Today's high schools don't meet the test of common sense. They fail children because they fail to address individual needs, an education expert said Thursday in Salt Lake City.

Dr. Ted Sizer, chairman of the education department of Brown University, told Utah school board members that it's time to look again at secondary public education and mold it to fit students' needs, rather than administrative convenience."The system makes it impossible to know how a kid makes errors," said Sizer. "Effective learning is based on addressing those errors."

High schools across the country are remarkably alike, he said, ignoring the many diversities that are apparent from one area to another. And education approaches in those schools have changed little since the early 1900s.

Sizer, author of "Horace's Compromise," a popular attack on the present education system, keynoted the annual meeting of the Utah School Boards Association, being held through Friday in the Little America Hotel.

Although public education has broadened since World War II, when the average educational achievement of military personnel was eighth grade, it has remained consistent with practices that have been in effect for decades, Sizer said.

The most predictable - and disturbing - finding in early 1980s research was that the success or failure of a high school could be anticipated by the income of the parents whose children attended the school. Poor children emerge from school less educated than rich children.

The usual school with students divided into classes that move from room to room, spending 47 to 50 minutes concentrating on a particular subject, does not address reality, Sizer said.

"Kids don't grow up in a steady, progressive way. Each child is individual. They aren't alike at the same age. Parents accommodate to that reality, schools do not. We hurt kids by categorizing them by age."

School is a poor pattern for the real world, where learning is integrated, not separated, he said. "Our children get no help in making sense of the whole."

The system persists because it is easier to manage as it is, he said.

Teachers have more students in classes than they can reasonably get to know. They can't develop individual rapport or alter the prescribed course to meet a particular child's needs.

Sizer is involved in the Coalition of Essential Schools, a movement to redesign secondary schools. The underlying premise is that each school should respond to the particular needs of its students, but a common set of ideas underlies creation of Essential Schools.

The emphasis is on treating students personally, allowing them to progress at their own rates and awarding diplomas when the prescribed courses is completed, regardless of when that occurs.

Teachers in the schools become "coaches, not lecturers," and teacher teams work on common goals with the same group of students, using a common sense approach to curricula, overlapping when feasible rather than making sharp divisions in academic areas.

Sizer agreed that new concepts "are difficult to put into practice." Compromises are necessary and the total spectrum of those concerned with education must cooperate in decisions.

Even so, he said, the concepts have "gone from radical to possible" in the past few years.