States Opinion

Virginia Takes Deeper Learning Statewide

By Contributing Blogger — September 27, 2018 4 min read
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This post is by Stephanie Malia Krauss, Director of Special Projects, JFF

A week before Virginia’s Cumberland Schools opened their doors to begin a new school year, Superintendent Amy Griffin sent her staff on a professional field trip.

Principals and teachers got up early and boarded buses that took them across the county, and as far away as Richmond, one hour west. Staff spread across nearly twenty “work sites” representing the career pathways Cumberland wants students exposed to and prepared for. Cumberland is full of families that struggle to get by; these pathways promise students a way out of poverty and the chance for a prosperous future.

For one day, Cumberland educators became learners, participating in the kinds of work-based learning their students will experience this school year. Afterwards, everyone split into groups and talked about how these types of opportunities can help students get ready for college and prepare them for an uncertain future of work. Staff also discussed how career pathways can operationalize the Profile of a Cumberland Graduate. This profile, developed with help from the national group, EdLeader21, aligns to a statewide Profile, which prioritizes the knowledge, skills and experiences graduates need by the time they leave high school. Cumberland, along with many other districts in the state, has co-constructed its profile with local employers, educators and leaders. It has now been adopted as the community’s updated graduation requirements. Meanwhile, the Profile of a Virginia Graduate, released by the Virginia Department of Education, is the official baseline graduation framework for all students, beginning with this year’s freshman class.

I have gotten to know Cumberland’s fierce leader, Superintendent Griffin, over the past few years. She is a true change agent, a respected leader and passionate advocate for her students and community. I look to her to tell me what works, and which new ideas are really worth the investment. I know she always comes from a place that puts students first. Her field trip at the start of the year was a major signal that she believes in something that is happening far beyond Cumberland county limits.

Across the Commonwealth, school districts, universities, statewide education organizations and state leadership are working together to advance a connected set of reforms that aim to make sure students are ready for a rapidly changing world. JFF, through funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, has been able to partner with them in this work. This group has agreed that student needs should drive the state’s education priorities. Together, they are acting on a vision for a future of learning defined by the Profile, which embeds future-ready knowledge and skills into the state’s K-12 education system, modernizing its assessment system and career pathways and driving deeper learning in classrooms.

The Commonwealth, under the leadership of Governor Northam, Secretary of Education Qarni, and Superintendent Lane hopes these efforts can align and advance student-centered practices as a way to achieve equity and improve student outcomes.

Beginning this year, all Virginia students will graduate with exposure to work-based learning and service-learning, and will develop a personal arsenal of content mastery and core deeper learning skills. Within a few years, all aspiring and established Virginia educators will be trained in the instructional and pedagogical approaches related to this kind of philosophical shift in teaching and learning.

Virginia’s education community has made it clear that knowing facts and figures is not enough. They believe graduates should leave high school as critical and creative thinkers, excellent communicators, collaborators and community-minded citizens. They also believe that no matter how much the world evolves, every class of graduates should leave high school ready for what comes next.

I joke with my Commonwealth colleagues that if this works, I will move my family to Virginia. I want my two boys to get this kind of readiness-focused public education. It would not surprise me if one day we talk about Virginia being for lovers and learners.

The state is getting ready to formally announce the next wave of this work, with a stronger focus on equity. It is a long road to make sure these efforts happen in a quality way for every community and for every kid, but they have done it before. Back in the 1990s, Governor Allen’s administration was one of the first in the nation to establish needed accountability reforms and higher academic standards. Today, Virginia’s education leaders will need to contend with serious threats to progress, which include a teacher shortage, the belief by many that the state relies too heavily on testing, and long-time resource disparities between wealthy and cash-strapped communities.

Scaling deeper learning in this way is as compelling as it is challenging. It requires Virginia leaders to learn and respond to what all students need, whether they live in rural coal country, large city centers, or anywhere in between. It takes time, which can be difficult in a state that has one-term governors and politically appointed state education leaders. And yet, it also carries the real promise of making sure students enjoy school while getting the experiences and training they need to be ready for college, work, and life. It is worth watching, and just maybe one day moving your family for.

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