School & District Management Opinion

To Change Education, Change the Message

By Ronald A. Wolk — January 05, 2016 7 min read
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In September, Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, committed $50 million to be shared by winners of a competition to redesign the American high school. The effort, known as XQ: The Super School Project, is an open call to students, teachers, and policymakers—anyone who thinks she or he may have a good idea—to rethink the core qualities that have defined high school education for decades, such as testing, grade levels, and school schedules. Proposals for the future of public high schools are accepted online and, by next fall, a team of judges will select five of the best ideas and support them for the next five years.

Commendable as Powell Jobs’ intention is, the grant does not address the real problem. Hundreds of innovative and successful high schools across the country are already succeeding, often with the most disadvantaged students. Combined, they incorporate all the innovative and best practices needed to completely transform the American high school.

Unfortunately, they have virtually no impact on the nation’s roughly 24,500 public high schools because most school boards, principals, and teachers have either never heard of them or are not interested in emulating them. And five new, innovative models are not likely to change that.


Even if, by some miracle, school districts rushed to adopt innovative models of high school, most would continue to do a mediocre job. No matter how good they are, high schools can make little progress as long as a majority of their students arrive without having learned to read for comprehension, without having discovered the magic of mathematics, without having their curiosity nourished, and without having learned to use their minds well. That will be the case until we address education as one system from kindergarten through high school graduation.

We might accomplish that if Powell Jobs and some of her wealthy peers were to pony up, say, a billion dollars or so, not to improve schools but to change the way Americans think about education—especially those who shape and make policy.

Large sums of money have not done much to improve schools, as demonstrated by Walter Annenberg’s $500 million in the 1990s and Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million a few years ago. But well-funded, sustained public campaigns—against littering, smoking, and drunk driving, for example—have changed attitudes and behavior.

Those were single-issue battles more easily addressed than the many complex issues that plague public education. Changing public perceptions of education would be much more challenging, but not impossible. Remember, 50 governors and business CEOs held a few education summits in the 1990s and forged the strategy of standards and testing that has dominated the reform movement ever since. With big grants from major foundations, they organized an intensive campaign and successfully persuaded virtually every state to adopt high academic standards and rigorous standardized tests.

Standards-based accountability not only has failed to accomplish its goals, it makes even more necessary (and more difficult) an effort to convince the public and its leaders that a new strategy is desperately needed. A multi-year national campaign is probably the only way to accomplish that.

The timing for such an effort is about as good now as it’s ever been. The Common Core State Standards have generated significant concern and resistance. The accompanying new, computer-based tests have been especially controversial, and thousands of students, with their parents’ approval, are defiantly refusing to take them. The harshness and rigidity of the No Child Left Behind Act and the strategy of standards-based accountability have sapped morale and eroded public confidence in schools. The recently passed successor to No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, might help when it’s fully in place in the 2017-18 school year, but I am not optimistic.

Powell Jobs’ challenge to “reimagine” education recognizes that the existing system is stuck in the last century and must be totally redesigned. Obviously, efforts to improve traditional schools must continue, but simultaneously we must embark on a new strategy.

That is the message that a sustained campaign would broadcast into every home and office in the United States. It should begin with a question:

What kind of education system do we need if we are to cope effectively with the enormous variety among the more than 50 million students in public schools and prepare them for a rapidly changing future?

Batch processing works for computers, not for children.

Hundreds of innovative schools across the nation are already responding to that question.

Their answer is simple and stunningly obvious: Personalize education.

These schools start with each student where he or she is and proceed from there with a personal learning plan tailored for that student. That’s how medicine is practiced. The physician diagnoses each patient and prescribes a specific treatment. If medicine were practiced the way education is, the physician might step into a crowded waiting room and proclaim: “Today is Wednesday, so you’re all going to get a shot of penicillin.” Batch processing works for computers, not for children.

When education is personalized, virtually everything in the traditional school begins to change.

Content standards dictating all the knowledge that every student needs to be deemed educated are replaced by competencies, such as being able to read a nonfiction article and understand it sufficiently to explain it to others; or, demonstrating the ability to reason quantitatively when analyzing and solving problems.

In a competency-based system, time becomes the variable and learning the constant. Students must demonstrate mastery of a competency before earning credit and moving to the next, more challenging competency; some will achieve mastery faster than others.

When time becomes the variable, age-level grading and inflexible schedules make no sense. Students progress at their own pace through the various subjects, so a student may master competencies in history more quickly than he does in science, or in math more quickly than she does in English.

In a personalized education system, where time is the variable, and mastery of competencies demonstrates progress in learning, students are at different levels of competency. Their learning should be assessed continually with teacher-designed tests; on their individual performance and the quality of their work—which they present in exhibitions, portfolios, and performances. Standardized testing is inappropriate and ineffective.

Teachers in a personalized, competency-based system become advisers whose main task is to help individual students reach their educational objectives. Instructing rows of students in a classroom is largely replaced by students working alone or in small groups simultaneously under the supervision of advisers and with their guidance and help.

Unlike existing content standards, competencies must be linked to the real world in which their mastery is relevant. Internships provide such a link, as do projects that involve students in real-world situations where they address real issues and construct useful knowledge that they won’t forget by the end of summer. The mantra is: Learning occurs anytime, anywhere, and should continue for a lifetime.

Learning out of school requires the assistance of the community; mentors and tutors work with students in projects and internships, and institutions (like courts, museums, and businesses) open their doors to students. Work and performance are assessed by advisers, mentors, and supervisors, not by standardized tests.

In a personalized and competency-based system, students take more responsibility for their own education and, therefore, must have more choice and more voice in decisionmaking. When students reach their teen years, they should be able to choose from multiple educational/career pathways that make optimum use of their talents and lead to their personal objectives—and standards must be tailored to the specific pathway.

Selling the idea of personalized, competency-based schools won’t be easy. These are not the kinds of schools most Americans attended. They are not the kinds of schools that teachers are taught to teach in. To slightly paraphrase Theodore Sizer, who worked all of his life to change schools: The reason nothing important changes in education is because if one significant change is made, everything would have to change.

That is too scary a prospect for most people.

A well-funded campaign to change the way the public thinks about education will have to allay that fear and overcome many vested interests. Otherwise, that “rising tide of mediocrity,” which has continued to swell for more than three decades, may well become a tsunami.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2016 edition of Education Week as To Change Education, Change the Message


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