American schools were designed for a world that no longer exists — a standardized model of education that prepared students for a factory economy. To succeed in today’s dynamic global economy, young people need different skills and mindsets that the factory model was not designed to foster. A focus on student-centered, innovative approaches is taking root in schools across the country.
This brief makes the case for a more student-centered system of education and provides a blueprint for how to get there with a suite of policy options to assist in making this transformation.
THE PROBLEM: A SYSTEM OF EDUCATION DESIGNED FOR A DIFFERENT TIME
America’s system of education was designed for a world that no longer exists. It was created more than a century ago to accommodate a transition from rural farm life to a 20th century economy where most workers would find employment in factories in urban centers.
We have inherited this system, which is based on a standardized “factory” model. Teachers are given an age-group cohort of children at the beginning of each school year, a standardized curriculum, and a matching set of assessments. Despite teachers’ best efforts to individualize along lines of difference, opportunities to tailor the content, pace, and method of instruction are limited. Students are expected to work with their assigned material and move along with their age cohort as the years pass. Grading and other assessment tools are designed primarily to assess the results of learning, rather than to improve learning as it happens.From education reimagined
This one-size-fits-all arrangement may have worked well for much of the 20th century, when white-collar jobs required employees who could follow strict schedules and instructions, who would not deviate from expectations, and who toiled away at repetitive tasks that can now be performed on a smartphone in a fraction of the time. In fact, there were entire professions of skilled workers who sat in rooms doing mathematical calculations over and over again. They were called computers.
The world has changed dramatically. Instead of a workplace that needs employees who can work independently for long periods of time, remember details and execute specific directions, and repeat simple tasks over and over, the modern workplace requires individuals who are able to collaborate across multiple teams, make decisions and solve problems with critical thinking, and effectively communicate with a variety of audiences (Tavenner, Diane (2019). Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life (pp. 19-20).)
THE SOLUTION: A SYSTEM REDESIGNED WITH THE STUDENT AT THE CENTER
Despite the challenges, a focus on student-centered, innovative approaches is taking root in schools, districts, and states across the country. But shifting the paradigm from a school-centered model to a student-centered model requires reimagining what education could be, and changing the laws, policies, and customs that prevent innovators from realizing a modern system of education.
Create a vision statement. Transitioning an education system from a factory model to a student-centered model requires long-term commitment and alignment of stakeholders. States will be well-served by creating a clear vision statement that reestablishes the purpose of education and allows schools, districts, and educators to apply their day-to-day efforts toward realizing this vision of student-centered education.
Create a mechanism for schools and districts to apply for flexibilities and regulatory waivers. It’s nearly impossible to construct a student-centered system of education within a system of rules and regulations designed for a factory model. Often, policies surrounding funding, assessment, calendars, staffing, reporting, and many other areas impede innovation. Thus, a mechanism for flexibility from state- and district-level policies is needed. States can tackle this in a variety of ways. Here are just a few:
- Review statutes and rules and eliminate outdated and unnecessary requirements.
- Create a system to allow schools, districts, and even educators to apply for regulatory waivers.
- Create innovation zones where schools and/or districts can be approved for greater flexibilities from outdated requirements in an effort to innovate.
Move away from arbitrary seat-time requirements. Most education systems are organized around specific requirements related to the number of hours (or even minutes) a student receives in a day, week, and school year. These requirements usually influence funding, staffing, and other core areas that serve as an obstacle to innovative approaches.
Shift to competency-based education, which focuses on mastery of concepts and skills, regardless of time, place, and pace. This effort will likely require states, districts, and schools to rethink traditional practices such as grouping children by age, organizing content by grade-level and subject area, and funding based on seat time.
Align college and university requirements. As primary and secondary education moves to more mastery-based models, a key challenge will be to ensure that postsecondary institutions view such transcripts in a way that does not put students at a disadvantage compared to student’s transcripts that feature traditional elements like grade point average, class rank, and course completion within the context of a standardized course list.
Rethink standards and assessment policies. A persistent barrier to innovation in education is a focus on end-of-year summative tests that are based on traditionally defined courses. These systems perpetuate age-based cohorts and prevent education leaders from creating learning environments that better meet children’s interests and passions.
Reimagine the school day and week. Customs around the days, hours, and months that children are required to sit in classrooms are largely manifestations of habit. However, schools around the country are experimenting with new models, such as four-day school weeks that allow students to pursue self-directed learning on the fifth day, year-round schooling, and more extended learning opportunities.
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