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Barber on the Future of Education

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The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) commissioned the Brightlines team led by Sir Michael Barber (@michaelbarber9) to consider the future of education in Massachusetts. The New Opportunity to Lead is a comprehensive 120-page report that sets out an agenda for the next 20 years, beyond the Common Core and standards-based reform.

The report opens with the prerequisite vignette of how everything works better and is more flexibile for students and teachers. It includes a nod to Fullan's six C's: character, citizenship, communication, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, and creativity and imagination.

The problem statement is formulated as six gaps:

  1. Employability gap between what the economy demands and what the school system produces.
  2. Knowledge gap between what a 21st century American needs to know and what graduates of the school system actually know.
  3. The achievement gap between white students and under-represented minorities.
  4. The opportunity gap between children from the well-off and children of low income families.
  5. The global gap between domestic performance and top performing education systems in the world.
  6. The top talent gap between top performing students and students in the best-performing education systems in the world.

For a state that has been a top performer, the report notes that "recent data suggests there has been a deceleration in the rate of improvement and Massachusetts has not kept pace with the rate of improvement seen in other countries." This may provide some motivation for the Bay State, but the recommendations are applicable for every state.

Barber's three-part recipe includes whole system reform, systemic innovation, and effective implementation:

  1. Apply the whole-system reform change knowledge. The basics include high standards, assessments, supported teachers, strong principals, and a state education authority that is driver of quality rather than enforcers of compliance.
  2. Simultaneously developing a 'systemic innovation agenda. Systems need to become more adept at constantly generating, identifying and scaling innovation and creating a culture which supports this innovation.
  3. Focus on effective implementation. The author of Deliverology says high fidelity implementation is "the biggest challenge of all."

That's easier said than done—and it's not fully tested, but the first country/region to enact the formula "will surely not just improve faster than others; it will generate the capacity to sustain improvement and the resilience to adapt to changes in the external environment."

The rest of the report is organized around specific recommendations outlined below.

World class standards, curriculum, assessment and student pathways. Barber outlined his goals framework:

Well Educated = E(K+T+L)

Where K is knowledge & skills, T is critical thinking, L is leadership and the ability to influence, and E is ethical framework. Design principles likely to support these goals include:

  • learning anywhere and anytime
  • personalized approaches to teaching
  • students taking more responsibility for learning
  • learning should be competency-based

While blended-learning models can be relatively quickly adopted, a complete competency-based system will take more time. The report says, "Moving towards these new models of student-centered learning is a major change, and may take a decade or more to achieve." (See iNACOL's CompetencyWorks for more)

Key to "a shift to student-centered learning" is a shift from assessment for accountability purposes to a primary use to "inform day-to-day decisions."

Like a recent Petrilli blog , Barber and team suggest a two track system with "two particular pathways: one is for students inclined to opt for a vocational route, and the other for top-performing students. These recommendations make me nervous about early tracking of low income and minority youth into lower expectation CTE tracks. I like the idea that "as students moved towards graduation, the school [is] a place where learning and work seemed to merge."

A description of high school circa 2030 includes lots of online options (see DLN recommendations) along with some silly stuff like hologram lecturers. I would have appreciated more on next-gen guidance systems (watch for a DLN paper on this soon).

Future delivery system. Barber and team urge "incentives for a variety of school models" and encouragement for schools to work in networks, "All schools in Massachusetts should be part of at least one school improvement network or cluster." (See similar recommendations here).

The report (on page 46) urges expansion of charter schools and adoption of portfolio strategies. An interesting (but vague/safe) recommendation is for "the state establish and fund a new competition to promote innovative proposals for district redesign and reform." Governance recommendations also include a shift in focus of the state from performance rather than compliance.

World class teachers and leaders. The report has some practical advice about improving teacher preparation with more of "focus on clinical practice" and opening up the field to "a more diverse range of teacher preparation providers."

One of the most interesting contributions of the report is a proposed "Grand Bargain Between the State and Teachers":

  • State commitment to maintaining or enhancing the overall funding of the school system over a five-to-ten year period, contingent on the implementation of reforms below.
  • A new approach to funding which is fair and ensures that a much greater proportion of the funding is devolved to school level, thus reducing bureaucracy and ensuring much more discretion over allocation of funds for teachers and principals.
  • Appropriate basic compensation based on benchmarking with other professions, and extra reward for extra contribution.
  • Career progression based on demonstrated competence, drawing on peer review and evidence of impact on students, not time served.
  • Regular surveys of teacher, parent and student commitment and satisfaction which enable comparison across districts.
  • Explicit rewards for innovation or for those within teaching who make a contribution beyond their school, especially in the lowest income communities.
  • Active involvement of teachers in key processes of the state education system, such as assessing students' fitness to practice at the end of a teacher preparation program.
  • An expectation that every teacher or principal who wished to reach the top levels of the profession would serve significant time in more challenging locations.
  • Increased learning time for students and increased time for all teachers to participate in collaborative professional development built into the working day, week and year.
  • The opportunity for a longer working day and year in return for higher pay.
  • The opportunity for higher teacher compensation in return for reduced pension entitlement.
  • Performance assessment and same criteria for expansion, intervention and closure.
  • Public Engagement - active management of parental feedback and concerns, greater transparency and information and a public schedule for school closings and openings.

Unleashing innovation. While not the strongest section, the innovation chapter includes thoughtful recommendations including:

  • A state contribution to technological infrastructure and capacity;
  • An NGLC-like new school fund combine technology and pedagogy; and
  • An Innovation Collaborative of educators, EdTech innovators, and investors.

The report nods toward mobile, social, game-based and adaptive learning.

Closing the opportunity gap. The report urges universal preschool; weighted funding for schools to support extended time in schools serving low income students; and Personal Opportunity Plans--an out-of-school learning bank account for low income families.

Funding. The report includes a solid section on school finance. It recommends transparent, weighted funding that rewards success. (See DLN paper Funding Options, Students, and Achievement for a longer discussion.)

Every chapter includes recommendations for 2016 and 2020. The report is a useful framing of the conversation that should be occurring in every state capital and on every school board.


Digital Learning Now is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. Tom is a director of iNACOL.

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