Education Week - January 6, 2016 - (Page 26)
To Change Education, Change the Message
By Ron Wolk
n September, Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, committed $50 million
to be shared by winners of a competition to redesign
the American high school. The effort, known as XQ:
The Super School Project, is an open call to students,
teachers, and policymakers-anyone who thinks
she or he may have a good idea-to rethink the core
qualities that have defined high school education for
decades, such as testing, grade levels, and school schedules.
Proposals for the future of public high schools are accepted
online and, by next fall, a team of judges will select five of the
best ideas and support them for the next five years.
Commendable as Powell Jobs' intention is, the grant does
not address the real problem. Hundreds of innovative and
successful high schools across the country are already succeeding, often with the most disadvantaged students. Combined, they incorporate all the innovative and best practices
needed to completely transform the American high school.
Unfortunately, they have virtually no impact on the nation's roughly 24,500 public high schools because most school
boards, principals, and teachers have either never heard of
them or are not interested in emulating them. And five new,
innovative models are not likely to change that.
Even if, by some miracle, school districts rushed to adopt
innovative models of high school, most would continue to do
a mediocre job. No matter how good they are, high schools
can make little progress as long as a majority of their students arrive without having learned to read for comprehension, without having discovered the magic of mathematics,
without having their curiosity nourished, and without having
learned to use their minds well. That will be the case until we
address education as one system from kindergarten through
high school graduation.
We might accomplish that if Powell Jobs and some of her
wealthy peers were to pony up, say, a billion dollars or so, not
to improve schools but to change the way Americans think
about education-especially those who shape and make
Large sums of money have not done much to improve
schools, as demonstrated by Walter Annenberg's $500 million
in the 1990s and Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million a few years
ago. But well-funded, sustained public campaigns-against
littering, smoking, and drunk driving, for example-have
changed attitudes and behavior.
Those were single-issue battles more easily addressed
than the many complex issues that plague public education.
Changing public perceptions of education would be much
more challenging, but not impossible. Remember, 50 governors and business CEOs held a few education summits in
the 1990s and forged the strategy of standards and testing
that has dominated the reform movement ever since. With big
grants from major foundations, they organized an intensive
campaign and successfully persuaded virtually every state
to adopt high academic standards and rigorous standardized
Standards-based accountability not only has failed to accomplish its goals, it makes even more necessary (and more
difficult) an effort to convince the public and its leaders that
a new strategy is desperately needed. A multi-year national
campaign is probably the only way to accomplish that.
The timing for such an effort is about as good now as it's
ever been. The Common Core State Standards have generated significant concern and resistance. The accompanying
new, computer-based tests have been especially controversial,
and thousands of students, with their parents' approval, are
defiantly refusing to take them. The harshness and rigidity of
the No Child Left Behind Act and the strategy of standardsbased accountability have sapped morale and eroded public
confidence in schools. The recently passed successor to No
Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA,
might help when it's fully in place in the 2017-18 school year,
but I am not optimistic.
Powell Jobs' challenge to "reimagine" education recognizes
that the existing system is stuck in the last century and must
be totally redesigned. Obviously, efforts to improve traditional
schools must continue, but simultaneously we must embark
on a new strategy.
That is the message that a sustained campaign would
broadcast into every home and office in the United States. It
should begin with a question:
What kind of education system do we need if we are to cope
effectively with the enormous variety among the more than
50 million students in public schools and prepare them for a
works for computers,
not for children."
rapidly changing future?
Hundreds of innovative schools across the nation are already responding to that question.
Their answer is simple and stunningly obvious: Personalize
These schools start with each student where he or she is
and proceed from there with a personal learning plan tailored for that student. That's how medicine is practiced. The
physician diagnoses each patient and prescribes a specific
treatment. If medicine were practiced the way education is,
the physician might step into a crowded waiting room and
proclaim: "Today is Wednesday, so you're all going to get a
shot of penicillin." Batch processing works for computers, not
When education is personalized, virtually everything in the
traditional school begins to change.
ontent standards dictating all the knowledge that every student needs to be
deemed educated are replaced by competencies, such as being able to read a nonfiction article and understand it sufficiently
to explain it to others; or, demonstrating
the ability to reason quantitatively when
analyzing and solving problems.
In a competency-based system, time becomes the variable
and learning the constant. Students must demonstrate mastery of a competency before earning credit and moving to
the next, more challenging competency; some will achieve
mastery faster than others.
When time becomes the variable, age-level grading and inflexible schedules make no sense. Students progress at their
own pace through the various subjects, so a student may
master competencies in history more quickly than he does
in science, or in math more quickly than she does in English.
In a personalized education system, where time is the
variable, and mastery of competencies demonstrates progress in learning, students are at different levels of competency. Their learning should be assessed continually with
teacher-designed tests; on their individual performance and
the quality of their work-which they present in exhibitions,
portfolios, and performances. Standardized testing is inappropriate and ineffective.
Teachers in a personalized, competency-based system be-
26 | EDUCATION WEEK | January 6, 2016 | www.edweek.org/go/commentary
come advisers whose main task is to help individual students reach their educational objectives. Instructing rows
of students in a classroom is largely replaced by students
working alone or in small groups simultaneously under the
supervision of advisers and with their guidance and help.
Unlike existing content standards, competencies must be
linked to the real world in which their mastery is relevant.
Internships provide such a link, as do projects that involve
students in real-world situations where they address real
issues and construct useful knowledge that they won't forget
by the end of summer. The mantra is: Learning occurs anytime, anywhere, and should continue for a lifetime.
Learning out of school requires the assistance of the community; mentors and tutors work with students in projects
and internships, and institutions (like courts, museums, and
businesses) open their doors to students. Work and performance are assessed by advisers, mentors, and supervisors,
not by standardized tests.
In a personalized and competency-based system, students
take more responsibility for their own education and, therefore, must have more choice and more voice in decisionmaking. When students reach their teen years, they should be
able to choose from multiple educational/career pathways
that make optimum use of their talents and lead to their
personal objectives-and standards must be tailored to the
Selling the idea of personalized, competency-based schools
won't be easy. These are not the kinds of schools most Americans attended. They are not the kinds of schools that teachers are taught to teach in. To slightly paraphrase Theodore
Sizer, who worked all of his life to change schools: The reason
nothing important changes in education is because if one
significant change is made, everything would have to change.
That is too scary a prospect for most people.
A well-funded campaign to change the way the public
thinks about education will have to allay that fear and
overcome many vested interests. Otherwise, that "rising tide
of mediocrity," which has continued to swell for more than
three decades, may well become a tsunami. n
RON WOLK is the founding editor of Education Week and the chair
emeritus of its nonprofit parent company, Editorial Projects in Education.
He is a former vice president of Brown University and the author of
Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can
Do About It (ASCD, 2011). The views in this essay are his own.
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - January 6, 2016
Education Week - January 6, 2016
News in Brief
Wash. Ruling Could Inspire Charter Opponents Elsewhere
As New SAT Looms, Anxious Students Ramp Up Testing
Digital Directions: U.S. Ed-Tech Plan Calls Attention to ‘Digital-Use Divide’
Standards for Principals’ Bosses Sharpen Focus on Role
Blogs of the Week
High Stakes in Union-Fee Case Before Supreme Court
New K-12 Law Adds to Buzz as State Legislatures Set to Convene
Ed. Dept. Budget Sees Slight Boost In FY 2016 Deal
Blogs of the Week
Amanda VanDerHeyden, Matthew Burns, Rachel Brown, Mark R. Shinn, Stevan Kukic, Kim Gibbons, Ggeorge Batsche, & W. David Tilly: RTI Works (When It Is Implemented Correctly)
Ron Wolk: To Change Education, Change the Message
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Paul Herdman: As Feds Step Back, The First State Steps Up
Education Week - January 6, 2016