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The Legacy of Brown v. Board (2) 60 Years Later: Innovation and Schools

Note: This week, Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow in education at AEI, will be guest-blogging. He will be hosting an event on the legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education II ruling on November 3rd at AEI.

A lot has changed in American education since the Brown v. Board of Education II ruling. Schooling has gone from a legally segregated endeavor to an integrated one. Student performance for all subgroups has increased over time. Since the Brown II ruling, our schools have also seen dramatic demographic changes. The 2014-2015 school year marked the first time in our history that the majority of students enrolled in public schools were non-white.

The Brown II decision was not only a critical moment for American education in 1955, but it also continues to shape the framework for how we deliver education to over 50 million students today. As the demographics of our schools continue to change and evolve, we need entrepreneurs and educators who are able to increase access and opportunities for our students. We also need people to support these entrepreneurs and educators.

In my previous roles as Florida's commissioner of education, the secretary of education in Virginia, and the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), I've seen a lot of innovative models in K-12 education—and not so innovative ones, too. Contrary to common belief, innovative models are not limited to one sectorthere are plenty of promising models to point to in the traditional public, charter, and online learning sectors. Below are just a few worth noting.

Traditional Public Schools

  • Focusing on students at risk of dropping out, Pathways in Education is a program that partners with public school districts to offer students the opportunity to finish their high school education through independent study. The Pathways model also utilizes small group instruction, online courses, and experiential learning programs.
  • The University of Virginia's education and engineering schools, in partnership with the Charlottesville and Albemarle public school systems, created the nation's first lab school focused on advanced manufacturing technologies in 2013. This initiative encourages professors and teachers to provide a quality STEM education to middle school students.

Charter Schools

  • Boys Latin in Philadelphia, a college-prep charter school in Philadelphia, focuses on a Western humanities and Latin curriculum for its 500 students. Graduating seniors must complete an independent project as well as a yearly community service program.
  • Operating out of Southwest Atlanta, KIPP Strive Academy serves a student population that is more than 95% African-American and 75% eligible for free and reduced price lunch. The middle school has had massive success, with 100% of their 7th grade students scoring at least proficient in reading this year. The U.S. Department of Education named KIPP STRIVE one of nine Blue Ribbon Schools in 2015.

Online Learning

  • Randle Highlands Elementary School, a District of Columbia pre-K-5 public school in Ward 7, is home to a blended learning model where students rotate between learning online at computers, working in small groups, and receiving a teacher-led lesson. While 99% of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch, Randle Highlands moved almost 20% of its 5th grade students from "below proficient" to "proficient" or "advanced" on the DC CAS math assessment last year. The school's principal, Tracy Foster, points to the digital content students are using as one of the reasons for the school's success.
  • Another noteworthy model is that of Grant Beacon Middle School, a public school in Denver, Colorado. Beacon doesn't use online courses, per se, but school leaders use online learning in their blended, personalized learning environments. Teachers personalize instruction for each student's needs, and data on student learning is utilized by students, parents and teachers to help students master content. The school also uses competency-based progressions to ensure students master the standards being taught.
  • Online learning is not just helping studentsthere are also models that help teachers improve. Through an open, cloud-based program, LearnZillion aids teachers, schools and districts in tracking student progress, improving instruction and responding more fruitfully to students' needs, with teachers from all over the country contributing to LearnZillion's content. Share My Lesson allows educators to collaborate and share their teaching resources in an online community. Developed by the American Federation of Teachers and TES Connect, the platform allows over 3.6 million users to connect across 276 countries and access a variety of teaching resources and curriculums.

Today, education reform debates often tend to get framed in the "pro" or "anti" school choice camps. This delineation makes it hard to notice some of the modelsinside as well as outside the traditional public school modelthat are actually doing great things for students through smart innovations and new approaches. Although there is a long list of public, charter and online models that have expanded opportunity and access for the students the Brown decisions were intended to help, we are still preventing good models from emerging because we negatively associate "innovation" with "privatization." Instead of focusing on the method by which education is delivered, advocates and reformers should consider the benefits of each model and pursue those that create new opportunities for students and faculty.

Sixty years after the Supreme Court told the nation to dismantle its dual education system "with all deliberate speed," advocates, scholars, and practitioners still wrestle with a host of policy issues. To meet the promise of Brown and provide an opportunity for every student to succeed, we need to be willing to consider any method and model of schooling that can make educational opportunity a reality for all. This will happen through a commitment to innovation, technology, and policies that empower educators to teach, parents to choose, and entrepreneurs to invent.

--Gerard Robinson

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