COLUMBUS, Ohio -- "The current crisis in education is costing us the American Dream."

That's the diagnosis Nobel laureate Kenneth G. Wilson gives regarding the way this country is dealing with its problems in public education. He said our approach to educating tomorrow's leaders is a holdover to our past as an industrial giant -- not a reflection of our current role as an information-based society.

Wilson, along with his co-author Bennett Daviss, has assessed our current national educational weaknesses and argues that nothing short of a rethinking of why and how we educate our young will be necessary if we are to survive in the next century.

In their book, Redesigning Education, published this month by Henry Holt and Company, Wilson and Daviss say that "the crisis in our schools can be traced to America's failure to grasp the nature and power of education in a postindustrial world.

"Adequate schooling no longer means a set of basic skills acquired in childhood and perhaps polished by a few years at a local university," they write. "We must make a quantum change in our concept of education itself if our society and culture are to

survive intact in the new century."

A major part of our problems come not from how our schools have changed but from how they haven't changed with the times. "They continue to do what they always have, in the same ways they always have." Wilson looks at the numerous national studies, reports and projects over the last decade aimed at improving schools and concludes that those efforts have "left them no more able -- and, apparently, in some ways less able -- to meet the needs of our children and our society."

He said that schools "still bear the stamp of the antiquated, quantity-based economy that they were organized to serve." They are "still organized to get a product -- graduates -- out the door, not to refine the processes by which students can meet increasingly stringent educational demands." In fact, Wilson claims that "today's typical school is one of the few places in the modern world where citizens of George Washington's America would feel right at home."

Wilson and Daviss say solving this immense problem and bringing true reform to education will require a change in the attitudes of today's educators. First, educators have to agree that our traditional vision of education is no longer relevant in a postindustrial knowledge-based society. Second, they have to accept and then build on whatever model that our new society demands. Most importantly, the authors emphasize that schools need an ordered process of change that will enable them to exchange old patterns for new ones required to make the needed changes.

Part of Wilson and Daviss' assertions are based on the success of various new educational programs now underway. One of them, Reading Recovery, developed in New Zealand and refined at Ohio State University, is providing dramatic success for students who before might have been lost to functional illiteracy.

Wilson has experience himself with successful reforms cited in the book, particularly Physics by Inquiry, a new approach to teaching physics. It is the centerpiece of a mathematics and science education initiative in Ohio, called Discovery, that he helps direct.

Wilson believes the key to solving some of the existing educational problems lies in the creation of what the authors call Systems Redesign Schools (SRS). Patterned somewhat after corporate America, these new schools would "be able to direct the same explosive power to education reform that has institutionalized technological revolution in industry."

The new SRS should function both as a school and as a laboratory for testing new ideas. It would bring together skilled and willing teachers, able researchers and designers, students from diverse backgrounds and abilities, and a host of classroom innovations.

The novel feature of the SRS is that it would seek major economies in its operating costs through its innovations, and then provide intense support to other schools seeking to benefit from the successes achieved in the SRS pilot studies. Wilson said such new approaches could "give education a place and a process through which it can develop the ability to plan, refine and integrate continuous improvements."

Schools wanting to become SRSs would have to demonstrate four key qualities:

_ First, their teachers would have to show a record of working together in ways that truly increased students' learning.

_ Second, those same teachers would have to be eager to test new ideas.

_ Third, the teachers -- and their students -- would have to understand that their roles are to serve the needs of sister schools through their experiments.

_ And fourth, Systems Redesign Schools would have to maintain close communications with the world outside their classrooms.

The authors propose starting slowly and deliberately. Ten schools each in the elementary, middle and high school ranges should be selected from across the nation. Those 30 schools would be enough to allow adequate experimentation without unreasonable costs, Wilson said. The process would likely require at least a decade to succeed.

The schools selected would still educate their normal complement of students but would also allow their teachers enough time to pursue innovations in education. Doing so would require two things: The schools would have to focus on cooperative learning, tapping the students themselves to teach and learn from each other, easing the demands on teachers. Second, Wilson said these schools would have to increase their current faculties, perhaps as much as doubling the teaching ranks.

The kind of progress proposed doesn't come without a price tag, in this case, as much as $48 million for increased faculty costs alone. Another $8.4 million is needed in costs for expenses required to serve those additional faculty. Another $100 million would go to redesigning every subject in all twelve grades and kindergarten. Another million or so would be needed for paid consulting through the program and for developing measurement methods to gauge progress. Administrative costs for the national program would run about $30 million.

Wilson and Daviss acknowledge that the total price tag is an imposing $218 million but, they point out, that figure would only amount to one-tenth of one percent of what we now spend on education nationally.

"Within a decade of its inception, Systems Redesign Schools would be virtually self-supporting through budgetary efficiencies they create for all schools," the authors suggest.

Back to Archive
Go to Current Month News Research Stories
Go to Current Month Newsfeature Stories
Go to Current Month News Cancer Report Stories

Contact: Kenneth G. Wilson (614) 292-9396

Written by Earle Holland, (614) 292-8384

EDITOR'S NOTE: Reporters interested in reviewing a copy of Redesigning Education should contact Carolyn Coburn, publicist, Henry Holt and Company, 115 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011. Her phone number is (212) 886-9273.