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Student-Centered Learning Can Modernize Schools

By Nicholas C. Donohue — September 06, 2016 4 min read
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Public education abounds with excitement as schools, districts, and communities work together to rethink the ways in which teaching and learning can better suit the needs and abilities of today’s youths.

They do so for good reason. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some level of postsecondary education and training, according to a 2013 projection from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

It is easy to point to peak national high school graduation rates and say that we are making great strides. Yet, when we look at whether these graduates are ready to succeed after high school, the picture is not as rosy. In April, a national study by Education Reform Now found that one in four students requires remedial coursework before beginning actual college classes, costing the student on average $3,000 in additional tuition and making them 74 percent more likely to drop out of college than their peers who do not need remediation.

"Student-Centered Learning Can Modernize Schools: Our education system isn’t broken; it’s outdated," Commentary by Nicholas Donohue. Photo by Getty.

The notion that we can “fix” our schools to create more-equitable outcomes for these students only moves us backward. It implies that our education system is broken. In reality, the system is working exactly as it was intended when public education was designed over 100 years ago. It is culling and sorting the more elite students and leaving the rest to work the factories or the farms.

We can no longer afford winners and losers in our schools. Instead, we need to redesign education in high schools to move it forward and away from that 19th-century model.

Today, schools and communities across the country are advancing a framework known as student-centered learning, which questions traditional concepts of where, when, and how learning happens. This innovative approach is not restricted to the traditional classroom. Rather than simply sitting through lectures, students use class time for interactive projects and thoughtful discourse. Learners complete internships for credit and run their own parent-teacher conferences. They advance by demonstrating understanding of material at their own pace, rather than by accruing credits based on the “seat time” they’ve endured at a desk.

Student-centered approaches are transforming the learning experience for American high schoolers. Among the districts that receive grant support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (which I lead), two different high schools offer shining examples of how student-centered approaches can be tailored to a school’s distinct needs.

With enough time to transition, schools can successfully create their own vision for what student-centered learning looks like."

With a population comprising 60 percent students of color and 80 percent students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, Revere High School in Revere, Mass., has increased achievement among students historically marginalized in our education system. Once rated in the lowest-performing 20 percent of schools by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, RHS won a High School Gold Award from the National Center for Urban School Transformation in 2014. RHS uses a flipped-classroom approach, in which students watch lectures and lessons at home. This allows them to work more closely with their peers and teachers, and it allows teachers to emphasize interaction and student-driven dialogue. In just two years, the school has become a national model for equity in education, often hosting site visits for educators and school leaders interested in making this transition.

In rural environments, these approaches are helping students who are not on track to graduate. Deer Isle-Stonington High School had the third-highest dropout rate in the state and 133 suspensions in a student population of just 167 during the 2008-09 school year. Located on a small island off the coast of Maine, the community has a maritime economy. School leaders incorporated that economy into the curriculum, providing personalized classes that have direct connections to real-world opportunities for students after graduation. As a result, the school embodies a culture of college and career readiness for all students and has seen a steady graduation rate of 85 percent over the last five years.

Revere’s flipped classrooms and Deer Isle-Stonington’s local-economy-oriented curriculum are evidence that when schools and communities are empowered to determine how student-centered learning will work best for them, they often yield the greatest results.

Recently, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation released a comprehensive analysis of student-centered approaches and practices in 12 schools across New England. The study examined common class-planning time, professional development, and community partnerships, among other practices, that encourage student-centered approaches and help manage some of the inherent challenges. Above all else, the study illustrated how, with enough time to transition, schools can successfully create their own vision for what student-centered learning looks like, strengthening teaching and learning practices inside and outside the classroom.

The transformation of our high schools will not happen overnight. But make no mistake: It will change the face of public education for the better with the help of dedicated teachers, administrators, and communities working together to equip our students with the critical-thinking and 21st-century skills needed to achieve at high levels for the rest of their lives. Our system of public education is not broken—it just serves a different purpose than it did 100 years ago. It is well past time for an upgrade.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2016 edition of Education Week as Don’t Fix High Schools, Transform Them

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