It’s unrealistic to generalize that ANY system would work for everyone. But my experience in a number of learner-centered schools around the country was far beyond anything I’ve ever seen in public education in terms of student engagement, responsibility, and self-confidence. When you see 5–13 year old students race into the school building at 7:30 in the morning and remain engaged until 4 in the afternoon from September through late July, the school is clearly doing something right.
There’s no secret to what they do. They’re not trying to conceal anything. Back in the 1990s, there were a number of research studies on the characteristics of effective teachers (largely those identified as Teachers of the Year). They identified a unique set of beliefs in these teachers, which you can read about here. You are absolutely correct that it has little to do with WHAT they do and everything to do with what they believe and value — or as you call it, their mental model. It’s not so much about their theories of learning as it is about their beliefs in the capabilities of learners.
The foundation of the work in learner-centered schools is embedded in the culture of the school — a culture of caring relationships and trust between and among adult and younger learners. But a mental model is complex — and different for everyone depending on their prior experience. It’s not something that can be documented and “transmitted” to other people. Even when the founders of these schools share their philosophy — their mission statements — the information is heard and received differently depending on the existing beliefs and values of the listener. The theory is evolving — and where it is employed by people who share Papert’s beliefs — it is working. (e.g. the work of Sugata Mitra).
While it may seem that people are simplifying what it would take to move toward a system designed to facilitate the development of EVERY child, it may be because they don’t recognize how different their beliefs/values/mental models are from those who believe that there is nothing wrong with traditional education. If there is any “head in the sand” behavior, it’s underestimating the difficulty in changing those beliefs. Many people think that, if you just give someone the facts, that’s all they will need to change their mind. Not true. Beliefs are not changed by telling people what they should believe. They are changed by experience. If traditional teachers would spend a full day in one of these learner-centered schools…and talk with the students, their beliefs about the capabilities of children would, if nothing else, be called into question. I share your frustration and anger, but unless we address the beliefs and values of teachers, no theory of learning, regardless of how well-defined, is likely to shift their behavior.