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The Nielsen Paper
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Don Nielsen, our classmate and early supporter of Partners 63, has been on a "personal odyssey" aimed at Education Reform. During the last eight years he has focused almost all of his time on this issue . Currently, Don is serving as President of the Seattle Public School Board. The Nielsen Paper, below, articulates his thought-provoking analysis: "Standards and Public Education."


America's public school system was never designed to effectively educate every child. In fact, it was specifically set up not to do so, and it has successfully not done so for 120 years. For the entire 20th century, this country has employed a system of education that has become increasingly inadequate at meeting the needs of our young people and of our society.

From the late 1800s until about 1960, our present system of education served us well enough. During that time, our society did not require that all children learn to high standards. A high school graduate was capable of acquiring a living wage job; most women stayed home, or became teachers or nurses; and only students with good grades went on to college and became the managers and leaders of industry and government.

That world no longer exists, but the school system that met the needs of that era still exists.

Society has now concluded, and rightfully so, that we can no longer afford to have so many of our children receiving what, by today's standards, is an inadequate education. The solution to this education dilemma has been to set standards of educational proficiency for all schools to achieve.

Einstein once said, "The height of idiocy is to expect a different output from the same input." We can no longer ignore the fact that the present system of education was not designed to meet these new standards. We must recognize that unless we change the system, the standards movement will become yet another failed educational reform idea.


You will remember the bell-shaped curve, a formula predicting that, within any given classroom, roughly ten percent of the students would be "A" students, fifteen percent would be "B" students, half would be "C" students, and so forth. This hypothesis was flawed from the outset. First, a class of 28 students is too small a sample from which to develop a useful statistical curve. Second, the built-in assumption was that only a few students should be effectively educated. Over the past century, America's public education system has turned out about 25 percent of our students graduating with adequate learning to proceed to further education, another 50 percent graduating with limited skills, (which in today's society is of no real value), while the last 25 percent dropping out before completing high school. This pattern was designed into the system and the system has performed exactly as designed. At the same time, teachers and administrators have been maligned for their failure to do better with our children. But, clearly, the problem is not the people — it is the system.

Our present factory model system is set up like a production line in which we treat every child the same. Students arrive at the school door, the bell rings, and every student receives the same amount of instruction, delivered for the same length of time. The problem is a production line only works when the incoming raw material is uniform. In education today, we have anything but uniform raw material. Our students come from diverse cultures and economic backgrounds; some are very well prepared to learn and many are not; many do not speak English while others come from home environments where there is limited or non-existent preparation for learning. Yet our present system treats them identically. Such a group-based system cannot possibly be expected to effectively educate every child.

The present system is also a time-based. Today, and for the last hundred years, everything about our system is based upon time, not achievement. Grade placements are age-related, not achievement-related. If you are 8 years old, you are in the third grade. It doesn't matter whether you read at the first grade level or the fifth grade level. The school year is 180 days, regardless of whether that is enough time, too much or too little. Traditionally, students moved from one grade to the next based upon time, not achievement. This accounts for why some children graduate from school not being able to read or write well. Age is more important than achievement. When the existing system was first set up, young children of our country spent their summers either working in the fields or in factories earning money for their families. Today, that is not the case, but we still have the same school calendar.

Our school year is divided into semesters. Classes are all either one or two semesters. It doesn't matter if one child can learn the material in 10 weeks while another takes 26 weeks. Everyone gets the same material for a semester. In secondary school, we have periods, generally lasting 50 minutes. There is no assessment as to whether that is enough time or too much time for a given subject each day. The day is six periods long. For some students that might be long enough, for others it might not be. It doesn't matter in today's system.

Today, our children are compared unfavorably to children from other countries who outperform ours in international exams. Significantly, America's children spend less time in the classroom than the children of any other developed country, averaging 178 days in the classroom per year. In Japan, they attend 240 days, Korea 222 days, Israel 215 days, Scotland 191 days and Canada 188 days. In Japan, children go to school more hours per day, more days per week and more days per year. This equates to Japanese children attending school the equivalent of four extra American school years during 12 years of public school. It is little wonder their students are better prepared and outshine ours in international test exams.

Even at the state level, time is the issue. Most states require 20 credits for graduation from high school. This is a time-based measure, not an achievement-based measure. It simply means that the student has sat through 20 semesters of certain required classes. Most State Codes on education are strictly "input" documents and say virtually nothing about "output"-what a student should know and be able to do at any given educational stage.

Our present system of public education has done exactly what it was designed to do. Today, that simply is not good enough so we must create a new system.

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