an opportunity to do what regular teachers do, which is to teach. One of the few occasions when I was able to teach was in a week-long assignment for a middle school math classroom. The instructions he left were prefaced by his comment that he did not expect me to cover all the subject matter in the outline. He encouraged me to do the best I could in the time I had.

 After two days of work on material having to do with prime factoring, rules of divisibility, and reducing to lowest terms, the students in three separate classes took a quiz, which the teacher had prepared in advance. It included twenty-five problems like the problems that had been included on the several worksheets on which we had been practicing. This teacher went to great lengths to ensure his students did not cheat. The students sat at round tables, four students per table.  He had constructed interlocking boards that were maybe as much as twenty-four inches high for the purpose of dividing the table into four equal sections. Prior to every quiz or exam, the students would retrieve the boards from behind a cabinet and would set them up. As a result, it would be difficult for students to copy off each other.

Given the time we had spent on the subject matter, and the relatively straightforward nature of the material, I had lofty expectations. To my surprise and disappointment, the results were that better than fifty percent of the 85 students scored below 60 percent and 75 percent of the students scored below 75. Only eight of the 85 students scored above 85 percent, and only two of those 8 scored better than 95 percent. In other words, there were 43 Fs, 21 Ds, 13 Cs, 6 Bs, and 2 As.

The next day, prompted by my surprise at the results, I spent the entire period reviewing the same material using the practice worksheets the teacher had provided at the outset.  I did not return the quiz to the students and chose not to review the actual problems from it. We worked on similar problems on the whiteboard, as a class, and I worked one-on-one with the students who appeared to need that level of attention. Great care was taken to avoid doing the work for them. It is remarkable how students learn how to trick one into doing the work for them.

The following day, I had all three classes retake the quiz. In advance of the retake, they were told, in broad strokes, how poorly the class had done, although no one had access to their own results. The students, also, were assured this was a risk-free venture as I would throw out the lowest of the two test scores. The hope was that this would motivate the students to do their best on this “do over” opportunity to improve their scores while alleviating performance pressure.

The new scores showed dramatic improvement by all but a handful of students. Better than ninety percent of students earned higher scores on the second quiz with several improving by two or more letter grades. A few students improved from failing grades to As and Bs. Roughly 80 percent of the students from the three classes scored 75 or higher and a full third scored 85 or higher, 10 of whom scored above 95 percent (See Chart A-1). Given the unlikelihood that the students remembered specific questions or problems, it seemed reasonable to conclude their scores on the second quiz represented a substantially higher level of subject mastery derived from the extra time they were given to learn prior to a do-over quiz.

While this may not have been the most scientific of studies, the level of improvement certainly was not a result of pure chance. The operative question is: “Is it worth an extra two days to get such a dramatic improvement in subject-matter mastery?” 

If the goal of teaching is to help all students learn every lesson well enough to not only be able to use what they had learned as prerequisite material on subsequent lessons—but also able to retain the knowledge and use it throughout their lives—my job as teacher would have been incomplete after the first exam. At that point, seventy-seven out of my 85 students would have been poorly prepared for the next lesson and the quiz results over the material in future lessons would have likely been every bit as abysmal as on the first test in our anecdote.

It seemed clear to me it was not in the best interests of these seventy-seven students to be pushed along to the next lesson, poorly prepared. It may or may not have been in the best interests of the eight students who scored better than 85 percent on the first quiz, to wait two extra days before moving them on to the next lesson but I figured the extra practice would not hurt them. As the results illustrate, all the students who had recorded Bs on the first quiz improved to an A on the second. More importantly, an additional 20 students reached the 85 percent threshold.

After the second quiz I was faced with a dilemma. There were still 57 students who had been unable to earn an 85 percent grade and only 28 who could. This meant that the first 57 were still unprepared for the next lesson and were likely to be unsuccessful. They needed more time and practice, yet the other 28 students were ready to move on and to delay their advance to subsequent lessons would be contrary to their interests.

Chart A-1

Much as I had done so many times as a leader of other operations throughout my career, and as a consultant many more times, I began thinking about how we could devise a way to give time to the students who needed it without an adverse impact on the students who did not. It was apparent to me the education process, as it is currently structured, was incapable of meeting the diverse needs of the students in these three classrooms, which differed little from classrooms in every school in which I had subbed, and in every subject area. There had to be a better way.

After that second quiz, I did move all students on to the next lesson ready or not. This choice was necessary because I did not feel I had the discretion to do otherwise. It was not my classroom. I have no doubt the group of 57 students would have benefited had they been given more time and another “do-over,” and I am confident the group of 28 successful students needed to keep moving forward so as not to lose their momentum. Had there been a better teacher-to-student ratio or other teachers involved, and time had not been a constraint, I have no doubt the interests of all 85 students could have been better served.

When we get into the actual implementation plan for my model, we will devote time to the way teachers are assigned and how they will work together to serve the best interests of all students.

We intend to establish that the problems in education are structural, and process-related and that teachers are as much victims of a dysfunctional education process as are their students.

Your willingness to hear the testimony we will be presenting in this work is the key to a transformation of education in our nation’s schools; public, charter, and faith based. When we get to the actual implementation plan we will show how each of the examples we presented in the preview will be accomplished.