Anyone who has spent time during the last decade or so working for the betterment of American public education will tell you the same thing:
It’s ugly out there, and you’re going to need to pick a side.
Four years ago, I wrote about this in an article titled, “Let’s End the Battle of the Edu-Tribes.” At the time, the two main camps in the #edreform wars each had their own clearly identifiable titular head: For the New-Schoolers (choice champions, TFA alums, KIPPsters, and the like) it was Michelle Rhee; and for the Old-Schoolers (tenured elders, district loyalists, progressive die-hards, etc.) it was Diane Ravitch. Both sides practiced their own version of righteous Truth-Telling. And both sides suggested that the other side’s supporters weren’t just wrong — they were manifestations of an evil incarnate in our midst.
Four years later, I think we may be reaching an end to those pitched, and pointless, battles. To be clear, there are still major differences in the field, and major departures in both thinking and values that will continue to divide people from sharing a true common cause. And yet, it is starting to feel that in a large and significant sense, all roads are beginning to converge on the educational definition of Rome: a public education system that clearly places students at the center by making learning more personalized, relevant, and real-world-situated.
To wit, check out the website of the Convergence Policy Center’s Education Reimagined project (full disclosure: I’m a contributor). For two years, Convergence has been gathering almost thirty of us — practitioners and policymakers, “Deformers” and “Status-Quo’ers,” Progressives and Conservatives, union leaders and union critics — to spend time together, for the purpose of seeing if they could ever get all of us to agree on anything.
In the end, not only did we agree on something — we agreed on a pretty specific articulation of the future of education (see for yourself). And here’s the thing: our coalition is just one of many out there, and all of them are basically saying the same thing.
The folks at New Profit — historically, a New-School organization with a clear seat of honor in the KIPP/TFA camp — have now partnered with leading funders and practitioners from the Learning Differences and Social & Emotional Learning camps to launch Reimagine Learning. Entire states, from New Hampshire to Wisconsin to Maine, have revised their policies in order to make learning less time-bound, more interesting, and more socially-embedded. Grassroots organizations like the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) are advocating for a system of schools more deeply informed by democratic principles and youth voice. And sprinkled across all of these efforts are innovative charter schools, public school districts, and effective (and eclectic) school networks.
What do these different movements share in common?
- A belief that the future of education must be based on a more personalized, performance-based method of assessing student learning and growth.
- A belief that learning doesn’t just happen in school — it happens anywhere and everywhere — and therefore schools must become places that can recognize and accredit student work whenever and wherever it occurs.
- A belief that teachers must start to act more like coaches and facilitators than mere content experts — and that the relationships between adults and young people must remain as the bedrock of learning itself.
- A belief that technology is essential, but only in so far as it augments, not replaces, the relationships between teachers, students and peers.
- A belief that all student learning, to the greatest extent possible, should be designed in a way so that it can legitimately offer a “slice of the solution”, and contribute to our ongoing collective effort to solve actual, intractable social problems.
- A belief that empathy is a foundational skill for student development and growth — and that schools in general must become more explicitly focused on the skills and dispositions (as opposed to content knowledge) they believe their graduates must acquire in order to live successful, fulfilling lives as adults.
(Hell, if you really want to see what the future of education is going to look like, just read this.)
So what does this emerging consensus mean for the next few years?
I think it means we might actually start seeing a different set of stories being told about our schools — stories that are more solution-oriented, student-centered, and hopeful than the deficit-based fear-mongering of our recent past.
I think it means more states and localities will adopt policies that end up incentivizing educators to do the things that they know are in the best interests of children.
I think it means more examples of district-level innovation and reform — because, let’s be honest, as much as I love me a good school no matter the form, we are not going to solve American public education one charter school at a time.
And I think it means that the era of high-stakes standardized testing, already in decline, will soon enter its final death spiral.
As Summit Public Schools’ founder Diane Tavenner put it, “the measure of an effective test in the future should be the extent to which its results have direct and meaningful personal implications for the child who takes it.”
In other words, folks: Change is not just coming; it’s already here. And it’s coming to a neighborhood school near you.