CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With each day comes another dismal report on the quality of education in our state and nation. Whether it's America's 27th international ranking in math and science proficiency or the "F" for academic achievement Education Week recently handed West Virginia, the system that was once the envy of the world is becoming a cause for embarrassment.
The usual reaction to the latest "Johnny can't read" report is to herd teachers, students, unions, administrators, public officials and parents into a circular firing line. Accusations might feel good temporarily, but the casualty count is too high and prevents any meaningful change to occur.
Equally futile is the understandable urgency to implement new programs and policies to "fix" whatever the latest study tells us is "wrong." Before charging ahead with another "reform," it's wise to take a lesson from anyone who has a renovated an aging home. All the designer wallpaper, fancy woodwork and expensive marble in the world can't fix a house with a crumbling foundation. So, too, in education, we need to take an unvarnished look at the pillars upon which our system is built before flipping through the swatch books.
For all the time and money we spend on education in this country, there is little understanding of how and why American schools were created in the first place. To gain a fuller appreciation, we need to go back about 300 years, when Prussia undertook a system of mandatory public education to consolidate power and identity as it transitioned from a duchy to a kingdom.
Schools were seen as the most effective vehicle for transforming peasants into soldiers and workers and instilling obedience to centralized authority. "(I)f you want to (influence) the students at all, you must do more than merely talk to him, you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will," wrote the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte.
This approach formed the model for education throughout most of Europe, making its way to the United States after Horace Mann, considered the father of American public schools, traveled to Prussia in 1843. At that time, America was undergoing its own identity crisis as it grappled with a shortage of workers equipped for the demands of the industrial age and growing unease over waves of Irish, Italian and other non-English immigrants. Schools, reformers argued, could not only teach children to read and write, but also help instill loyalty and weaken ties to the old country.
Upon his return, Mann led efforts to establish a system of free, mandatory public education that, while highly laudable, would certainly have received the seal of approval from King Wilhelm II. "Our schools are factories in which the raw product (children) are to be shaped and fashioned," declared Ellwood P. Cubberley in his 1922 book "Public School Administration."
There is no doubt that free public education is one our county's greatest achievements, liberating generations of Americans from the chains of illiteracy and poverty. Our public schools lifted us all, building an educated citizenry and enabling our country to become the world's leading military and economic superpower. Now, more than ever, we must redouble our efforts to invest in education, support teachers and keep the doors to opportunity open to all.
However, in our haste to assign blame or find a quick fix, we have failed to notice that the world and our country have changed in the last 170 years. Just as the shift from an agrarian to industrial age demanded new skills, the dramatic transition to an information economy in a global society requires us to think, learn and work differently. So why are we still educating American children as if they were Prussian serfs?
In addition to academic and technical skills, jobs at every level, from the factory floor to the executive suite, now demand self-initiative, problem-solving and collaboration.
A senior executive at a one of the nation's top energy companies recently told me that her company cannot find enough employees with both the technical and so-called "executive" skills needed today. When you're out at a drill site, stuff happens, she explains. "Parts don't come in, people get sick and not everything goes as planned. We need people who can work together to get the job done without calling the boss every five minutes."
Success today also depends on a lifetime of learning. Globalization and the rise of technology have accelerated the pace of change, transforming our society and creating new jobs, opportunities and challenges. Only those who understand that it is their individual responsibility to adapt and learn will thrive in this age of digital Darwinism.
Just as businesses adopt the best practices of other successful companies, traditional schools could take a lesson from an educational approach that stands apart in fostering the skills that are in such demand today: the Montessori method.
Consider that the founders of Google, Wikipedia, the Sims video game and Amazon, among many others, all attended Montessori schools, distinct learning environments designed to work with, not against, human nature to promote academic excellence, innovation, personal responsibility and a lifetime love of learning.
The Wall Street Journal describes the approach as the "Montessori mystique," while the Harvard Business Review calls the CEOs who run America's top companies the "Montessori mafia."
A recent study of successful executives who had either launched innovative companies or invented new products quantifies the growing anecdotal reports of the value of a Montessori education. As part of their research, Professors Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of INSEAD surveyed 3,000 global entrepreneurs. They found that the innovators shared two key characteristics: a Montessori background and ability to follow their curiosity.
The educational philosophy is named for Dr. Maria Montessori, the first female physician in Italy, and a pioneer in the study of child development and psychology. A humanitarian and devout Catholic, Dr. Montessori founded the Casa dei Bambini in Rome in 1907, a school in which scientific research informed the subject matter, classroom materials, student-teacher relationship and even the furniture.
Dr. Montessori discovered that young children had an innate curiosity and desire to learn, and believed that the role of the teacher was to guide and nurture, rather than merely impart knowledge.