09/04/2013 01:37 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Education Reform: Who's Really in Charge?

As I enter my 63rd year of teaching, I am painfully observing another new top-down effort to remake American students superior to international students.

For me, this mindset began in 1957 when Sputnik frightened us into thinking the Russians might be educationally ahead of us; it continued with the "Nation at Risk" report in 1983, blossomed into "No Child Left Behind" legislation in 2001, and now gets new life with the Common Core Standards, initially adopted by 46 states.

Now, according to the New York Times headline: "Grouping by Ability Regains Favor in Classrooms,: the Times says, "Placing students in clusters according to ability, a tactic once rejected over concerns that it fostered inequality, has re-emerged in classrooms all over the country."

Educational reform over the past five decades has essentially been controlled by colleges, business leaders and politicians, whose common goal is to fuel the work force by emphasizing academic proficiency.

Now that we are in recovery from our recession, it should be clear these would-be reformers have failed miserably in their approach. There were 57.5 million native-born Americans, ages 16-65, not working in the 2nd quarter of 2013, up 17 million from the 2nd quarter of year 2000.

Only 66.8% of American males are working, the lowest figure on record. At present, boys record 70% of "D's" & "F's" in our schools; 80% of the discipline problems -- and they make up only 43% of the college population. Will Common Core standards change all that?

Simply put, it is asinine to put students in a lockstep system. They have different abilities, interests, and learning styles. Edison was considered a dunce in school, Churchill flunked his form twice and the Wright Brothers were high school dropouts.

The system failed because in its zeal to make American students academically proficient, it seldom recognized, respected, or developed the deeper potentials of students, while ignoring their most powerful resource -- growing up in the most innovative and creative culture in the world. So when adversity hit, only those students with really strong family backgrounds had the foundations built to survive and thrive.

Consider 1941, when American education was comparatively benign and students were more a reflection of their families and communities. Asked to tackle the gigantic task of defeating Hitler and Japan, they became the greatest fighting organization in history.

Most GIs never would have considered college, but the GI bill suddenly provided them that opportunity. An esteemed university president warned the bill would turn higher education into "hobo jungles;" in time, many considered the GIs the best college students in history. The GIs went on to be called the "greatest generation."

It seems obvious the GIs' real strength was simply growing up in America, a unique culture that inspires qualities like individuality, creativity, courage, empathy and leadership. World War II brought out these qualities, which not only gave the GIs confidence to succeed in college, but the foundation for success in careers and life.

But these qualities have largely been ignored by our educational system, whose intense emphasis on academic proficiency has helped diminish them in the American culture.

I propose this is a huge disrespect to the deeper potential of students and at the core of why most students are indifferent to or dislike school. The 25% dropout rate, together with the widespread bullying and cheating, along with school shootings, speak to the reality of student alienation.

As a job corps trainee years ago expressed to me her view of adult attitudes in the system, "We got it; you got to get it."

But suppose we took an entirely different approach and made our first concern gaining the trust and motivation of students. As Horace Mann said, given a year to teach spelling, he'd spend the first nine months on motivation.

We will motivate American students by first respecting them as individuals and understanding what should be their development in our unique culture. We should praise and strengthen their efforts, attitudes, creativity, boldness, community service, leadership and other qualities of character. We need to be far more focused on each student personally, and to believe their best effort and positive attitudes will lead to success.

If a school can accomplish this relationship, then it can help students develop genuine self-confidence based on character, which will maximize their academic development in the process.

Who could help design this new system? Not politicians, universities, or business leaders. We simply need teachers and parents -- plus those who understand how kids grow up -- to work together. Together with students, they all will make it work, because a student's best, not his/her ability, controls the process.