What’s Missing in Education Reform?

by | Aug 8, 2019 | Featured Article | 2 comments

By Thomas F, Kelly, Ph. D.

We can eliminate the achievement gap and improve student achievement for all.

After four decades of school reform including massive amounts of money, work, honest effort, endless federal and state legislation and regulation we find student achievement nationally about where it was when we started.  Meanwhile student discipline problems and dropouts have increased significantly.  All of this despite herculean efforts by educators, politicians and taxpayers. 


These efforts have included:

  1. Hundreds of billions of dollars expended
  2. Involvement of millions of children, teachers and administrators.
  3. A wide variety of federal and state mandates and regulations.
  4. Extensive remedial programs to improve achievement.
  5. Standards have been raised and set at various levels to require only excellence
  6. Class size has been reduced in many areas.
  7. Teacher evaluation and accountability has involved numerous state mandates and forms of design.
  8. Student testing has gone through many variations.
  9. Teacher training has gone through an extensive variety of practices.


Why have such extensive well-intentioned efforts not produced the improvement we need?  There certainly has been no lack of commitment, effort or expense.  Given the magnitude of effort sustained over decades nationally and the lack of measurable results we need to recognize that something is missing.


There are two closely related critical student needs that are not being addressed.  Until and unless these essential needs are successfully addressed, we will continue to get the unsatisfactory results we are getting now.


1.Individual student needs


The present system requires the students to fit the system.  For example, we expect students to be ready for Kindergarten.  That is backwards.  Who is responsible to be ready, the babies for kindergarten or the adult, paid, trained professionals for the babies?  We hear the same for High School, “He’s not ready for high school.”  We need to redesign and recreate the system to fit the needs of all the students.  Clearly one size does not fit all. 


We speak frequently of the importance of group diversity in education and other areas.  Gender, socioeconomic status, race, age, etc.  In reality real diversity within these groups is far greater than diversity between them.  At the same time we overlook the one critical diversity when it comes to learning.  Each individual student is unique.  That is by far the single most important kind of diversity when it comes to learning.  Unless and until we meet the needs of each individual student, we will continue to get the unsatisfactory results we get now.   The good news is that with technology the means to do this now are available. 


Technology is the great educational opportunity equalizer:

  • Uses multisensory teaching methods (seeing, hearing, touching).
  • Has magnetic power to engage and hold student attention
  • Individualize instruction to each individual student
  • Provides immediate feedback for mastery or correction
  • Offers alternative methods as necessary for mastery
  • Maintain student records Pre-K 12 (and Higher Ed)
  • Provides continuity of instruction day to day and year to year
  • Empowers teachers to deal with individual differences as never before for any student in any subject at any time.


While a little more challenging, it can also be done without technology.


2.Language the one critical lever for all cognitive learning


We must recognize the need for sufficient language achievement for learning everything else in the curriculum. It is individual student differences in their language achievement levels that determine their individual readiness levels for learning.  I cannot lean what I am not ready to learn.  All cognitive learning is language dependent.  We know that millions of students appear to be “failing” Biology, Mathematics, History, etc. In reality they are not failing the various subjects but are actually failing the level of language required to learn them.  The prerequisite failure is language not the other subjects that depend on language.  Until we recognize this and adjust the system to ensure students poses the level of language achievement necessary for other learning, nothing will change.


We can diagram the relationship between language and all cognitive learning:


Language Arts, Social St., Science. Math, Phys Ed, Music, Art, Etc. (Results or Ends)

Language Arts (Means to all subjects above)


Systems have interacting subsystems.  Some of these subsystems have far greater impact on the entire system than others.  I call these more powerful subsystems levers.  In the diagram above we see the various curricula in K – 12 schools listed above the line.  These are all outcomes or results we want for all students.  Language is the only curriculum that is also below the line.  In addition to being an outcome it is also the essential means for learning all of the curriculum, including more language itself.  One’s present level of language achievement is the current limit of their ability to learn. 


Teach me more language and my ability to learn all subjects increases.  My IQ will also rise.  Verbal IQ tests are nothing more than reading/language tests.  We know that things like IQ tests and reading tests correlate more than 90%.  As either one rises so does the other.  Thus by increasing language learning we can not only raise student achievement but increase their ability to learn as well.


The most critical area of differences among our students is in the area of language achievement.  If we look at the reading level of students in the vast majority of classes across our nation we find that their reading levels range from considerably below expected grade levels to well above.  Yet our K – 12 curricula in all areas is set up by grade level.  Thus every student in the seventh grade for example is expected to work at the seventh grade level.  All instructional materials and tests are at the seventh grade level. 


While this ubiquitous one size fits all instructional model is operating in each grade level virtually everywhere in our schools:

  • Those students whose language is below their grade are constantly frustrated and doomed to failure.
  • Those whose language is above their grade level are constantly bored.
  • Failing and bored students become discipline problems and interfere with the learning of those students who are on the appropriate language level for their grade.
  • This in turn causes teacher frustration and burnout. It is a lose – lose structure for all involved. 
  • It is also a losing system for our economy and our nation.


When students’ language levels improve so does their learning in all other areas of the curriculum that are dependent on sufficient language to learn them.  Language is a powerful lever for all other cognitive learning.


  1. Edwards Deming has pointed out that chronic problems have systemic or structural causes. This chronic problem of low student achievement is being caused by the structural systemic requirement that all students function at their grade level when most are either below or above it in terms of their language achievement level. We must abandon the current structure which bases everything on grade level and requires all students to function at that level.  We need to restructure our curriculum (instructional program) to base everything on the actual language readiness level of individual students.  It is time to put the needs of students first. 


There have been numerous efforts to do this in the past but success has been very limited at best.  The means to do it now exist.  With emerging technology it is becoming very doable.  What seems to be missing is recognition of the problem: the mismatch of instructional requirements designed by grade levels and individual student language learning levels most of which are either above or below the grade level they are in. 


Language is the common denominator for all cognitive learning.  Unless students possess the level of language necessary to learn what is being taught they cannot and will not learn.  If we make this one adjustment we will provide true equal educational opportunity to all students and their achievement will increase geometrically.  We can experience an educational renaissance.


This article is an excerpt from Dr. Kelly’s book, We Can Do more and Better With Less: Education Reform Can Work, 2019 Edition.

Published by Reader’s Magnet


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  1. Zoe Mitchell

    This was such a thorough discussion. Thank you Ms. Kelly!

  2. Phyllis

    Her book has an even better discussion about this matter. I suggest you check it out.


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