Assessment Opinion

A Diploma for Deeper Learning: A System for 22nd-Century Skills

By Jal Mehta — June 10, 2016 8 min read
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What if there were an IB-like system for deeper learning?

Much of the attention of deeper learning advocates has been focused in two places--building up a networks of charter schools that do deeper learning, and advocating for massive changes that would shift federal policy, states, and districts towards deeper learning. Missing is a third alternative that stands squarely between the two--creating a subsystem that would enable regular public schools around the world to provide certifiably high quality deeper learning.

The model I have in mind for this subsystem is International Baccalaureate (IB). IB began in Geneva in 1968 as a way for schools abroad to develop global citizens and to provide an internationally recognized credential that would enable its graduates to be admitted to top colleges in the U.S. and the U.K. It has since spread to 4,335 schools worldwide, including more than 800 Title I schools in the United States. IB offers a two-year diploma program for students who demonstrate sufficient mastery in six subjects as well as completing other requirements; students can also take classes and pass assessments in one or more subject areas without earning the diploma. Unlike Advanced Placement (AP), it does not rely only on single end-of-course tests to assess learning, but rather uses a mixture of performance assessments, some of which are internally scored at the school level and some of which are scored externally by IB-certified examiners. A sample of the school-scored assessments are sent to IB to ensure that the internal assessment maintains standards consistent with the program’s definition of mastery.

For those who hear the word assessment and think NCLB-style scantrons, it is worth emphasizing that the IB assessments are different, and show the potential of what good assessments can do. The assessments are not about factual recall, but rather ask students to use their knowledge to analyze complex questions. For example, in music, students complete an exam by listening to an unidentified piece of music and writing an essay in which they develop an evidence-based hypothesis about its historical, geographic, and stylistic origins. They also have to develop pieces of music which are scored by the examiners, moving squarely to the “create” part of Bloom’s taxonomy.

IB is itself a promising platform for deeper learning; Sarah Fine and I devote a whole chapter to it in our forthcoming book on deeper learning. But while the IB has a more humanistic and integrated vision of education than does AP, it is still rooted fundamentally in helping students develop expertise in the conventional academic disciplines and the arts. What it does not do is what many advocates of deeper learning or 21st century skills are calling for, which is integrating its curriculum around problem- or project-based investigations, which lead to authentic products that cut across disciplines. This is the niche that a new system would fill.

Why build a subsystem rather than change the whole system? In a paper that I’m working on with David Cohen, we look at the history of American school reform to understand what differentiates reforms that succeed from reforms that fail. We suggest that successful reforms are characterized by three things: they have a significant political constituency that demand them; they solve problems that teachers have rather than ones reformers think they should have; and they provide materials and guidance that are actionable for teachers. We find that sector-wide reform is very rare, because it is very difficult to engender those conditions across our large and diverse nation, but that these same features underpin “niche” or “subsystem” reforms, where a smaller group of committed people bring an idea to fruition. Progressive education, for example, has repeatedly struggled as system-wide reform, but it flourishes in some private schools and selected public schools where there is parental demand for it. Advanced Placement is another example of a reform that solved a problem that teachers knew that they had--differentiating instruction for higher skilled students--and, in meeting a demand from students and parents, it has become a very widespread program.

Creating a subsystem reform doesn’t mean that it can’t potentially spread to influence the mainstream. Advanced Placement was started as a program for a small number of high-track students, but today has more than a million students taking its exams. IB, while less prevalent nationally, has been a centerpiece of reform in Chicago and has, over time, been extended to more and more non-elite students. Charter management organizations are another kind of niche reform, and some of the practices in these CMOs have spread to regular public schools. Thus developing a subsystem around deeper learning could potentially have the ability to influence the larger conversation.

More practically, such a subsystem would meet a set of immediate needs. One is that there are already a number of schools trying to do project-based learning and/or aspiring to “21st century skills” but there is wide variation in the quality of their offerings. Creating a set of external assessments and the accompanying community of knowledge that would form around them would help to set a standard for what good learning of this type would look like. Second, it would help legitimize project-based learning to colleges, parents, and other external stakeholders. I recently visited a high poverty school that was trying to do more project-based learning, but was concerned that, unlike APs or SAT IIs, there would be no way to certify that their students had done high quality work that would make them eligible for good colleges. Building a high status certification system would allay this concern, and, given that colleges may actually be more interested in these skills than knowledge of traditional disciplinary content, such a system might actually improve the signaling process by helping secondary schools to prioritize what colleges actually value.

How would such a system work? Building on the IB model, presumably there would be a mixture of external assessments that would be professionally scored, coupled with interim assessments that were assessed by teachers and schools, with a sample sent to the professional scorers for quality assurance. Like IB, presumably these would be organized less around particular factual content, and more on the ability to construct projects and pieces of work that met certain standards. As is true in IB, there would likely be a more integrated form, where students who completed all requirements would receive a diploma, and a more modular form, which would enable schools to offer the equivalent of one course in some aspect of 22nd century schooling. (If this is really going to be a long-term venture; we need to shift from 21st and 22nd century skills.) Schools would pay something to the administering body for each student who participated, which would provide sustainable funding.

We also don’t have to start from scratch in developing such a system. The Coalition for Essential Schools and the various network of deeper learning schools show what this can look like in action. Digital Promise has developed some micro-credentials around deeper learning. The New York Performance Consortium has long offered a model for external assessment of project-based and other forms of inquiry learning. All of these strands could inform the creation of a new subsystem.

In fact, part of what is attractive about such a proposition is that the act of building it would force many of the best school designers in the nation and the world to work together to try to define what is most important for students of different ages to know and be able to do, as well as the range of ways students might be able to demonstrate their capacities. But rather than being an abstract debate at the level of principles or vision, these designers would need to think about what actual kids and schools might do, how these things might be assessed at a reasonable cost, and, whether these more specific ideas were reflective of the broader values.

Once started, such a system would also enable the construction of a community that was knowledgeable about this mode of learning. Newer teachers would go to trainings to learn how to teach in this way. There would be alignment between what they were learning at the trainings, what happened in their schools, and how their students were being assessed. More experienced teachers would become the assessors and would teach the trainings. Given the focus on developing learning for the future, there would be an ongoing conversation about whether and how the assessments might be updated or refined, which would create a space for intelligent yet practical discussion of the nature of 22nd century learning.

So, who might launch such a venture? High Tech High is the obvious hub for the American part of the subsystem--they have a network of schools that do this kind of learning and a graduate school of education steeped in this philosophy, and they already run a very successful conference that serves as the current meeting place for American educators interested in deeper learning. But they would just be the hub--creating this new diploma can and should marshal the talents of many talented educators from different schools and networks across the United States and the world.

Indeed, as with IB, there is no reason such a system should be limited to the United States. I was recently at an international learning convening in Shanghai, and every country had a 21st century skills working group, trying to figure out how to integrate modern imperatives into their century old systems. The demand for certification of deeper learning might even be greater abroad, especially if the credentials were highly regarded by American colleges.

Someday, we are all going to be in the ground. We will leave behind the children we have raised, and the students we have taught. But in terms of systemic change, if we stop at building good schools which may fizzle under the next principal or passing policies which may be undone by the next election, we are devoting lots of time to things which may not last. By contrast, approaches like Montessori, International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and others have long out-lived their founders, introducing generations of students and their teachers to educational approaches that are coherent and carefully conceived around a set of principles and values. If we value the important over the urgent, building such a system for deeper learning is a project worth engaging in.

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