Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ten REALLY Bold Ways to Transform US Education

I'm not a reformer. It's not that things don't need to change-it's that they need to change in such massive ways that "reform" doesn't even begin to touch it. I'm not a policy wonk or researcher either, but I do admire those who focus on the stats and the details of what is working (and what isn't) and who write about what might be done to improve schools based on the evidence. I appreciate that we need to know some facts in order to make informed decisions.
So, I guess I'm approaching the education issue from a more practical and intuitive position. For years, I've been teaching people how to pay attention, and I follow my own advice about cultivating awareness and watching what's going on in the world around me.
Simply paying attention is what led my husband and me to sell everything a few years ago (at the top of the market), yank our kids out of their suburban US high school and give them a truly global education. (And trust me, we are not the slightest bit rabid about politics, economics or education-we just saw that there were some changes coming and we wanted to give our kids and ourselves an advantage.)
My four kids who have attended a total of ten public schools in the US, not to mention numerous colleges-both state and private, American and international. I've lived in several states and countries and witnessed other approaches to education, and while writing my book, I interviewed a lot of experts about their ideas for implementing change. And as the CEO of Education Design Partners and founder of the Education Design Institute, I'm committed to helping people think about education in new and innovative ways and I recognize our need to focus on a micro one-student-at-a-time model rather than propose sweeping changes that have no chance of being implemented anytime soon.
Still, sweeping changes are fun to think about. Now, I know that for each suggestion I offer, there are probably ten reasons why it can't be done. We all have knee-jerk reactions to new ideas, so I invite you to pay attention to your own response and see if you might be missing a little nugget of hope buried in each suggestion. None of these ideas are mentioned in my book, by the way, and I wouldn't even say they are my most key ideas. But they happen to be the ones I'm thinking about this week as we look ahead to a new year and a new administration.
If you're really hungry for change, here are a few things to chew on....
1) Make kindergarten, first and second grades completely devoted to arts education.
This doesn't mean finger-painting all day-it means following an established and effective curriculum for arts education that incorporates all aspects of art in the teaching of traditional subjects. From five to seven years of age, kids are sponges just waiting to soak up ideas, and this is a perfect time to immerse them in a stimulating creative environment that encourages innovation and celebrates the natural artist within each of us. That may sound woo-woo, but it's not-arts education is a perfect foundation for higher level thinking, and rather than parcel it out an hour here and an hour there throughout elementary school, we need to give kids a chance to dive in when they are ripe to reap the benefits. Test (and present a portfolio) at the end of the second grade.
Note: the details matter. Have them wear artist smocks over their regular clothes. Creating the mindset of being an artist and approaching all subjects through the lens of art and creativity will provide a powerful mechanism for problem solving later in life.
2) Make third, fourth and fifth grades completely devoted to technology.
Again, this doesn't mean they are typing on a computer keyboard all day and mastering programming. It means that all subjects taught-math, language arts, science, social studies-incorporate technology, including laptops, Ipods, cell phones, digital cameras and more. Get them so comfortable with integrating tech tools into their studies that they see absolutely no barriers to the ways in which they can absorb, create and distribute their work. Teach them how to mix sedentary time with activity-these are the years to build good habits about health and exercise so they don't end up glued to a screen and neglecting their bodies. Test (and present a portfolio of multi-media work) at the end of the fifth grade.
NOTE: Have them wear uniforms that are essentially nice sweats. This helps them remember the need for movement and allows them to see themselves as individuals who can be active despite spending a lot of time using tech tools.
3) Where feasible, offer two-way language immersion programs in elementary schools.
We've got an increasing number of students who don't speak English as a native language, and we're packing them into ESL classes. Meanwhile, we recognize the need for more kids to learn a foreign language. Why are we separating the two? There are excellent models for two-way immersion-classrooms that include both a regular teacher and an ESL teacher and a mix of kids. When done right, two-way immersion gives ALL kids a chance to improve their language skills and results in both fluency and a deeper respect for different cultures and languages. Obviously, this would work best in districts/classrooms in which one foreign language is dominant-Spanish, for example. Why are we not giving our kids a chance to teach each other? The early years of elementary are the perfect time to start.
4) Make sixth, seventh and eighth grades completely devoted to science and math.
Other subjects will be incorporated, but the main focus should be on developing competency and fluidity in manipulating the most basic elements of math, biology, chemistry and physics. Since the kids have already learned how to ask questions from an artistic perspective and are very familiar with incorporating technology tools in their learning process, they're primed to leap into math and science and really develop a solid grasp of these subjects and how they enhance understanding in other areas. Test (and present research) at the end of the eighth grade.
NOTE: Make them wear white lab coats. (Yes, teachers, too.) This is done in numerous countries and it sets the tone and creates the mindset that science is studied, research is conducted, numbers are understood-and that every student has the ability to view the world through the lens of logic and data. Oh, and since these lab coats must be closed (buttoned or zipped) and go to the knees, those bare midriff/inappropriate t-shirt/designer logo issues disappear completely just when they're starting to cause problems. Whew!
5) Make ninth and tenth grades completely devoted to literature/writing and social sciences.
Students at this age should focus on the fundamentals of reading, critical thinking, and developing an understanding of the social, political and economic forces at work in the world. This should be a hard-core period of high expectations (not necessarily rigorous testing!) for each student and an emphasis on maximizing each student's ability to write clearly and express ideas. Their previous focus on science will serve them well as they will be familiar with presenting a hypothesis, testing a theory and sharing conclusions. Test (and present an in-depth report) at the end of the tenth grade.
NOTE: Make them wear school uniforms-typical preppy stuff. This is their time to see how they do in a very academic setting emphasizing liberal arts. Whether they are college-bound or not, it's very important that they see themselves as students who can understand the world and speak and write about it coherently.
6) Make 11th grade completely devoted to teaching students how to learn outside the classroom.
Get them OUT. Send them abroad (much more in my book about why this is the very best time to do this) on an exchange. Get them working or volunteering. Connect them with mentors in the community. Give them unpaid internships. Make them take several writing classes online (in which they are analyzing what they are experiencing and learning) and come to the high school two days a week (if they're in the area) for class discussions and group work. The goal here is to challenge them in ways that ensure they will develop confidence in their ability to learn wherever they are and the responsibility to balance freedom with high expectations. This is outstanding training for the global workplace.
7) Make them take community college classes during what would be their senior year of high school.
High school is too long. Students are being kept in a juvenile setting that stunts their growth and limits their thinking. At 17, they need to be learning in a more adult environment (that is, a mix of students their age plus adults) and they should be focusing on an area that interests them based on their experiences the previous year. By 18, they should have at least a year's worth of college credits (two if they've been motivated to take additional classes on their own) and can transfer to a four-year university as a sophomore or junior or continue a little longer to earn an associate's degree or study in their area of interest.
One of the biggest reasons we have such a low college graduation rate is that it takes too long. Universities encourage the four-or-five-year plan when it would be better for most students to finish in three years. Students who are encouraged to dive into higher ed at a younger age (from 16) can see the end in sight and are more likely to complete a degree than those who spend their junior and senior years of high school prepping for college and still have four more years to go. This leads to the next idea....
8) Eliminate the long summer vacation at all levels.
Seriously, it's time to get rid of this archaic idea of taking ten or twelve weeks off in the summer. It breaks up learning, eliminates gains, and results in an extended education period that is clearly defeating students from elementary school through college. If we no longer have summer breaks and shift to a set of three or four two-week vacations per year, and if we focus on presenting clear learning blocks (arts, technology, science, language arts/social sciences, experiential learning/mentoring), we can get kids immersed, keep them engaged and allow them to finish up by the age of 16. After that, they move into higher level learning in their areas of interest and get a head start on courses that allow them to develop the skills they need.
9) Eliminate high school sports and activities.
Hoo-boy, I can hear the crowd already! But we've got to get rid of this outdated model and stop viewing high school as a Disney musical or teen movie. Get them learning like crazy in ninth and tenth grades and excited to blast out into the world! Which leads to....
10) Turn high schools into community centers.
We'll have the space if the juniors and seniors are spending more time on experiential learning, internships, online courses and college-level classes. Use the fields for mixed-age intramural-type sports and other activities. Use the classrooms for adult education (community college partnerships could work beautifully here) in academic and vocational courses as well as recreational non-credit classes.
With more boomers and retirees shifting to second (or third or fourth) careers in social entrepreneurship, these new community centers could become laboratories for creative collaboration as well as providing students with great opportunities for internships in a range of organizations. Bring them all together in the school and give kids an opportunity to find mentors at an age when they need to forge relationships with adults who can inspire them. Keeping sixteen-year-olds surrounded by sixteen-year-olds in a juvenile setting is a recipe for arrested development, and it's being played out in the form of 25-year-olds who just can't quite get it together. They need opportunities to spend time with adults and get a sense of their possibilities early on, and our efforts to shove them into the college-prep system is resulting in boredom and burn out just when they should be on fire about their future!

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