As originally published in The Patriot-News /

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk,” a study commissioned by the Department of Education. At once a strong indictment of the academic performance of American students, it also set forth numerous recommendations intended to improve the curriculum, learning standards and instruction, particularly in American secondary schools.

Since its publication, concern for American education has grown. In 1983, the focus was on the achievement gap among American students. Today, that concern has expanded to encompass a “global achievement gap.”

To the credit of school and business leaders, teachers and graduate schools of education, efforts to reform American education have been extensive. These efforts have not been small in scope or inexpensive on local, state and national levels.

Our schools have benefited from decades of research on cognition and child development, and the intersection of that research with teacher training, curriculum design and instructional technologies. Together with the development of state and –more recently– national learning standards, this collaboration has made a difference.

But much remains to be done. Although standardized test scores have improved, the ability of American students to solve challenging complex questions generally has not. This calls into the question the value of those tests.

Employers, for example, find that American students lack confidence when they are asked to develop a solution that requires something more than a simple answer. American students lack a “mastery of understanding” or deeper levels of learning, and their results on international examinations reflect this lack of depth. Critics claim that what our students have gained from years of educational reform is simply increased knowledge.

Not all reforms require additional research or extensive reliance on technology. Other measures, more fundamental ones, can produce significant results.

My experience demonstrates that academic success is most likely when teachers take responsibility for the academic success of their students.

The teachers who do this best understand every student, as well as they understand the curriculum they teach. They know the unique learning strengths and weaknesses of all of their students, together with their motivations and aspirations. This commitment is not limited to elementary school teachers.

Teachers who take responsibility for the academic success of their students understand the “whole child,” including his or her academic, social and emotional development. This requires “partnering” with the parents of every student, and includes direct communication and a shared understanding of the educational goals of each.

The benefits of personalizing of teaching and learning (and by this I don’t mean providing a “delivery system” that relies primarily on technology) can be significant.

Learning from Finland’s example can be beneficial. The Scandinavian nation is routinely recognized for having developed one of the world’s finest educational systems. At the core of its success is the commitment of Finnish teachers to knowing every student well and “doing whatever it takes” to help that student not just answer a simple question, but learn how to learn.

Personalizing the “learning journey” gives students the confidence they need to learn what they don’t know – to direct their own exploration, discovery and application of knowledge to “real-world” problems. In the end, students construct understandings, rather than amassing knowledge they’ll forget soon after an exam.

Tony Wagner, a noted researcher of American education has said, “Today knowledge is ubiquitous, constantly changing, growing exponentially… Today knowledge is free. It’s like air, it’s like water. It’s become a commodity… There’s no competitive advantage today in knowing more than the person next to you. The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.”

In addition to personalizing the learning journey, schools must provide students with skills or competencies they’ll need in the future to learn and relearn. Alvin Toffler, the clear-eyed author of Future Shock, decades ago wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Today more than ever, it is important that faculty and administrators help students develop a strong moral and ethical compass. School leaders know that productive learning, as well as creativity and innovation, occur in a social setting. These learning experiences are a precursor for students’ entry to 21st century work, which increasingly is conducted in international work teams. I see this dynamic play out in elementary and secondary classrooms.

Last, we should organize schools on a small scale. Small schools, with small teacher-to-student ratios, create intimate learning communities that foster the personalization of learning and result in impressive learning outcomes.

If American business is to compete successfully in the global economy, and living standards and democracy for all Americans are to be secured to the fullest, we must continue the work inspired by A Nation at Risk by taking the fundamental steps that I have described here.