The Future of School

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When educators were invited to design schools of the future for a nationwide competition last fall, the most striking thing about the results was not their diversity but their similarity.

Ungraded, multi-age classrooms; assessments based on performance, not guesswork; students who graduate based on what they know and can do rather than the time spent in class; activities that engage children's hands as well as their heads; and learning done in teams instead of alone at desks were ideas that permeated the hundreds of proposals.

They are all elements of what one researcher describes as an "emerging oral consensus'' about what schooling should look like in the 21st century.

It is a far cry from the authoritarian image of one teacher standing at the front of the classroom and pouring information into 20 or 30 waiting heads.

And it represents nearly a 180-degree turn from what policymakers were calling for just 10 years ago. Back then, reformers were nearly single-minded in advocating policies designed to crack down on students and teachers.

Indeed, if there was a consistent message in A Nation at Risk, it was to do more of what we'd been doing, only better: More homework. Longer school days and years. More rigorous grading. Better textbooks. More tests.

The only problem was, it didn't work. The performance of American students, by and large, has remained lackluster on national and international measures of achievement. And young people are just as bored and turned off by schooling as they were before the call to action was sounded.

As Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, noted in a 1987 address to the American Educational Research Association, American schools have become simultaneously one of the most important elements in our society and one of the most irrelevant.

Violating Common Sense

That's not surprising, given that much of what passes for education in schools violates what both research and common sense tell us about how people learn best--and contradicts the way we expect them to live and work as adults.

Everyone knows that human beings learn at different rates and in different ways. Schools, on the other hand, insist on treating all children of the same age alike, expecting them to progress in lock-step fashion and to learn mainly by listening.

We know that humans are social by nature and increasingly work in situations that demand collaboration. But our schools ask students to sit most of the day without speaking to each other and to compete rather than to cooperate.

Businesses and colleges complain that high school graduates are limited in their thinking and problem-solving abilities. But schools stress getting the "right answer,'' rather than asking the right questions or devising multiple approaches to a problem.

Rarer still do we cede enough power to students in schools to let them take on the fundamental responsibility for their own learning.

Now, a growing recognition of the mismatch between the worlds inside and outside school has launched a quest for a new model of schooling--a different kind of learning environment to replace the one that has characterized American education for two centuries.

'Emerging Oral Consensus'

"To say this is a consensus, I think, would be to press the case,'' says Ms. Resnick, who has become a leading advocate for this new vein of thought. "But it's something like a consensus among both the leading researchers and educational practitioner-philosophers.''

In the schools that these futurists envision, understanding and intellect would be as valued as athletics are today. Students would become active learners who assume an increased responsibility for their own education. And learning would occur in context, in environments that are laden with stimulating and resource-rich materials and that enable students to learn through a variety of avenues.

The emphasis would be on applying and using knowledge to solve real-world problems, not just on regurgitating facts. And the traditional walls between education and the broader community would come tumbling down.

In such schools, every student would be expected to meet high standards for what he or she knows and can do. And the vision of what a successful high school graduate should look like would drive both the curriculum and the assessments.

Most of all, these schools would be communities of learners--in which as much attention is paid to the intellectual and developmental needs of adults as of children. Decisions would be made as close to the classroom as possible. And teachers and principals would have a far greater say over curriculum, budgets, and hiring.

Despite this "emerging oral consensus,'' however, there is no agreement about how to get from here to there. It is a lofty vision that could produce as many different kinds of schools as there are students and communities. And few schools--to date--have managed to achieve it.

Indeed, after 10 years of reform, the struggle to create a new generation of schools on a broad scale has largely just begun.

Nonetheless, the harbingers of change may already be among us.

Student Learning at Heart of Vision for Schools

The first thing a visitor notices about Stanton Elementary School in the Appalachian foothills of Kentucky is the lighting. There are real incandescent lamps here, not fluorescent tubes.

Rocking chairs and cushions reside where desks have been. Children aren't all doing the same thing at the same time. Some are reclining to read. Others listen to recorded books on headsets. There are children typing and writing in journals. Some youngsters are working independently, others are working in groups. They aren't all the same age, or the same size, or the same ability.

"It's a much more relaxed atmosphere,'' says Faye King, the school's principal. "And, initially, it might be construed as playful, because children are so engaged in their work that it hardly has the appearance of work.''

Most of all, the students are active. It is a school focused on performance--where children are doing things, not just watching someone else. In the past, the biggest performer in too many American classrooms has been the teacher.

The implications of this shift to schools focused on students' work are enormous. "As soon as you say that performance is the key,'' notes Theodore R. Sizer, the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network of reform-minded educators, "then things like mandatory attendance and always being in a school building are going to become less and less important.''

"If the kid can do it,'' he adds, "then I really don't care how she learns it. So I think the notion of school as a place with a bell at the beginning and a bell at the end, with four walls and a day that starts and a day that ends, that's going to start evaporating.''

'A Whole Way of Being'

Much of the theory for such shifts stems from cognitive research on how people learn. By observing both children and adults in real-world settings, researchers have found that human beings are perpetual "meaning-makers.'' Put simply, people constantly try to make sense out of their environment by fitting new information into what they already know.

Isolated facts, flung at children with no connection to how they will be used or why they are important, have little staying power. Rather than telling children about history or about math, such research suggests, children should be immersed in an environment where they can see adults modeling the kinds of activities that real historians or mathematicians do; practice some of those activities themselves, with adequate support and supervision; learn to reflect on what they have done; and engage in closer and closer approximations of such complex, real-world experiences.

"What you learn,'' Ms. Resnick argues, "is not just a body of subject matter, but a whole way of being with respect to knowledge or skill.''

Within this broader context, students master individual skills--like multiplication or sounding out words--as they need them, rather than in isolation. And children are encouraged to think about challenging and complex problems from the start.

Resource-Rich Environments

In such schools, youngsters explore real things that matter to them. Materials--not textbooks--line the walls.

"Primary classrooms are brimming with children's books, blocks, string, cardboard scraps, plants, animals, rocks, paints, and assorted theater props,'' writes George H. Wood, the author of Schools That Work: America's Most Innovative Public Education Programs. "For older children, there is hands-on equipment--tape recorders, cameras, science apparatus, good novels, charts and graphs, and objects of art.''

In one Apple Classroom of Tomorrow a few years ago, a 6th-grade learning-disabled student used a computer to gain access to hour-by-hour satellite maps from the National Weather Service to track the progress of a hurricane up the East Coast.

"That was impressive enough from our point of view,'' recalls David Dwyer, the principal scientist for áãïô, a research project sponsored by Apple Computer Inc. that investigates how learning changes when students and teachers have immediate access to technology, "but he was actually then overlaying other kinds of data on top of those maps and trying to make a determination about what forces of nature control the path of a hurricane.''

"In the process,'' he adds, "the kid was using scientific visualization tools that real scientists use. And he had a teacher who was comfortable with that kind of information.''

In such schools, activities tend to center on long-term projects that cut across disciplines--not work sheets. These longer and more complicated tasks require larger blocks of time, and the 50-minute class period is giving way to accommodate them.

The Goal of Creating a 'More Permeable Membrane'

As the ACOT example demonstrates, a central characteristic of the new generation of schools will be the ability of students to draw on the world outside the classroom for knowledge and information.

"I think we're going to end up with a more permeable membrane between school and nonschool in educating children,'' predicts Chester E. Finn Jr., a member of the Edison Project, a multi-million-dollar initiative that is trying to design a network of for-profit schools from scratch.

"I think we'll begin to fashion arrangements in which more learning takes place off-site,'' he continues, "and, maybe, in which more noncognitive things take place on-site.''

In some instances, schools are trying to replicate the larger world inside the classroom through the creation of "micro-societies,'' complete with their own legislatures, courts, banks, post offices, newspapers, and businesses. In others, schools are reaching out into the community to offer instructional opportunities for students--while giving them a chance to make a difference. At Belle Fourche (S.D.) High School, students write for the town newspaper and make drawings and photographs of local buildings for a project to renovate and revitalize the downtown business area.

The Community as Laboratory

At the Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Mass., students in Cityworks are using the community as their laboratory, investigating its industries and trades, services and people, neighborhoods and architecture, as a way to learn both academic and vocational skills.

Ninth and 10th graders in the program, which began in 1991, take numerous expeditions out into the city and re-create it back in the classroom, using maps, photographs, tapes, oral histories, two-dimensional drawings, and three-dimensional models.

Last year, the teenagers made an 8-foot-by-14-foot wall map of Cambridge, lighted up by recycled batteries. They designed a restaurant, picked a building they wanted to renovate, made a model, met with the zoning department to find out whether they would need a variance or permits, studied the nutritional issues involved in designing a menu, and used the graphic-arts studio to produce menus, placemats, business cards, and T-shirts. They also argued strenuously about where in the city to place the restaurant to attract a diverse clientele.

"The message that we want to give kids,'' Principal Lawrence Rosenstock says, "is to take chances and try new things, to work hard, and to do high-quality work.''

Setting High Standards for All Students

In schools like these, the focus is on raising the standards and expectations for all students, not just the college-bound. A Nation at Risk implied that a "rising tide of mediocrity'' was dragging down the performance of America's best students. The new conventional wisdom is that, in the future, all students will have to learn to think for a living.

Indeed, one of the few requirements of last fall's competition by the New American Schools Development Corporation to design "break the mold'' schools was that they enable all children to reach "world class'' standards in English, mathematics, history, geography, and science.

Exactly what world-class standards are and who should set them remains the subject of an intense and often acrimonious debate. But there is little disagreement that schools need to focus more on student outcomes than they have in the past, and that those outcomes should be sufficiently rich and challenging to engage all youngsters.

"If you don't know what you're aiming for,'' notes Howard Gardner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, "you're never going to be able to make any progress.''

As the article by Ann Bradley on page 5 notes, our failure as a nation to coalesce around a clear and compelling mission for schools in the 21st century may be one of the primary impediments to reform.

'Keeping the End in Sight'

Schools that have taken this charge seriously are trying to define what their graduates should know and be able to do, beyond requiring that they sit through four years of English and three years of math.

Such schools are shunning multiple-choice tests in favor of a much broader set of measures to let students demonstrate their accomplishments.

At Littleton (Colo.) High School, teachers have defined 19 performance-based graduation requirements for their students, beginning with the class of 1995.

These range from "the Littleton High School graduate speaks and writes articulately and effectively'' to "the Littleton High School graduate has actively contributed to community or school-service organizations,'' and "the Littleton High School graduate effectively applies mathematical principles and operations to solve a range of problems.''

Thirty-six different "demonstrations,'' or assessments of a student's performance, are tied to these graduation criteria. In one instance, teenagers complete an impromptu, timed writing assignment in a controlled setting. In another, students amass a portfolio of different writing samples over time.

Each of the "demonstrations'' specifies which of the graduation requirements is being met, what the task entails, the criteria for completing it successfully, the rubric that teachers will use to score the project, and the testing conditions--such as whether a student can use a spell checker or a calculator.

"Keeping the end clearly in sight,'' argues Littleton High's principal, Tim Westerberg, "you move backward to ask, 'What does that mean for the curriculum? How do we need to repackage, or maybe even rewrite and reorganize and redesign, our curriculum for the students to engage in learning experiences that logically lead to performing well on these assessments?'''

"The goal,'' he adds, "is to have what you test be very much a part of what kids are learning on a day-to-day basis in the classroom.''

Over time, as students assume more responsibility for these assessments, they become their own best critics. They get better and better at pinpointing both what they know and what they don't, what good performance looks like, and where their own performance falls short.

A Community of Learners: For Teachers and Students

But schools must insure that everyone has equal access to knowledge if they are to sustain clear and high expectations for all students.

The Humanitas program in Los Angeles, for example, is designed to provide all youngsters with the kind of challenging, intellectual curriculum traditionally reserved for the very few. Teenagers in the program, which operates in 37 high schools, are recruited from a cross section of the student body. The program goes after the "average kid,'' which in Los Angeles includes a large percentage of children from poor and minority families.

The curriculum is organized around central concepts--"the roots of prejudice'' is one example--that draw from an array of disciplines that are taught separately at the vast majority of schools.

Students read original source materials, rather than textbooks. And they write a lot, with a focus on the interdisciplinary essay that concludes each unit.

According to an assessment of the project by the Center for the Study of Evaluation at the University of California at Los Angeles, Humanitas students write better and have a surer grasp of abstract concepts than do other students. They were also absent less, and a smaller percentage dropped out of school.

But "as rich as our curriculum is, and as engaging as the work is,'' hypothesizes Chris Gutierrez, a Humanitas teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School, "the fundamental difference is that we hold [students] responsible to a community within a community. And because they're so well known in it, and because we're so well known to them, it's easier and more feasible to take risks with them intellectually. And for the faculty to do the same with each other.''

Nurturing Teachers' Growth

As Ms. Gutierrez's comment illustrates, the needs of teachers in such settings are crucial. Their intellectual development and that of their students go hand in hand.

According to one principal, shifting the teacher's role from that of expert to coach requires the "highest level of expertise imaginable.''

Teachers in these learning environments must have a firm grasp of educational research; an understanding of their subject and how to teach it; knowledge about child development and individual learning styles and how to apply them; a willingness to work in groups; and the ability to structure lessons so that students can help determine the direction their coursework will take.

Most of all, they must have the time and opportunity to learn from each other, and to take risks together.

In Humanitas, for instance, teachers can enroll in a two-week summer academy. And during the school year, those new to the program are released from their teaching duties to attend workshops at one of three Humanitas Teachers' Centers.

But in most schools, teachers rarely have the chance to catch their breath, let alone engage in such self-rejuvenation.

Collegiality in Small Settings

Deborah Meier, the founder of the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City--one of the few schools consistently cited as an example of where education should be headed--argues that schools "must create a passion for learning, not only among children, but also among their teachers.''

Both, she asserts, have become "passion-impaired.''

"At the very least,'' she writes in a provocative article in Teachers College Record, "one must imagine schools in which teachers are in frequent conversation with each other about their work, have easy and necessary access to each other's classrooms, take it for granted that they should comment on each other's work, and have the time to develop common standards for student work.''

There is also a growing recognition that if educators are to feel a sense of ownership over their schools--and if we are to take advantage of their knowledge and expertise--then most decisions regarding budgets, hiring, and curriculum should be made at the school site.

"What is certain,'' Ms. Meier adds, "is that this kind of collegiality works best in settings that are sufficiently small and intimate that self-governance and staff-development schemes don't exhaust teachers' energies or divert them from their central task.''

Pulling It All Together Into a School That Works

The challenge is to pull all of these elements together into a school that works. Within education circles, Central Park East is widely viewed as one of the few places that have managed to achieve this vision. As a result, the school has taken on a mythical stature fast approaching that of Camelot.

Its prominence speaks as much to the difficulty of creating truly innovative schools as it does to the program itself.

The school, located in East Harlem, looks like any other public education facility from the outside, perhaps more rundown than most. But it is what happens inside that counts.

At Central Park East, children stay with teachers for two years, so that they know each other well. In the high school, Ms. Meier notes, most students see no more than two or three different teachers a day, including an adviser who spends an hour a day with a small group of 15 teenagers.

Every teacher is responsible for one interdisciplinary course, such as literature and history or math and science. And the typical class is about two hours long, providing enough time, according to Ms. Meier, to include whole-class seminars, small-group work, independent study, and one-on-one coaching by teachers and students.

Decisions Close to the Classroom

Working with one set of students, teachers teach in collaborative settings, with four or five teachers working in close proximity. This approach, Ms. Meier argues, means that teachers can easily make decisions, alter plans, rearrange schedules, regroup students, share ideas, and observe each other's work.

Most decisions are made as close to the classroom as possible. And teachers collectively decide on content, pedagogy, and assessment.

As Ms. Meier also notes, the whole staff is "not enormous.'' Neither Central Park East Secondary School nor the district's elementary schools that are modeled on the same concepts include more than 450 students, and most are limited to 200 or 300. "That means,'' she wryly observes, "a faculty that can sit in a circle in one room and get a chance to hear each other.''

The result is that students succeed in far greater measure than their socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds would predict. About 90 percent of those who attend the schools graduate from high school, in a city where nearly half of all students drop out. Half of those who graduate from Central Park East elementary schools go on to college, and the numbers are even higher for those who attend the high school.

Reform Architects Still Wrestling With Barriers

To many, Central Park East is a beacon. But how the components of the modern learning environment come together may differ from school to school, based on its students and its community.

And while there are many elements of good schools to be found, places like Central Park East that have succeeded in putting most of the pieces together remain a rarity.

As the article by Robert Rothman on page 9 on the barriers to school reform notes, researchers are just beginning to understand how complicated it is to change entrenched beliefs and practices at the school site, and how weak our previous interventions have been.

For the past two years, Fred M. Newmann and his colleagues at the Center on the Organization and Restructuring of Schools at the University of Wisconsin at Madison have been engaged in a nationwide search for reinvented schools.

"It's been very difficult to find them,'' he laments. "We've received nominations from over 300 schools, and we've made phone interviews to all of those, and then site visits to close to 40 of them. And at this point, we've only been able to find 15 [schools] to study, and the schools we're studying actually don't combine all of it.''

"We sort of chose those that we think are highly promising,'' he says, "even though they may meet only some of [our] criteria.''
Vision Not Widespread

What's more, once you move beyond the small group of educational researchers, practitioners, and policymakers who run into each other at conferences and on national commissions, whatever consensus there is quickly dissipates.

If there is a radically new vision of schooling emerging, it has yet to grab hold in the vast majority of schools and classrooms--or in the hearts and minds of many American schoolteachers.

"This is one of the really depressing things, I find, about American education,'' says Sue E. Berryman, an education specialist with the World Bank in Washington. "In some ways, there's a group of us who just really end up talking to ourselves. That's a little hard, but I'm afraid that's more true than any of us really wants to confront.''

Points of Contention

Even among the cozy crowd of educational insiders, areas of ardent disagreement remain.

Should standards and assessments be developed at the national level or by individual schools and communities? People howl and scream at each other on that issue. Questions about what constitutes the "canon'' of cultural literacy, or whether there exists a core body of knowledge that all students should possess, provoke a similarly visceral response.

Who should be allowed to teach in schools? And to what extent should schools be the site for, if not the provider of, the many non-educational services that students and their families need, ranging from health care to counseling? Although few people continue to profess that the school can do it all--absent the support of families, the mass media, and other nonschool institutions--there is more rhetoric on this topic than action.

Role of Technology Unclear

Visionaries also differ widely on the role that technology should play in the schools of tomorrow. In a world where virtually everyone has access to a television set and a telephone, and may soon have access to a computer on the same phone lines, it would be ludicrous to think that schools can retain their role as the sole--or even the primary--purveyors of information in our society. In many ways, they forfeited that role long ago.

In his new book, School's Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education, Lewis J. Perelman argues that rapid advances in technology will soon make existing schools obsolete, and that any attempts to revamp or revitalize them are doomed to failure.

Others concede that technology will play a far more ubiquitous role in the schools of tomorrow, but suggest that that day may be a long way off.

"If you ask me, do I expect the Apple or I.B.M. or A.T. & T. school of tomorrow to be filled with technology and long-distance satellites and that sort of thing, certainly not in my lifetime,'' Mr. Gardner of Harvard says. "That's at least, in part, because I think it's too expensive.''

How Radical a Change?

But the most fundamental disagreement centers around just how radical a change is required to make schools more productive.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, says, "I used to think we basically had to abandon what we have now, because it doesn't work.''

But his view changed, he says, when he realized that students in Germany, Japan, Canada, and France seem to learn very well in more traditional learning environments.

So the A.F.T. now has two objectives, he continues: "One is to take those pioneers who want to build the world of tomorrow, and experiment with that, and give them the wherewithal and the resources to do it.''

"But that doesn't take everybody else off the hook,'' he adds. "They've got to figure out how do we get our schools to be as good, in terms of student outcomes, as schools that look fairly traditional in other countries.''

Attention Turns to Task of Getting From Here to There

Indeed, despite recent attempts to house schools at the worksite or in giant shopping malls, few people expect that the school--as such--will disappear.

"When you talk about the school of the future,'' says Roger Semerad, the president of the R.J.R. Nabisco Foundation, which has underwritten an effort to create "next century'' schools, "my guess is we will still have a building. And we will still have teachers and administrators. But I hope that we have an entirely different process, like we have a new process for building cars or making steel.''

The real question, then, is whether we know how to get from here to there. Because while stories abound about the dynamic teacher or the dynamic principal who turned a school around, the future of public education rests with the thousands of ordinary individuals who populate the 80,000 public school buildings in the United States. Somehow, they need to own a vision that only a few principals and teachers now share.

"There really is not any good understanding of how to propagate changed schools,'' Ms. Resnick says, quite humbly.

If nothing else, the last decade has stressed for educators the need to maintain a little humility about the pace of change and how to bring it about. "Every single school must become a revolutionary cell,'' Ms. King of Stanton Elementary School argues. "It's not something that can be done from the outside. It is a synergy that arises among the staff and cannot be imposed.''

But in a soil that has proved, until now, so inhospitable to the widespread growth and nourishment of good schools, a consensus is growing that something must be done to provide a framework in which communities of learners can flourish.

Vol. 12, Issue 20

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