Education gets blamed for moving too slowly, but there has been real progress in the past seven years.
If there’s one thing that’s lasted as long in education as the September-to-June schedule, it’s the idea that schools don’t change quickly. Most people think classrooms still look the same as when they went to school. Heck, some parents wouldn’t be surprised to find their name inside their kids’ textbooks.
The truth is that there has been dizzying change in education since 2006. Technology has been remaking the classroom. A national curriculum is becoming a reality. Parent involvement has been changing education’s expectations and practice. Districts have scrambled, flipped, and otherwise upset the “natural order” of the classroom, with the teacher lecturing and students passively taking notes.
Consider technology alone. Innovative new software is allowing teachers to better track student progress, individualize instruction, and even tweet happenings in the classroom in real time to parents. And then there are blended learning classes, widespread acceptance of online learning, and the invasion of tablets and BYOD in schools from coast to coast.
The Rise of New School Models
Since its advent in the late nineties, the charter school movement has been propounding the concept of flexible, independent public schools, and in recent years parents have begun to respond with enthusiasm. There’s KIPP, for example. An elder statesman among charters, KIPP started in 1994. By 2006, the group had only 52 schools, and its first class of high school graduates were just finishing college. Today, there are 125 KIPP schools serving more than 32,000 students nationwide. Its recent growth reflects the national trend: In 2006–07, there were about 3,500 charter schools in the U.S. By 2011–12, there were 5,700, serving nearly 2 million children, according to the Center for Education Reform.
A number of innovative school models have come on the scene, such as Rocketship Education, which aims to use technology, individualized instruction, blended learning, and parent involvement to close the achievement gap in low-income neighborhoods. Founded in 2006 in San Jose, California, Rocketship is about to open its 10th school, this one in Milwaukee (its first venture outside California), and hopes to expand its scalable model to serve 25,000 students by 2017. (Rocketship has faced challenges, though, as Alexander Russo pointed out in his Spring 2013 Scholastic Administrator column.)
Kris Amundson, senior vice president of external affairs at Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank, says the demand for customization in schools has been driven by the rise of “snowflake parents,” who see their children as unique and deserving of individualized education.
Social Media Opens Doors
In 2006, when Twitter launched, plenty of folks couldn’t see the value in blasting out public pronouncements that were limited to 140 characters. Now, it has 500 million users. Facebook, which started in 2004 as a networking site for college students, had 12 million users by 2006, when it opened up to the general public. Today, there are 1 billion active users on the site.
Social media has transformed the way teachers interact with students and parents, not to mention its effect on school promotions, internal staff relations, professional development, crisis communications, and emergency operations, says Chris Syme, who runs a strategic communications firm in Bozeman, Montana, that works with school districts and other organizations.
“It certainly opens up a lot of doors—good and bad,” says Syme. With the Internet an integral part of school life, teachers and administrators can keep in closer touch with parents and students about homework, volunteer needs, and school happenings. However, schools struggle to keep up with the cost of technology, have become enmeshed with new privacy issues, and must find ways to teach students to use it responsibly.
The ocean of data on student performance has also formed the basis for more rigorously assessing and evaluating teachers’ performance in the classroom, and the quality of the schools themselves. Although there is considerable variation among states and districts in teacher-evaluation systems, many use student test scores as a “significant” component, says Amundson.
Research has helped to improve the sophistication of evaluation. After reviewing thousands of hours of classroom videos, researchers have generally agreed on behaviors common to all good teachers. “With that, you can have an evaluation system that is more robust, targeted, and, from the teacher’s perspective, more helpful,” says Amundson.
Though no consensus has emerged on how best to evaluate teachers, which remains a contentious issue, Amundson predicts such systems will continue to take root—and that they’ll be increasingly embraced by the younger generation of teachers.
Data in the Driver’s Seat
Improving the data available on student performance has been a hot topic for years, but schools’ practices in 2006 look prehistoric by today’s standards. Then, performance data was used for compliance. Today, it’s a key ingredient in continuous student improvement and transparency, says Aimee Guidera, founder and executive director of the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), which launched in 2005.
Thirty-six states now provide information on students’ past performance to teachers, parents, and students. Of those, 33 produce reports that measure an individual student’s growth over time.
“Before, conversations were happening in silos,” says Guidera. “The fact that we’ve built the infrastructure in data systems means we have a more robust picture of what is happening in schools and the impact teachers are having.”
Colleges, for instance, have better information about incoming students, and they can let high school teachers know where freshman are struggling so that curriculum can be modified to better prepare graduates. In the classroom, data provides immediate feedback on student performance so teachers can intervene to help kids stay on track.
In 2006, states were starting to collect data on K–12 student performance, and the information was used for accountability. The average state had about four to five out of the 10 elements the DQC considers essential elements of a statewide longitudinal system. By 2011, the average state had nine to 10 elements. Data collection has now gone to the next level—P–20—with information gathered beginning in PreK, though K–12, postsecondary, and the workplace.
Leaner, Fitter Schools
Just a few years ago, it wasn’t unusual to see adults and even students smoking outside the school building. “Now, we would be shocked to see that,” says Ginny Ehrlich, CEO of the nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Districts have adopted new policies and programs to get kids eating better and moving more, so a healthy school campus is the norm, not the exception.
For instance, beverages shipped to schools in 2010 had 90 percent fewer calories than in 2004, the result of agreements reached with distributors to stock more milk, water, and juice and less sugary soft drinks. “There has been a sea change in awareness around childhood obesity,” says Ehrlich.
In 2006, the Alliance had 231 schools in its Healthy Schools Program. Today, it works with 16,000 schools in all 50 states to make policy changes, such as adding physical education time or offering more fruits and vegetables at lunch.
In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act directed schools to follow the updated dietary guidelines from the USDA, which changed what cafeterias were serving beginning in the 2012–13 academic year. School districts nationwide have modified menus to meet new requirements to increase the availability of healthy foods, and there are specific calorie limits to ensure appropriate meals at all age levels.
Blended and Online Learning
Virtual learning has exploded in the last decade. Enrollment in K–12 online education courses grew from 50,000 in 2000 to more than 1.8 million in 2010. The majority of public high schools now offer at least one online course, according to Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K–12 Online Learning.
Technology has also remade the classroom itself. Gone are the days of a teacher lecturing as students sit at desks in rows, taking notes (or passing them). Instruction is now highly personalized. Students progress at their own pace, and teachers operate more as coaches and less as lecturers.
The key to the new classroom model is blended learning, which combines online instruction with face-to-face classroom instruction. Nearly 75 percent of school districts are working on strategies for blended learning, says Patrick. Students are being asked to go deeper into the material, which requires the personalization that technology can provide.
This approach dovetails with the new emphasis on competency-based learning—today’s digital tools can track each student’s mastery and tailor the next challenge in ways that were unthinkable in 2006. With real-time data from students’ responses at their fingertips, teachers can gauge their comprehension of the material and customize lessons on the fly. In some classrooms, students are using handheld clickers; in others, they use smartphones, laptops, or tablets (the iPad, it’s worth pointing out, was introduced little more than three years ago).
A Common Approach
To address the rising concern that high school diplomas were losing their value because they reflected varying levels of rigor in different parts of the country, the National Governors Association got behind the effort to craft and adopt the Common Core State Standards, which define what skills and knowledge students should have by the time they graduate. The initiative, years in the making, took off, and the standards have been adopted by 45 states, the District of Columbia, and four territories (implementation is scheduled to be complete by the 2014–15 school year).
“In many schools, particularly for disadvantaged kids, the curriculum is really weak,” says Peter Cook, a senior fellow at Education Sector. Having common standards is key, he notes: It makes schools more transparent and provides consistency for the growing population of kids who move from district to district.