Education Opinion

College- and Career-Ready Graduates Need More From Teachers, Classrooms, and Schools

By Contributing Blogger — February 11, 2015 5 min read
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This post is by Bob Lenz, founder and chief of innovation at Envision Education.

In 2008, Tony Wagner, Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, published “Rigor Redefined” in Educational Leadership, the magazine of ASCD. In it, Wagner makes the claim that “to teach and test the skills that our students need, we must first redefine excellent instruction.” If students need different skills and competencies than schools are providing, then schools and teaching need to change. His argument for true college and career readiness still rings true seven years later.

Traditionally, secondary schools in the United States have been based on a definition of rigor that assumes courses are hard or challenging when they cover a vast amount of content or prepare students for high-stakes examinations such as Advanced Placement tests. For a long time, the notion has been that if students can take and pass these “difficult” classes, then they are ready for college and career.

However, studies show that a student’s success in so-called challenging courses or on AP examinations does not necessarily indicate a greater likelihood of success in college or life. This begs the question: what, then, does increase the likelihood of college and career success?

At Envision Education, we agree with Wagner: schools need to rethink academic rigor and clearly define 21st century outcomes for students. And we believe that in order to accomplish these important tasks, we need schools that are designed specifically to support a new vision for teaching and learning, because a transformation like this cannot happen in piecemeal fashion.

We are often asked, “What is Envision’s secret sauce?” And why do we believe our students will be successful in college and career? I have been reflecting on how to answer these questions clearly, and Wagner’s article has given me the framework to do it.

Wagner describes visiting some of the nation’s most highly regarded suburban schools, as well as “interviewing leaders in settings from Apple to Unilever to the U.S. Army, and reviewing research on workplace skills.” Based on his findings, he calls for students to master seven specific skills to be successful in the 21st century. Five of these essential skills--critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and leadership, effective oral and written communication, curiosity and imagination, and agility and adaptability--are almost identical to Envision’s own deeper learning student outcomes.

These 21st Century skills define who we are and what we value. But we don’t simply post these skills on our walls as visible reminders. Rather, these skills are an integral part of our planning and teaching; we charge our teachers with designing curricula and assessments that use discipline content to both teach and assess these skills through academic work and performance, throughout all four years of high school.

We evaluate students on clear performance rubrics, and we give them formal feedback on their deeper learning skills with each quarterly report card. Furthermore, they must demonstrate increasing proficiency in these skills through their Lower Division Benchmark Portfolio in order to transition from tenth to eleventh grade. Finally, students must demonstrate a mastery of these skills through their 12th grade College Success Portfolio Defense in order to graduate. This culminating high school performance assessment is one of the strongest and best indicators of college and career readiness.

So how do students learn these skills? There is no textbook for teaching 21st century skills, and they can’t be taught via lecture. Instead, we must give students the opportunity to practice them by assigning work that requires them. And students must receive regular and consistent coaching to support their growth in the application and performance of these skills. This is why Envision uses project-based-based learning as a central pedagogical strategy.

It is important to remember that project-based learning is a means to an end and not an end in itself. In project-based learning, student work is based on real-world situations and dilemmas, and on finding real-world solutions and responses. This is how teaching is shaped by what students need: In Envision classrooms, teachers use project-based learning to both engage students in challenging academic content and create opportunities for them to practice and master 21st century skills. For us, rigor is present not when students pass AP exams or cover a lot of ground, but when they can show both what they know and what they can do.

This definition of rigor provides a framework for excellent instruction because it allows our leaders and teachers to design their schools, classrooms and curricula intentionally to ensure that students experience that rigor in every aspect of their academic journey.

So, what is our secret sauce of college and career readiness? The easy answer is that we have put a stake in the ground with our redefinition of rigor. You can see this in what our students produce: a Graduation Portfolio that demonstrates both their deeper learning skills and their college-ready, academic content knowledge.

Beyond the easy answer, there are other challenging questions. How can we think about this work systematically, and how do we redesign schools and school systems to support this kind of rigor? Our hope is that our definition of rigor informs every design decision, every operational choice, setting in motion a transformation will affect every aspect of our network of schools. In turn, our schools will affect the schools we come into contact with when sharing our work, which can in turn--eventually--influence public policy and lead to lasting change. Each day at Envision, we are conscious of the fact that we are working on the very same transformations we hope to see take place at all public schools one day.

These are some of our initial thoughts about designing schools that prepare students for success and transform lives in the process. For more on this subject, readers can check out our new book, Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards. Just published in January of 2015 and peppered with compelling quotes, profiles and anecdotes from Envision students and teachers, this book offers a structure for transforming a school into an agent of Deeper Learning and provides a game plan for making transformation truly take hold in a school. Learn more about Transforming Schools here.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.