Let's just get this straight from the start. All students are capable of learning. Except for the few with cognitive disabilities, all of them are capable of working at grade level, which is regarded as developmentally appropriate. In fact, they are capable of far more.
Some students have been well-prepared for school and some have not. Those who have been well-prepared need to be challenged to meet all of the minimum grade level expectations and then go beyond them. Those who have not been well-prepared need some additional support to allow them to also meet all of the minimum grade level expectations and then go beyond them.
Every student is well-prepared in some ways and to some degree and poorly prepared in other ways to some degree. In short, they are each unique individuals.
Identifying individual student needs and providing those students with the lessons and support they need is the professional work of teachers. Teachers employ their training, their expertise, their talent, their effort, and their creativity in well-prepared improvisational teaching done on the spot in face-to-face contact with students with whom they have a personal relationship. A video recording of a teacher - no matter how well-crafted the lesson - isn't sufficient because regardless of the quality of the instruction there is no relationship and there is no motivation.
Teaching is work that requires a lavish amount of professional labor. It cannot be reduced or leveraged because it can only be done by a professional in direct real contact with a student.
Teaching is a craft and an art. The craft is in designing and delivering an effective lesson, but teachers don't just deliver information like a dump truck. They do not just direct students to information like a road sign. There's more to their work. The art of the work is to motivate the student, which requires them to know the student. Or, more accurately, it is to help the student find his or her motivation. Teachers need to lead the student to find the value and the joy in learning. There is no school so bad that a motivated student cannot wrestle an education away from it. There is no school so good that it can impose an education on an un-motivated student. Motivation alone isn't enough if there are other obstacles to learning, but nothing is possible without it.
This is part of why some folks don't think it is necessary to spend resources on well-prepared and motivated students. They are wrong. They don't realize how brittle and fragile motivation is. It is far, far easier to keep a student motivated than to re-motivate a student who has been de-motivated.
The teacher cannot provide the motivation. They have little more to offer than the joy of learning and the satisfaction of a question answered. Students cannot be motivated by punishments. They cannot be motivated by traditional rewards. They have to find their own motivation, whether it is in the promise of independence or self-improvement or a sense of a higher purpose. That's all pretty intangible stuff. It doesn't come off an assembly line and it is different for each and every student. Helping students to find that motivation is an art; in combination with the craft and science of delivering instruction, it is professional work.
Once you accept the fact that professional teaching is the irreducible and irreplacable element of education, you can build your school around that activity. What would that school look like? It would not be a room with 96 headphoned students working in carrels on tablet computers.
I would offer The NOVA Project as a model for education centered around the student-teacher relationship and ready to provide individualized instruction that sparks the motivation in every student. NOVA has 20 teachers for 330 students. That's a 1:17 ratio. Sounds extravagant, doesn't it? Is it expensive? Yes and no. It has a very flat structure. Other than the teachers, the only other staff at NOVA is the Principal, an administrative assistant, a fiscal specialist, a Family Service Worker (.5 paid by PTSA), and a .5 librarian. No counselors - the teachers do that work. No Assistant Principals, no Registrars, no Intervention Specialists. Next year the school is losing the FSW and the librarian. When it was at the Mann building, NOVA was the least expensive high school in the District for non-academic expenses. By far.
Look at the staff list for Rainier Beach High School. There are five administrators and five administrative support people. Then there are 80 more names. 80. The headcount enrollment at RBHS is 425. The enrollment at NOVA is 332.
Maybe the traditional organizational structure isn't what is best for students. It isn't built around a student-teacher relationship or the goal of helping each student find their motivation. More to the point, maybe the traditional organizational structure isn't the most cost effective.
I know what people might say. The NOVA population is different from the RBHS population. The NOVA students are predominantly White (73%) and only 19% FRE while Rainier Beach is 9% White and 65% FRE. Okay, but ask yourself these two questions:
1) Which model is most likely to motivate students or, more accurately, help students find their motivation?
2) Which students are in the greatest need of motivation?
People say that NOVA students are self-directed and self-motivated, but they don't necessarily come to the school that way. A lot of them come to NOVA after having done very badly at traditional schools. The structure of NOVA helps them to find their motivation. After that, it might be enough to just get out of their way, but NOVA supports them as far as they are willing to go. Yes, I'm a fan, but I'm a fan because it works.
So what would it be like if our middle and high schools were arranged in close communities no bigger than about 400 students (or arranged in houses no bigger than that), had super flat structures in which students had a teacher mentor with whom they met regularly, in which the instruction was project-based and the students followed their passion to design their own projects (rather than an outside vendor at a cost of $400,000 per year), and in which the grading was based directly on demonstrated proficiency with the content.