BATH — The drive to seek the best college possible has blinded Americans to a troubling truth: Education centered on academic proficiency has proven ineffective in preparing young people for life.

Extensive AT&T studies found that managers with higher SAT scores upon graduation from college were “reliably less happy and more psychologically maladjusted by their mid-adult years” than those with lower scores.

Psychology professor Douglas Heath traced the lives of students at Haverford College over a 40-year period and concluded that their grades were, if anything, inversely related to metrics measuring success and fulfillment in life.

Why do students experience somewhat of a reversal of success in life? To a longtime teacher like me, the answer is simple: Education gives students who test well a false sense of superiority, while students who do not test well learn to depend upon themselves in life.

College admissions officers are slowly realizing this. Many colleges have dropped SAT requirements and introduced conversations about character into candidate evaluations.

Certainly academic proficiency should be an integral part of every child’s education. But given the complexities of both a child’s growth and life, it proves to be a weak core for a rigorous education. Given 60 years of unsuccessful educational reform and a less-than-mediocre world performance, it’s time for American revolutionary brilliance to build a new, dynamic educational system. But how?

Daniel Coyle provides a vital clue in his book “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.” He studied successful groups and organizations and found that the key was making all their members feel they belonged, which meant creating a culture where they felt safe and able to be vulnerable. Once this was achieved, members became deeply unified and powerfully productive.

Consider this example: Different four-person groups were each given 20 strands of uncooked spaghetti, a yard of transparent tape and string to build the tallest structure possible, while putting a regular marshmallow on top. Here are the heights of the structures built by each group:

Business students: 10 inches.

Lawyers: 15 inches.

 CEOs: 22 inches.

 Kindergartners: 28 inches.

The superiority of the kindergartners was attributed to their ability to focus on the problem, while the others were held back observing adult protocols and avoiding vulnerability. The kindergartners worked more with one mind, emphasizing when we feel safe and are able to be vulnerable, we can work together synergistically (1+1 = 3).

If we apply this wisdom to our current educational system, we immediately see why it suffers from mediocrity. Bullying and cliques in schools are such that some students are even afraid to go to school. Students are put in competition with each other rather than taught how to work together and respect each other.

Nor do schools actively seek a cooperative working relationship with students or with their parents and families, by far the largest influence in the student’s life. Schools remain adult-centered, preparing children as “mini-adults” for college and jobs – not as growing kids experiencing comprehensive growth stages. From birth, kids develop a unique learning style. Since they don’t begin to think logically and abstractly until age 11, most of their learning base is emotional and intuitive in nature.

Since the educational system in the U.S. does not recognize students’ own learning, it puts them on the defensive. Unless a student’s own guidance system responds well to testing and other measures of academic proficiency, he or she is not going to feel that sense of belonging. Short of being rescued by some concerned teacher or adult, the student will probably receive a superficial education.

We have helped a cluster of Pennsylvania school systems become dedicated to developing the unique potential and character of each student. Their school cultures reflect “discovery groups” – mixed-grade students who, with a teacher, meet regularly to share their lives.

More action – intramurals, performing arts, community service, jobs – are introduced into the curriculum, with each discovery group sitting together to reflect on their experiences. Eventually, parents will feel a part of these groups and the school community.

After just four months in our newest school, 95 percent of both students and teachers liked and wanted to keep this program; 89 percent of parents supported it.

In the oldest school, discipline problems decreased 91 percent over a 10-year period. In the first five years of Pennsylvania state testing, the percentage of students proficient in English and mathematics rose from 72 percent to 80 percent and from 69 percent to 80 percent respectively, with fewer failures.

Building a powerful school culture of trust and motivation prepares young people for college and jobs – and for a meaningful life.

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