The No Child Left Behind Act may be underfunded, but that is not what is wrong with it. Although it is a well-meaning attempt to bring up the lowest third of our students, its real problem is that it amplifies one of the worst aspects of American education: its mechanical, rote nature.
Early in the last century, foundations set up by industrialists helped design our schools to prepare children for factory lives. Kids were to live by the bell, move through schools as if on conveyor belts and, especially, learn to follow instructions. Then they could work in the rapidly proliferating factories.
But the descendants of these corporate barons have shipped those factories overseas. We have factory-based schools in an Information Age -- and no factories. The innovative thinking we need to compete in the global economy is not on the agenda.
This factory-based approach, however, is locked in by political gridlock. The right believes in a back-to-the-basics form of education with strict assessment. The No Child Left Behind Act, for instance, encourages rote learning by aligning highly specified lessons with mechanized tests.
The left, meanwhile, has been open to more enlightened forms of learning, but it also supports the teachers unions, which oppose school choice. The outcome is the worst of both worlds: endless, mechanistic test prep and very limited choice. Our kids are paying the price, as seen in the 30% dropout rate.
We can do better than this. Here are five reasonable, common-sense principles on which to rebuild our school system:
* Engage the students. It is obvious that we learn when interested and motivated, and we don't learn -- and are more likely to drop out -- when we are bored. This should shock nobody.
* Use the power of information technology. Our kids live on technology, which can supply not only the infrastructure for learning but also the spectacular learning techniques developed in the games market. Cognitive researchers are finding that games have become intense learning systems that don't rely on drilling and testing. Stripped of their violence, they are a central part of the solution.
* Get our kids into the real world. Activities must be designed that encourage expeditions to museums, libraries, parks and historical sites and get children involved in their communities. Kids must not be slaves to tests or their computer screens.
* Return to social learning. Teachers in our one-room schoolhouses used older students as assistants with younger kids. It worked. The older children derived a sense of self-worth, importance and belonging. They learned social skills, had the powerful learning experience that teaching provides and made learning look cool to younger kids. It made the school a real community -- not an age-segregated aberration -- and made teaching extremely effective.
* Use the free market. Web-based publishers should make Internet learning games available directly to parents at reasonable prices. This partial home schooling provides educational choice without the drastic measures of full home schooling, private school or vouchers.
MIT and other universities are working to evolve our thinking about advanced uses of technology in education. America leads the world in scientific research, technology, entertainment and many other areas. Why can't we lead in education?