It just wouldn’t fit and there was no forcing it. I was building a cable fence and I couldn’t string the cable around through a corner post. I tried for an hour and finally realized it wasn’t an execution problem, it was a design problem.

Teachers face the same problem every day.  They strive to help all students with similar birthdays prepare to pass tests of grade level proficiency–the premise of No Child Left Behind. It was a well intentioned effort to optimize the batch processing model of schooling we inherited from the Prussians.

When you’re working hard and the results aren’t as good as you hoped, you have to ask yourself, “Is this a teaching problem or a design problem?”

If you have a classroom of 10 years olds and some are ready for algebra and some are struggling with multiplication, does it make sense to dive into a group lesson on adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators?  The lesson will inevitably work for some, will be way to advanced for some, and will bore others. The best lesson will fail for something like half of the students. This is a design problem.

In schools where some kids are ahead and some are way behind, rather than focusing on getting age cohorts to grade level proficiency, the focus should be on helping every student make more than a year of academic progress every year–perhaps two years of progress for students that are way behind.

Sometimes you have to admit that you’re working on the wrong problem, take things apart and put them back together again.  It’s time we do that with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Most states have received an ESEA waiver that adds a focus on growth and makes it possible for schools to embrace a competency-based approach where students progress based on demonstrated mastery.

When principals are evaluating teachers this year and when they don’t see the percentage of grade level proficiency they had hoped for, they should ask, “Is this a teaching problem or a design problem?”

For more, see From Cohorts to Competency and visit CompetencyWorks 

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