Is it Possible to Fix Academic Achievement in Our Schools?

Finding the Secret Key

Over the next three articles, I am going to show you how your school can improve student outcomes, elevate teacher performance and develop stronger school leaders. It doesn’t matter what State you live in, these three programs I developed over a decade ago work in suburban, urban or rural schools.

Part One of this 3-part series will address student achievement and how schools can boost student outcomes to their maximum levels.

My hope in sharing these educator secrets with you, is to empower teachers, administrators and parents to BEAT THE K12 SYSTEM!

Before we get started, I want to address the 400lb gorilla in the room. I am fully aware that you are starting this 3-part series with a lot of skepticism. It sounds “too good to be true” and impossible that we can defeat our educational system.

The fact is our K12 system has been ruining our lives for the last 100 years with narcissistic, toxic and negative practices. The way our schools should run is the exact opposite of how they are run right now. I want to make it clear, it’s ok to be skeptical. The goal of this 3-part series is to address the reasons why it’s been so difficult to get control back of our schools and how I beat the system at its own game.

If you want to read more about my backstory and how I became a recognized expert in education by the NJ Legislature, you can read this article:

I accept your skepticism, but hope you keep an open mind as you read all three articles. By the end, I firmly believe you will have enough evidence that my programs can work for you and your local school.

Problem #1: Low Student Achievement

Let’s not sugar coat reality. Our educational system is pretty bad. Student test scores have been steadily declining since the 1960s. Nearly 1 out of every 4 college bound student NEVER finishes their degree. And the Achievement Gap, which tracks the difference in student test scores between white and black students has increased over the last 30 years, from a 24 point gap to a 32 point gap.

The current situation is bleak. With this data, it’s easy to see why most Americans are dissatisfied with the K12 system and why all European and developed nations laugh at the United States in terms of education.

We need to face facts, the world is kicking our butt when it comes to preparing the next generation to compete on the global stage.

So what can we do about it?

How to Boost Student Achievement

Before we address the student achievement problem, it’s important we can agree on one thing first. The first rule in solving a problem is to identify it’s root cause. Although I agree there are hundreds of small problems impacting our schools, I want you to understand there are three major problems that cause everything to fall apart. Those three problems are:

  1. Low Student Achievement
  2. Underperforming Teachers
  3. Ineffective School Management

If you are sitting there arguing with your screen, I need you to know that I know there are other smaller problems. I know that cell-phone usage in school is an issue. I know that funding is an issue. I have been an educator for 20 years, I am fully aware of all the problems schools face, but after doing extensive research and field study, these three problems are the root cause of all our pain.

Therefore, we need to focus on these three problems first and after we resolve them, we can see what other problems still remain. My prediction is that most of the smaller problems will disappear.

So how do you boost student achievement?

One of the missing links in our K12 system is the lack of relevancy of what kids learn in school in relation to what happens in the real world as adults. Critics argue that kids need more vocational training and supporters argue that students need more technology in school.

Both of these voices are not wrong, but that’s not the underlying issue that is causing student achievement to be held back. A huge problem is not recognizing there are two types of student achievement. The first type is achievement in the school system. That means, the classwork students do, the grades they receive and the diploma they earn at the end of high school.

The second type is achievement outside the system. That means how well students do in college and how successful they are in their careers and pursuing their individual American Dreams.

Right now our K12 system only focuses on the first type of achievement and ignores the second type. That’s why critics argue for more vocational training, because they recognize our schools have forgotten to address what happens after students graduate from high school.

But there is a way to boost student achievement in school and after they graduate.

19th Century Skills v. 21st Century Skills

Although everyone agrees we are living in the 21st century, our school system seems to deny its relevance to the curriculum and learning objectives.

What I mean is our schools are teaching kids the same exact skills, students in the late 1800s learned.

Spending billions on technology does not change the underlying curriculum the technology is teaching. To put it simply, there are three fundamental skills all students learned in the19th century. Those skills were, reading, writing and math.

If you take a look at your school’s curriculum in grades K-12, you will see that’s exactly what students are learning in 2022.

I can further prove my point, by focusing your attention to the common core standards, which were legally mandated in 2002. To be clear, I probably have read and studied the common core more than the average person. But when you truly dive into what common core says, you realize that students are required to learn how to read, write and do math in both Kindergarten and in Senior Year of High School.

While I agree that kids need fundamental basic skills like reading, writing and math in elementary school (grades K-5), I can also admit that High School students probably need more modern skills if they are going to be successful after graduation.

And herein lies the big problem. Our K12 system has nothing else to teach kids. The truth is, it’s 19th century skills or nothing and that’s the reason why so many students are struggling after they graduate from high school.

That’s part of the reason why almost 40% of college bound students NEVER finish their degrees. That’s part of the reason why Millennials and Gen-Z might be the first generation to NOT be more successful than their parents.

In 2011, after years of field research and study, I became one of the first Superintendent’s in NJ, (Ranked #1 in Education in 2020), to implement a 21st century curriculum into my K12 program.

The biggest difference between my curriculum and the one your school is using is that it focuses learning in grades K-5 toward those 19th century basic skills, reading, writing and math. And then it transitions students toward a 21st century curriculum by the time they start High School.

If we analyze student test score data, we know that a majority of America’s students have acquired the three 19th century skills by the 5th grade. I ask you then, “if students know the three basic skills, why not teach them more modern skills then?” In other words, why are we purposefully holding students back?

The Secret Research Report

Back in 2011, I didn’t have the data or scientific research to prove why my 21st century curriculum was the right choice. But what I did have was real world data that showed how powerful teaching 21st century skills was for kids.

You can read how one of my former students pursued their American Dream after graduating from my High School program fully armed with a 21st century education:

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long for real data and scientific evidence to appear that proved the 21st century curriculum was the right choice.

Here’s the problem.

That research report was kept a secret from the public.

Call it a conspiracy or corporate manipulation or whatever you want, the fact is a comprehensive study of our economy and the most valuable skills citizens needs was published in 2020 by Georgetown University and you never heard about it.

If you want to read more about the secret research report, go to the link in my bio and find the Programs page. There will be a button for 21st century skills courses where you can get more information about this secret Georgetown study sent directly to your email.

Teaching 21st Century Skills in High School

Backed by real world data and scientific research, the argument for 19th century skills in our K12 system starts to fall apart. Yes, students need to learn how to read, write and do math, but the test scores show most of our students learn these skills by the end of 5th grade. The next question people need to start asking is, “What’s Next?”

After running a 21st century curriculum in my high school program for a decade, I can tell you the answer is start teaching kids 21st century skills.

We know there are only three 19th century skills: reading, writing and math. But do you know how many 21st century skills there are?

The answer is five.

Based on the research and scientific evidence conducted by Georgetown University, there are five basic 21st century skills that all citizens need to know, if they want to be competitive at work and pursue their American Dream.

What this means is — if you are having trouble making enough money or struggling to follow your dreams — it’s probably because you lack some or all of these five 21st century skills.

I know this flies in the face of the common narrative. As an expert educator, I have to speak truth to power, so if you think racism is the cause of your problems, you might want to think again. If you think sexism is the cause of your problems — check out these five 21st century skills first.

I want to make it clear, I am not saying racism and sexism doesn’t exist. What I am saying is they are not the underlying reason you are struggling in our country.

The five 21st century skills that all citizens need to learn are:

  • Leadership
  • Team Building
  • Problem Solving
  • Sales
  • Communications

These five basic 21st century skills were proven by data and scientific research in the secret Georgetown report that you can read more about if you visit my website. (Link in bio).

The Truth About Test Score Data

For the last 20 years, America has become obsessed with standardized testing and student test scores. Here again, as an expert educator, I need to speak the truth. There is a value to testing and there is a value to test scores.

The problem is most schools misunderstand the data and misuse the test.

If you recall, I spoke about the common core earlier in this article. The simple fact is the common core standardized 19th century skills. If you read the common core all the way through from Kindergarten to 12th grade, you start to see patterns in the standards language.

That is a huge red flag for anyone that’s a curriculum expert. Why are seniors in high school learning the same skills five year olds are learning in Kindergarten? And worse, why are we testing high school students for skills they acquired in elementary school?

Based on the actual student test score data, and you can look it up yourself on the US Department of Education website, most of our elementary students have acquired basic reading, writing and math skills.

That should be great news to all of us! The reason our K12 system doesn’t look like it educates anyone is because we keep forcing students to sit in class and learn the “SAME” skills over and over again, until they give up.

And that’s what the student test score data reveals in the upper grades. There is a huge drop off in scores after the 5th grade. Are we to believe that 90% of our students “forgot” everything they learned in elementary school? That’s utterly ridiculous when you stop to think about it.

What’s far more likely is teenagers “tuned out” because they already know how to do what teachers are forcing them to do again and again. Would your scores go up or down if you were being tested on skills you learned in elementary school?

The answer is they would go down because you would bored, disengaged and somewhat annoyed at the school system.

And that’s exactly what we are seeing in high schools across America. Students are bored, disengaged and annoyed at teachers, principals and the system as a whole.

The Rotary Phone Example

This might sound like a strange question to ask, but “do you know what a rotary phone is?” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, google rotary phone. What you find are pictures of phones with a dial on the face and holes underneath each number.

Back in the day, that was how people called friends and family. People stuck their finger inside the hole and twisted the dial clockwise all the way to zero.

As you can imagine this took a while and required physical ability to twist the dial. When the touch-tone phone was released, practically everyone switched over because it’s much easier to push a button than it is to dial a rotary phone.

I highlight the rotary phone to make a point. In 2022, the vast majority of Americans own and use smartphones. Whether you have an iPhone or a Samsung or a Pixel, you no longer use a land-line to contact people.

What if the government made smartphones illegal? And worse, what if the government mandated that everyone must use a rotary phone again. In order to justify the government’s decision to mandate rotary phones it tracked and kept data on how fast people could dial the rotary phones.

In other words, the government kept data on how long it took citizens to dial a 10-digit number using the rotary phone method.

Here’s my point. Is the data the government tracked valid? Of course it is. You can track anything. How fast a person can dial a 10-digit phone number using a rotary phone is valid data. Here’s the problem. Who cares? The only reason people are using rotary phones is because the government mandated it. Tracking how fast people can dial is only relevant because you are being restricted from using a smartphone.

The minute you are allowed to use a smartphone, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to dial on a rotary phone.

Do you see my point?

Our government has mandated common core standards in grades K through 12. It is restricting schools ability to implement 21st century curriculum and skills into upper grades. Meanwhile, the government is testing students on the skills they learned in elementary school.

The minute you start teaching high school students 21st century skills, the testing data from the common core standards are no longer relevant or important. Who cares how fast a kid can read, when they are using their reading, writing and math skills to become leaders, and team builders and problem solvers.

Doesn’t that make more sense?

Giving Kids the Path to Succeed

Having spent over 20 years in education and worked with thousands of teachers, parents and students, I can say with certainty that everyone wants the same outcomes.

Everyone wants to see kids succeed.

The obstacle we keep running into is how do we achieve that goal?

What I can see based on the data and scientific research is that our K12 system relies too much on government mandates that are no longer relevant to modern society.

Like the rotary phone example, there is no excuse for any school system to not be teaching teenagers the five 21st century skills they are going to need to be college and career ready.

The data proves 19th century skills are no longer enough. According to the US Department of Education, nearly 40% of college bound students never finish college.

Would you call that being college ready? As an expert educator, I would argue that’s a real failure of our K12 system. It’s not the colleges job to teach kids skills they should have learned in K12. Do you want to pay $20,000 a year to learn high school level skills?

I would think the answer is “no.”

If we want our schools to be the best in the world, we need to stop holding them back with government mandates from the 19th century. The reason my 21st century curriculum outpaced every local public and charter school was because my teachers showed our students how to succeed in the 21st century.

The five 21st century skills are a necessity, not an option.

Inside my 21st century curriculum, we made sure the teachers showed students the exact path for success. That was the secret key that unlocked their potential. Every student should have the ability to pursue their own dreams and aspirations.

What makes America the greatest nation on earth is that we are not supposed to put any legal or imaginary obstacles in your way. Every kid has the right to pursue their “American Dream.” But when the school system doesn’t give kids the 21st century skills to pursue those dreams, life starts to look much harder than it really is.

If you want to see how powerful leadership skills can be, I recommend taking the 100% FREE Leadership Beginners course, which is available on my website. (Link in bio)

Being Empowered

As you can see, I beat the K12 system by showing a true path for success for students. I didn’t dismantle the system, I didn’t defund the system, I just beat the system by rolling up my sleeves and doing the hard work.

If you want to see your students succeed like mine did, then you should strongly consider rethinking your district curriculum.

I do limited consulting work with school districts on writing curriculum maps, because my main focus is identifying curriculum gaps and designing 21st century curriculum goals. If you want to start that process in your own district, here are a few questions you should answer:

  1. Do you teach 19th century skills in all grades (K-12)?
  2. Do you see a decline in student test scores after 5th grade?
  3. Do you have students that have not acquired 19th century skills by 5th grade?
  4. What does your district do for students who have not acquired those skills?
  5. Are you ready to start teaching kids 21st century skills?

If you want all students to succeed, if you want to increase high school graduation rates, if you want to see better outcomes for students after graduation, you have the power to make that happen.

The process starts by recognizing the curriculum your district is using is one thing that is holding students back. Thus, if you want to break through the glass ceilings and invisible barriers, you must upgrade your curriculum to the 21st century.

Part Two : Elevating Teacher Performance

Thank you for reading Part One, I truly appreciate it. One of the 21st century skills is communications and I have been working tirelessly to improve my own communications skills, so I can write articles that make sense for everyone, not just experts in education.

If you want to get an alert for when Part Two is published, simply click on the Subscribe button and Medium will send you a direct link to any new articles that I publish straight to your email — how convenient is that?

In Part Two of this 3-part series, I will show you how we can place an expert level teacher in front of every classroom in America. Not only will this be amazing for student achievement, but it will also save teachers from burn out and feeling like they need to quit.

About the Author:

D. Scott Schwartz, M.Ed. was recognized as an expert educator by the NJ Legislature. He founded and runs an education think tank and Leaf Academy. He does consulting work for education attorneys, school districts and businesses looking to harness the power of 21st century skills. For more information, go to the bio and access the programs page on his website to download the consulting services brochure.



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Professor Schwartz

Ed Consultant | Speaker/Author | Former Superintendent — Want to learn "how success happens?" Follow this link: