Long, long ago, in a school system far, far away from Silicon Valley, I began my education career in a public school as the founding teacher of a class for four-year-olds. I was passionate about “reinventing education” and jumped at the chance to launch a magnet school in a district where administrators valued early learning and believed a strong early childhood program could be the foundation of effective school improvement. The program I founded drew wide attention and was one of the first models for statewide public preschool. Despite the success of Oklahoma’s universal preschool today the state’s schools are ranked low nationally. Excellent early childhood education was not a magic formula for improving outcomes for students. Any experienced and honest educator will tell you there are no magic formulas. In my 30+ years in education, I have seen many attempts to reform, re-imagine and reinvent education. Despite the vigorous verbiage most of these have over-promised and under-delivered. Creating successful learning environments for all children is one of the most complex and crucial challenges facing society. Past failures and stubborn challenges must not deter us from tackling the important work of preparing our children for their future. First, let’s take a look at six factors motivating school reform. Then I will share six features I have observed in schools doing important work in transforming learning.
Why Reform School?
- Lack of student engagement. Many students feel alienated or disempowered in our schools. The 2016 Gallup Student Poll surveyed 915, 214 students in grades 5 through 12 at over 3,000 public and private schools in the U.S. and Canada. The poll found that student engagement decreases every year after grade 5. 74% of 5th graders are engaged, but this falls to 54% in 7th grade and 32% in 10th grade.
- Unprepared graduates. Corporate leaders say graduates lack the hard and soft skills necessary for success. In 2016 PayScale, surveyed 63,924 managers and 14,167 recent graduates. 60% of managers said recent graduates have weak critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
- Teacher shortages and attrition. There are teacher shortages in many areas, and The Learning Policy Institute reports that 8% of teachers leave the field every year, higher than in other developed countries and other professions in the US. Attrition is due to frustration with low compensation, inadequate preparation, weak support and little to no say in policy.
- The achievement gap persists. The National Center for Education Statistics reports a 24 point gap in mathematics scores between White and Black 4th graders and an 18 point gap between White and Hispanic grade 4 students. The gap in reading scores is similar, and gaps in both subjects continue in grade 8 and grade 12.
- The disappointing track record for reform. Magnet schools and charter schools often heralded as models for improving education, have, for the most part, failed to ignite significant innovation in public schools. The school reform movement, which I was a part of in the 1990s, became synonymous with harsh, ‘no-excuses’ schools and high stakes tests are still the primary way the government, parents, and colleges assess school success.
- Private schools aren’t leading the way in school reform because they are not accessible to most families. Tuition for independent schools is out of reach for 57% of American families. In 2006–2007, day school tuition was 34 percent of the median household income. In 2015–2016, median tuition was 43 percent of the median household income.
Despite the gloomy news and disappointing record of school reform movements, I am more hopeful and excited about transforming education than I was as a young educator. Today there is widespread agreement that schools must change. Sound research and significant investment are driving pedagogical innovations. People committed to understanding learning and to building communities and networks that support all kinds of learners have the opportunity to create powerful solutions.
As the founding educator at AltSchool, I met educators in public and independent schools from across the United States who are creating schools that foster compassion, curiosity, and competency. Designing learning experiences and building school communities is hard, time-consuming work. Utopia will never be achieved. Good schools are always a work-in-progress. But progress is possible, and there are a growing number of inspiring examples of communities that are preparing students to be problem seekers, innovators, collaborators, and leaders. I have always known many dedicated and effective teachers, but typically they are siloed in their classrooms or individual schools. Today there are many school-wide models and networks where students are engaged, flourishing and gaining the skills and mindset to be life-long learners. There are variations among successful models, but I have found several characteristic features of vital learning communities.
Essential Components for Reinventing Education
1. Administrators, teachers, and parents are willing to grapple with tough questions about the purpose of education. Why do we need schools? What do children need to learn? What does it mean to be a life-long learner? What do our students need to be successful in their future? How will the school support all learners? What are the metrics for success? What do we do when we fail? How do we treat one another?
2. Members of the community, administrators, teachers, parents, and students, share a unity of purpose and a vision for what they are building.
3. Community members are gritty. They are persistent through the challenges, and there is a continuous self-assessment to informs policy and practice.
4. There are protocols for piloting new methods and programs. All stakeholders identify needs and possible solutions. Learning design is iterative.
5. Teachers know their students well, as learners and as humans.
6. There are multiple metrics for measuring student growth, and students have a voice in setting goals and assessing progress.
There are plenty of other valuable features of excellent schools, but I offer these as the essential starting point. #1 is the crucial first step.
I don’t have the perfect model for education. No one does. No magic formulas must be every educator’s mantra. But improvement is happening in many places and many ways. My goal is to share observations, successes, concerns, news, and provocations about the education ecosystem. Join me if you are interested in examining hard questions and imagining what would be different if every teacher and school community valued each learner’s curiosity and capacity to drive their learning.