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Aurora Institute

A Rare Opportunity to Shape the Future of Education in Communities and States Across America

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Harness Opportunities in ESSA

This blog first appeared on the New Mexico Center for School Leadership on February 2, 2017. 

With a new federal K-12 education law in the United States passed, the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), it is a historic time in public education.  The power has shifted back to state and local systems to plan, design and strengthen public education for each and every student in the future.

One of the most important functions of state and local governments is K-12 education. It is the linchpin of our democracy. It provides the pathways forward so every student can achieve success in their future.

What is Possible under the New Federal Law?

Every state has the opportunity to rethink education and design a new plan, a new path forward in partnership with communities in deciding what the goals, values and principles should be and addressing a wider range of skills that students need. In the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to launch conversations with communities and stakeholders across the state to envision a broader definition of student success — one that takes into account community, family and students’ needs to be prepared for an increasingly complex future. The opportunities for states are vast — they could potentially use this opportunity to align K-12, higher education and workforce needs by creating pathways that are learner-centered and focus on competencies toward qualifications that matter. States will submit their plans to the U.S. Department of Education later this year.

Power Back to States: What Are Your Goals and Visions for the Future?

Are we ready to leave the past behind and move beyond a system designed to ensure only a few students have proficiency, that students advance with large gaps in knowledge rather than asked to demonstrate mastery before advancing, thus ensuring that only some students had the requisite skills for college, higher education and certain careers while others would be stuck in low wage jobs or underskilled. This old model of one-size-fits-all education which doesn’t prepare all of our students to have the skills they need to think, communicate, learn throughout their lives, and contribute positively to society is completely out of touch with the world we live in today and the needs of society and communities.

The new federal law shifts the power back to the states — No Child Left Behind is no more.  It is a historic time to discuss a new vision and build understanding of what the goals are that matter most to communities, families and students for our education systems and the governments that oversee them.  Only then can we begin to identify how we can create mutual accountability for our systems that is balanced, reciprocal and builds trust in our institutions and our people. We have the chance to develop better, fairer (multiple) measures to support our educators on the front line teaching and learning while at the same time ensuring there is transparency to hold ourselves accountable for the resources and supports needed to ensure every student succeeds.

The goal of policy is to ask for a strategy that is future-focused. We can ask, “what might this look like?” It offers an opportunity for communities to lead conversations about what a student should know and be able to do at graduation and the opportunity to identify the measures that make sense for the state, districts and schools to provide more transparency in the system to ensure we are doing what is best for all students and improve every step of the way in creating a new system for accountability. Are we making progress at closing the achievement gaps for all students, are we able to accelerate and raise the bar for learning for all students, are we able to pinpoint needs and offer resources and supports that make a difference. Do we have safe schools? How do we know when we are successful?  How do we know a high school diploma is meaningful and offers the qualification to describe the competencies, skills and knowledge needed for the next level of learning and employment?

These are big conversations that states are having — and crucial.

This is a long way from the one-size-fits-all model under the last law, the No Child Left Behind Act, which was a necessary step to change the conversation around accountability and data.  But now, instead of blunt instruments and a one-size-fits-all assessment offered as an “autopsy” of learning once a year — there are many nuanced opportunities that can and should be driven by our conversations. There is a calling for new ideas and how we might implement plans with renewed purpose and goals including building a reciprocal structure, aligned to do what is best for students, driven by shared responsibility between communities, districts, schools and the state’s vision.  How can we design a system that recognizes the unmet needs from the past and makes the continuous changes needed with support and building trust?

Engaged communities are helping to create breakthrough models through educators and students engaging in social entrepreneurship — creating pathways tied to building competencies, skills and knowledge for future success in college and careers.

There are opportunities to rethink education toward personalized pathways that meet the graduation requirements while offering meaningful and powerful learning experiences in internships, in the community, in volunteer work, in after school programs and in helping society.  Unpacking our curriculum standards and identifying the competencies needed will allow each student to have a personalized and meaningful pathway to meeting their goals for future education and employment. Are we designing our schools for future human excellence?  Are experiences for learning culturally responsive, socially embedded, meaningful and relevant to the world we live in? Are we preparing young people for the future and with the ability to flourish?

Finally, there are multiple forms of assessments allowed under the Every Student Succeeds Act and they can be useful for educators and students to know where every student is in their learning, what comes next, and how they are making progress against clear learning targets and building competency. This transparency can inform accountability, where supports and resources are needed, and, be directly tied to student-centered learning — transforming the system to learner-centered models. Can we design a system which can innovate, be transparent, and ensure we are supporting our educators to lead the new designs and utilize the research on how students learn best? Can we begin offering personalized pathways and competency-based models with evidence of what students know and can do through different ways of showing what they know?  New interdisciplinary approaches to teaching subjects in projects that span inside and outside of school are one way that students are building a broader range of skills, knowledge and competence for the future. There are many other models for next generation learning offering better personalization for students’ needs.

Global Education Systems are Transforming

There are nations around the globe advancing broader ideas around what it means for student success at graduation, redesigning curriculum and instruction, and asking how to innovate for equity, open our minds to new concepts to better support educators and students in personalizing learning, and move toward broader goals that matter for students, families and communities.

One last note . . . there is a 700 page report by the OECD on best practices on assessment and accountability titled, Synergies for Better Learning: An International Perspective on Evaluation and Assessment.  The author explained to me, there are models of assessment for learning across the globe that focus on system improvement, accountability for children and families, and building capacity of educators to modernize learning in the 21st century.  And not one is doing what the US is doing right now. Most advanced education systems moved away from norm-referenced testing decades ago, and they are never going back.”

This is about supporting public education in America. This isn’t about taking the current traditional system and pitting districts versus charters. It is about reimagining all of K-12 education for our communities, our states and our future society.

Will we take this historic opportunity and drive the future of learning with the chance we have to engage communities in a discussion on what high school graduation should mean in the future and what the goals are for our education systems?  Or will we wait until the “next time” the entire education system might be “unfrozen” again?

Recommended Reading:
  • The End of Average (book by Todd Rose)
  • One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined (book by Sal Khan)
  • The Rhetoric and The Reality (book by David Hood)

You can find Susan Patrick on Twitter at @susandpatrick