by Dick Resch
(Plain Press, September 2015) American students need to hit the books. According to the latest international data, the United States ranks 24th among 34 developed countries in math and science achievement — well below countries like Slovenia, Vietnam, and the Czech Republic.
Our dismal academic performance has real consequences for our economy. If U.S. students were to match the test scores of their Canadian peers — who rank 17 spots higher — the American economy would generate $10 trillion in additional growth over the next 35 years. That’s an average of $285 billion a year.
In order to raise the achievement level of American students, our schools have to do a better job teaching them. That means scrapping the age-old lecture model in favor of an approach that engages students directly and allows them to learn by doing.
Even modest improvements in educational outcomes would deliver significant economic gains. Raising math and science scores to the developed-country average would boost our economy by 1.7 percent by 2050. That’s equivalent to $2.5 trillion of extra growth over that period.
Sadly, our students show little sign of making such progress anytime soon. Despite aggressive education reforms and billions of dollars in government spending, America’s performance in math, science, and reading has remained mostly unchanged for at least the last decade.
Improving these stubbornly low levels of achievement will require a dramatic shift in the way we educate our children. We can start by abandoning the traditional classroom.
A growing body of research has demonstrated the importance of an “engaged learning” environment — that is, a classroom that promotes team-based, experiential learning. Students must be free to sit in small groups, collaborate on hands-on projects, discuss ideas with one another, and interact with technology.
Instead of holding court at the front of the classroom, teachers roam freely, providing individualized assistance and coaching.
The evidence shows that this approach works. Consider the case of North Carolina State University — one of more than two dozen schools to implement an engaged-learning approach for large undergraduate classes.
According to one recent study of 16,000 students, failure rates in these classes were typically 50 percent lower than in traditional lectures — particularly among women and minorities. Students in engaged-learning classes also ended up understanding key concepts better and posted higher attendance rates.
The approach has also worked in primary and secondary schools. In 2009, for example, the math department at Minnesota’s Byron High School abandoned the traditional lecture setup for a form of engaged learning known as the “flipped classroom.” The share of students who passed the state mathematics test quickly rose from 29.9 percent in 2006 to 73.8 percent in 2011.
The success of engaged-learning classrooms only confirms what education researchers have known for years. Indeed, team-based learning has been shown to improve knowledge retention among students by up to 90 percent.
Not surprisingly, schools around the country have been investing in engaged-learning classroom designs in recent years. New York’s Campbell-Savona Central School District, for instance, recently overhauled three of its conventional classrooms. Thanks to a new integrated system of tables and chairs, teachers and students can easily adjust the room for either large-group instruction or small-group collaboration.
Unfortunately, classrooms like these are the exception rather than the norm. Given the reluctance among school districts to adopt teaching techniques that deviate from the status quo — even if they’ve proven effective — it’s no wonder that student achievement has been stagnant.
Worse still, investments in school improvements have been declining. Spending on school construction averaged more than $20 billion a year between 2000 and 2008. In 2012, however, school districts spent only $13 billion on building projects.
America’s educational leaders must commit to modernizing our schools to reflect the latest pedagogical research. Without learning environments that allow students to engage in active, hands-on learning, America’s educational performance will remain lackluster and the achievement gap between our nation and others will widen.
That’s a detriment to not just our students but our economy, too.
Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture.