An interesting “success story” out of Illinois this week, where dismal performance rates in public schools have been a major concern. (A situation which is certainly not unique in the country.) A forward thinking principal was brought in to Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois, just west of Chicago, and tasked with trying something new. As this article from the Chicago Tribune explains, the administration really went in a different direction. Students were left to make their own decisions about their education, testing was largely abandoned, credit was given for all manner of activities not involving the school and… nobody ever gets an F. (Emphasis added)

Today, transformation has replaced hopelessness at Proviso East, where administrators, select teachers and a cadre of kids have launched a bold and controversial experiment: They’re abandoning most aspects of traditional classroom instruction and reshaping the way kids learn.

The approach, called competency-based learning, puts the onus on students to study and master skills at their own pace, making their own choices along the way and turning to peers and online searches for answers before they lean on teachers for help. Students may show proficiency on a topic not simply through traditional testing but by using projects, presentations or even activities outside school.

Proviso is one of 10 school districts chosen statewide to pilot competency-based learning, a concept born in the 1960s at the University of Chicago. The theory then and now is that students should learn on their own timetable and receive individualized instruction on the road to mastering academic standards.

As noted in the article, so-called “competency-based learning” was something that cropped up in the 60s from the flower power generation. It didn’t really catch on for obvious reasons.

In an ideal world, every student could have their own instructor and mentor, allowing the kids to branch out, explore options and benefit from an individualized learning program. Of course, that’s not how it works in reality, where dozens of children will need to take the same classes. This free-range schooling theory adopts the worst of both worlds, largely removing the guiding hand of the teacher and proven academic programs, replacing them with pretty much whatever the kid feels like.

The problem here is that no two children are alike. There are always going to be a few kids who are simply bound for success. They’re generally the really bright, driven ones who benefit from a structured home environment where good values and a solid work ethic are imparted to them. No matter their starting conditions, those kids have a fine chance of excelling, but some even manage to succeed with virtually no support structure. I’m reminded of some of the interviews I’ve watched with Hakeem Oluseyi, who you may have seen on the Science Channel show, Outrageous Acts of Science. The guy came from one of the most daunting backgrounds possible… poverty, criminal activity in his home, drugs and all the rest. But he broke out of there and went on to become a noted astrophysicist, cosmologist and philanthropist.

Then there are other kids born with a silver spoon in their mouths who wind up being complete train wrecks or go on to murder their parents. It seems as if no amount of wealth or special educational opportunities would have helped them. All I’m saying is that people are different, you know?

For too many kids who fall significantly below the driven level of Oluseyi, leaving them to “find their own path” is probably a terrible idea. Seeking out answers from their peers or undertaking “online searches for answers” before going to a teacher? What could possibly go wrong there? There’s a ton of good information out there on the web covering pretty much any subject you could name. But there’s also a mountain of complete garbage, conspiracy theories and simply incorrect data for every good, reliable site you can find. Without some sort of guidance, that’s a maze that will swallow young minds far faster than it develops them. And as far as their peers go, most of them aren’t any more clued in than the kid with the question.

And nobody gets an F? Really? I suppose there’s simply no real incentive to excel when there’s zero chance of failure. The bottom line is that you might start producing classes of graduating students who have a diploma, but if they didn’t master the basics and come away with at least the minimum actual education required to either make it in college or enter the workforce, you haven’t done them any favors. Children need structure and guidance. That’s why we don’t let them vote.