The greatest achievement in America may well be its public system of education. It reaches out to all. Too numerous to count are the stories of immigrants to our shores who have sent their children—their hope—to neighborhood schools and seen their children accomplish great things.
But public schools must change. Knowing what schools need to become is the easy part. How to make the change—well, therein lies the rub.
What: The Vision
The 21st century world is moving to a knowledge-work economy. In order to prepare our children to take a leadership role in the global marketplace, our classrooms need to “look” like knowledge-work environments. Instead of teaching “what”—the “who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb” style of content—children need to learn “how”: how to work in a team to solve a real problem in their community, how to frame that problem so it is actionable, how to research it, how to develop a plan of action, and finally how to enact that plan and actually build something.
How: The Disruption
Starting afresh is not an option for America’s schools; they must transform themselves. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a more disruptive challenge. Turn a turbo-prop into a jet—while flying! Based on the literature and our experiences, here are what we believe to be the key issues:
? Leadership: It all starts with a bold and confident leader who says: “We are going to change. Staff using project-based instructional strategies and using computers day in, day out is not optional. And we are going to stick with the plan for at least five years.”
? Curriculum and evaluation: Don’t let the P-word—“projects”—intimidate you. Start with your existing curriculum and grow your projects. Don’t use the current state tests as an excuse not to change the curriculum. Texas has indeed seceded from the Union; it is the first state to say no to NCLB-style tests. Let’s enable all teachers to throw off the yoke that chokes.
? Professional development: Teachers teach the way they were taught. So how can we possibly expect our industrial-age teachers to teach in a knowledge-work classroom? Teachers are special; they work incredibly hard, and they love their students. We need to support our dedicated teachers by developing new models of continuous, ongoing PD.
? Technology: For children today, technology is already essential to their lives—outside of school. By 2013, every child in America will bring a cell phone computer to school in their pocket, purse or book bag. Schools will no longer need to spend precious resources buying each student a computer; students will already have one. Schools will provide network access and cloud-based software that will make the heterogeneous devices appear homogeneous. The year 2013 is only four years away.
? Community support: Time and again we have heard how parents can be unsupportive of schools trying to change. The old ways worked for the parents; they should work for their children. Memo to school leaders: Fix this problem.
? Funding: Saying “We don’t have the money” is just an indirect way of saying “We don’t think the initiative is important.” We have never met a superintendent who couldn’t tap into funds to do something he or she really wanted to do. Memo 2 to school leaders: Build community support and the money will follow.
Public education in America can’t afford to wait until 2013 to start changing; we need action now to help us prepare for sustaining the transformation.
Change or Disappear
Data suggest that organizations don’t change from one epoch to another; rather, they simply disappear and are replaced by new organizations. Public education in America going out of business? Unacceptable.
The dropout rate for American students is beyond belief—75 percent in Detroit, 44 percent in South Carolina. America’s schools are bleeding children—our children. We must stop hemorrhaging the future; public education needs to change and provide America’s children with hope and with the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century—now.
Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder and chief technology officer at GoKnow.