Author: Reform failed because schools delivering 1892-style education

AUBURN — Bea McGarvey looked at her audience at Edward Little High School on Monday night and said, “I'm cranky.”

The reason? School reform has been talked about for decades, but schools look the same, she said.

McGarvey, a former Maine educator, a consultant and co-author of “Inevitable, Mass Customized Learning,” said no amount of changing standards, assessing or instruction will reform education “because we come up against this industrialized age delivery system.”

Until schools change that, schools will continue to generate some students who do well, but some who do not.

Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin introduced McGarvey, whose book helps explain the direction of Auburn schools. In Auburn, 70 percent of students are doing well, but 30 percent are not, Grondin said. “That's not OK.”

McGarvey offered reasons on why decades of school reform has done little. Today's design of schools goes back to 1892 when a 10-member committee designed school systems for the masses. It looked like this: 12 years of school, eight years of grade school, then four years of high school. High school students would be taught English, math, history, biology.

The goal then was to teach the masses for the industrialized age, where the majority, the workers, needed some education, and only a few, the thinkers, needed to be highly skilled, she said.

That meant some would drop out of schools, which was fine because they could get jobs that supported their families. It worked well for that era, but not today when every student needs to be highly skilled, she said.

That's not happening, McGarvey said, because learning is still taught in “assembly-line” schools, where teaching is dictated by grades, schedules and bells, not whether students learned.

Teachers are “killing themselves” trying to teach so all learn. “The problem is the structure gets in the way,” McGarvey said. “The schedule drives us.”

A student may need more time to learn fractions, but the bell has rung. It's time to move to a new lesson, she said.

“Kids learn in different ways and in different time frames. We all get that,” McGarvey said. “Yet we don't deliver that way. Instead we mass produce it.”

What's needed is a major shift in schools to mass customized learning. Mass customized learning meets the individual needs of learners all the time. That wasn't possible 10 years ago, but is possible with today's technology.

The premise of her book is that the world is customized, except for schools.

Examples of how technology customizes individual needs include how Amazon tracks individual purchases and suggests new products, or how an airline tracks individual customer flights and automatically corresponds with individual customers.

Every adult — parents, teachers, city councilors, school board members, educators including Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen, who McGarvey said “really gets it” — has a role to make mass customized learning happen, she said.

Customized learning happens by teachers grouping, then regrouping, students around learning goals, not ages or grades.

“This is not tracking kids,” McGarvey said. “This is not saying, 'You take the fast learners and you take the slow learners.' It's saying, 'Who needs (help with) fractions right now? Give them to me.” That group might include students who are eight, nine or 10 years old. They would get specific instruction on fractions for a short period of time, just a couple of weeks, McGarvey said.

Teachers still teach, but can rely on technology to help deliver learning. Students can learn about the Civil War by reading about it online and watching videos. It's the teacher, she said, who explains concepts about oppression that relates to the war. When students use technology to learn, teachers are freed to work with other students.

McGarvey couldn't offer specifics on what schools would look like under mass customized learning. Much of that depends on what individual communities come up with, she said.

But communities need to generate visions of what they want to achieve, and that vision needs to include “that every kid will learn in his or her own way in his or her own time.”

When that happens students take ownership of their learning, become enthused, and their learning picks up speed. There is a groundswell of support for mass customized learning in Maine, McGarvey said.

Any education reform that retains the assembly-line delivery of instruction, “grade 1, grade 2, the bell schedule . . . is most likely tinkering and perpetuating an outdated organizational structure from 1892,” she said.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Co-author of a popular book in education, "Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning," Bea McGarvey, right, talks with Auburn City Councilor Tizz Crowley before the start of Monday night's talk in the gym at Edward Little High School in Auburn. McGarvey said education won't improve until schools stop delivering "assembly line instruction" based on the 1892 school model.

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 's picture

Well rounded education

I don't see much mention here of the idea that a well educated, broadly educated, public is necessary for the functioning of a democracy. Or that a well rounded, "little of everything" education may well be of more value to an individual in private life than any large amounts of cash that might be amassed in the marketplace by someone with a focused, career oriented education. Are executive recruiters who give hiring preference to prospects with a broad liberal education trying to maximize their firm's return on wages paid? Or are they mistaken and wasting stockholder dollars?

There is more to be considered in the design of a public educational system than finding efficient ways to crank out good corporate employees.

 's picture

Beth, thanks for the info. I

Beth, thanks for the info. I see a lot of info in the link on how many students are shifting around and also going online, but what about quality of their education? People shift because they think the quality is going to be better for the most part, what does reality turn out to be? Who is becoming a better educated student? I think that is the most important piece of the puzzle. The students need to graduate with more knowledge than the dumbed down quality they are receiving now. What is the best way to do that? I have my ideas that I gathered over the years and while being a school board member. One is change the way bumping is done in relation to tenure. As it is, it assures a less quality school system at a higher cost, over time. That is one of the systematic parts of the over all problem, as far as I see it anyway.

Beth Schultz's picture

chael, Thanks for the

chael, Thanks for the feedback.

Below is a link to Adams 50 test results (public & charter school results).

Crown Academy uses phonics & Saxon Math (with traditional instruction). Adams 50 uses Everyday Math (with RISC standards-based instruction).

I’d rather see public schools offer alternative curricula/programs on a small scale within the district. From what I understand, when Bea McGarvey taught in Portland, she had a teaching assistant. Her program was eventually dropped because of lack of funding. Will the Auburn teachers have enough funding and an assistant?

School Boards should insist that programs be piloted on a small scale before they are adopted district-wide.

Beth Schultz's picture

Should this be an alternative program?

A similar customized learning model is being piloted in Adams 50 Colorado. After the program was introduced, the school’s enrollment declined by 26% (Colorado is a school choice state). Many children (and parents) value direct teacher instruction and have transferred to the Crown Point Academy Charter School. Others have transferred to a school that is out of district. The Adams 50 charter school uses the ‘Core Knowledge’ curriculum (phonics/Saxon math) and a traditional approach. Allowing all students to progress at an individualized pace means that schools must invest heavily in online learning. Schools Boards must insist that data in support of this model be provided from unbiased organizations. Many stand to gain financially from selling these ‘district-wide’ reform programs to schools. Why not just start an alternative program in the district and let parents opt into it?

The numbers speak for themselves in Adams 50. When given a choice, 2,734 students exited the district, and only 90 entered. See the link below:

In the real world, employers don’t allow employees to move at their own pace. In most college classes, students are expected to keep pace with their classmates. College bound students benefit from classroom discussions that can only happen if all students are at the same point in the curriculum. Perhaps these are the students exiting Adams 50. Of course, parents in Maine have no choice when ‘district-wide reforms’ are implemented.

 's picture

Have you ever visited

Have you ever visited Norlands, in Livermore Falls?
Here is a clip from their web page.
A Country School, 1853
Scholars go back to the basics of reading, writing and 'rithmetic in the District #7 one-room schoolhouse. Your group will experience education of the era by role-playing scholars and using materials of the time, including slates, quill pens and early readers. Pre and post-visit materials are provided.

If you visited this historical site you will see that what Bea is talking about was being applied then, without computers.
It may be good to look at what used to work and what hasn't since.

 's picture


are publically funded wings of the community. Each community seems to think that it and it alone has the best students, best physical plant, etc.
What is really needed is a customized learning situation for EACH student. Do we find what they're interested in from Kindergarten and assist them in learning what is needed? Do we realize that choices and changes are made as one gets older? The age of computers and electronic gadgets will allow us to do away with physical plants, teacher unions, and hire only a few select teachers/instructors who will man the keyboards 24/7 to assist with programs, questions, etc.

Without Large physical plants to maintain, the savings could be enormous, without teacher unions demanding more and more raises for the employees, health insurance for the many teachers again more savings.

You may ask where will all this savings go? Well, it is NOT going back to help with you taxes. It will help fund new and better technology for the students. We will always need a few employees to administer or repair any tech program, but the fewer the better.

Diplomas will become meaningless. What you can do on your own or show a potential employer is all that will be necessary. State laws and national laws regarding education will be obsolete. Programs that furnish money or demand that local systems follow a planned curricula like "No Child Left Behind" are foolish and overburden the existing staff.

Can you see it? Schools without buildings, schools with minimal number of teachers/instructors. Day or night students learn anyway don't they. What is missing? Well, I believe that the "Hands On" programs like electrical, plumbing,etc. referred to as the "Trades" can be conceptually taught, but must have a practicum or field experience of many hours to finalize course work.

Oh, think of the money we can save without school administrators. Only 2 or 3 will be needed for the whole electronic network... wow, I am pleased.

Finally, we must realize that not all students want to learn or care to have learning pushed at them. There will always be a percentage of people who would rather do something else...drop outs should be allowed from grade 6 forward through grade 12... you can't save everyone and we have to realize it. It is like saying that there is a GOD. Well, we can't make everyone believe that there is or that there is only one religion either.

Bet this will stur up some feathers just about everywhere.

 's picture


You hit on some really good idea's here. Teach to the strengh of each individual and they will embrace learning. There is no reason that a student can't utilize a singular project, for example a history project where the student researches and writes about what he or she finds. This project could require elements of all subject areas currenlty being taught, e.g., geography, math, english, grammar, history, science, social sciences, civics. Yes it would be more difficult to "grade" all of these aspects of the project but rather than a single teacher reading and grading it, it could be passed to teachers who each have 1 or 2 subject areas as their specialty.

There is nothing more discouraging for a learner than to be forced into learning something they hate. If the areas they hate were incorporated into something they actually had interest in, they would "see" the reason that they need to learn the despised topic. Great post Peter.


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