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The Type of Schools We Need

This week, you'll be hearing from guest blogger, and longtime reader favorite, Heather Harding. Heather is the director of policy and public understanding at the Schusterman Foundation. Previously, she worked in various senior roles for Teach for America and the Gates Foundation. She'll be discussing how to improve teacher quality as a tool for equity—drawing on her experiences as a scholar, reformer, and parent.

A couple years ago, Emerson Collective issued a big, flashy school-redesign challenge. It began with a competition called XQ, the Super School Project, and has evolved into a network working to redesign high schools. I admired the concept, but had so many questions: Who had the conditions that would allow for such dreaming? Even with generous financial resources (the prize offered $10 million over five years), what would people do differently if given the chance? Were adults in the system really ready to listen to student voices on this project? Did they even recognize their own voices enough?

There was significant energy leading up to the competition, but also skepticism from many. I didn't follow how the story ended, but the website for XQ has an impressive set of resources. More important than the outcome, the project reminded me that we don't dream often enough in education. We have been mired in the current system as opposed to really pushing the limits of what is possible. At this particular moment in our country's history, we need to lean in to this project of dreaming big. Let's not tinker, let's not reform, let's transform.

In order to transform, there are four systemic elements we must address:

  1. School funding. It makes no sense that we are funding compulsory, public education using inequitable funding mechanisms. Despite our country's love of local control, property taxes, and local and state formulas, the current system has failed to provide an adequate education to some students. We need a system that is more responsive to the changing demographics and needs of our citizenry, and a fair and transparent way of funding that recognizes and balances the needs of the overall community and the individual needs of students. Some students are disadvantaged when they enter the schoolhouse door, and schools should ensure that they all can be productive citizens in our democracy and workforce—which will look different for each student.
  2. School as an inputs game versus an outputs game. School is where students can build skills, acquire knowledge, and be directed and supported in their ongoing growth through life. School is not credit hours, seat time, grades, and bells. If we thought about the work that school is doing more than the structure that school has become, we might re-consider the complicated system of regulations that governs schools and systems.
  3. Multiculturalism and diversity as a given. The US has never been a White-only country, despite how power has aggregated and presented itself. The year 2045 is approaching, when people of color will outnumber Whites. But we're all still Americans in the colloquial sense. It's time to get smarter about how to balance pluralism with true acceptance and acknowledgement of our differences. This will require schools to do more in terms of knowledge acquisition, but if we don't do it, it will be at our peril (see our current political reality as evidence).
  4. Shared accountability. A policy win of the last couple decades is that accountability systems have privileged learning outcomes. We can argue over the means, metrics, and weights, but it was time we moved from a model focused on completion to one that requires mastery and knowledge. The problem we still face is that many of the accountability structures we built were not inclusive and overemphasize things that are not fully representative of what families want. We have to keep pressing on this issue.

Considering these four elements, I want to tell you about the school I've been dreaming about. I think it's important to begin with a love of teachers, because the teachers I know do work that is challenging, complex, innovative, and nurturing.

We need schools that have diverse roles that leverage teachers' individual talents. We've all encountered teachers that build strong relationships with students. They are the un-official counselors and deans of students, and they provide mentorship, counsel, and motivation to students. Other teachers are masterful at designing and implementing lessons that unlock the mysteries of content. They lecture for just the right amount of time, and follow it up with the kind of engaging activity that keeps kids talking later that night at the dinner table. We need to shift away from teacher roles that "do it all" and design roles that maximize individual strengths.

Schools must also figure out ways to assess foundational skills and knowledge in reading and numeracy, so that students can move into the type of learning where they are in the driver's seat. Everyone talks about third-grade reading as the transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." We need standards for these types of transitions in all subjects that help us move students into that driver's seat.

Further, as we've known for years, these transitions aren't age-bound in strict ways. I'd love to see us eschew hard and fast grade groupings and schedules that do a great disservice to treating teachers like professionals. No teacher should need permission to go to the bathroom. This shift toward students taking control of their learning would allow teachers to have more flexible schedules and hopefully facilitate greater retention in the profession.

I know that many educators are working through these ideas—piece by piece, day by day. It seems like a good time to pool our dreams and work systemically to push for transformation now.

Heather Harding

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