School Choice and High Standards Aren't Enough, Here's How We Focus on What Each Student Needs

Jul 24, 2019 12:00:00 AM


On an early fall day a few years ago at a local playground, my friend Sarah and I watched as her three children reveled in their after-school freedom. 

In front of us, her two younger children were preoccupied with hands-on activities, while her older son squinted at his iPad from under the brim of his baseball cap. Sarah looked over at him and shook her head. “It’s probably that flight pilot simulator app,” she said. “His teachers keep telling me he has trouble focusing, but he never has that problem at home!”

She leaned over and lowered her voice. “I wish he could get high school credit for doing that. I just don’t know how he’s going to make it through the next four years. He’s so unhappy.” She paused, and her expression darkened. “Honestly, we can make him go to school, but he’s totally disengaged. What does that get him?” 

While her city’s commitment to choice enables her children to access many options beyond her neighborhood school, [pullquote]Sarah has still struggled to find schools that inspire, engage and meet the needs of all three of her children.[/pullquote] This challenge underscores the notion that the vast majority of schools across the public education system are merely iterated models of the conventional, “industrial” education model.

A Learner-Centered Approach

Sarah is one of the hundreds of parents I have crossed paths with who express the same frustrations and fears: their kids are not seen, understood or appreciated for who they are. As schools and policymakers focus on a limited, standardized set of outcomes for our young people, the definition of what it means to be “career and college-ready” has become so narrow that it precludes the incredibly rich variety of potential pathways to success.

What Sarah and so many other parents are seeking for their children is a learner-centered education model—an approach to education that is unconstrained by age-cohorts, classrooms or discrete subjects, which begins with the premise that each child’s education should be tailored to their individual strengths, needs and aspirations.

Unlike in traditional classrooms, learner-centered education designs for each child, so that young people are able to hone their learning through a unique lens, engaging in real-world learning experiences that reflect their interests and strengths. Sarah’s oldest son, for example, might get science credits not only for learning about flight simulation on his iPad, but also for grappling with the environmental, economic and ethical implications of increased global air travel.

Learner-centered models also intentionally encourage relationships across the community through projects, mentors, internships and service. This avoids a risk many educators and families have spotted in the trend towards “personalization:” turning education into a solitary endeavor that neglects to honor the social nature of learning. 

Three Levers for Change

Unfortunately, learner-centered environments have always found it difficult to get a toe-hold in an education system driven by ranking, competition, GPAs and SAT scores. They have struggled to gain momentum amid structures and policies that focus on seat time and grade-level standards, reflect the misguided belief that all students follow the same developmental trajectory and promote adult-driven classrooms. 

[pullquote]Both traditional public and charter public schools continue to struggle with this challenge.[/pullquote] To get to a point where all students can actually access learner-centered models, education policy structures—and underlying funding mechanisms—must change.

At Education Reimagined, we believe three critical levers must be simultaneously pushed for the system to reach its full potential. 

  • We need to build public understanding and unleash demand for learner-centered education, shifting the conversation about what the purpose of education in the 21st century actually is and what education can look like. 
  • We need to advocate for, and in many cases invent, public policy and systems that support the work of learner-centered educational models. 
  • We need to build and showcase learner-centered models that work for all kinds of learners—as well as highlight examples of fully-aligned, mutually-reinforcing public policies and systems that make those models possible. 

In the Lab

To ensure young learners and their allies have the space to push on all three levers, we envision a set of “regional laboratories” that serve as dedicated research and development space.

Each regional lab would align a diverse group of stakeholders around a common vision for a learner-centered education system accessible and available for every family. By aligning around a shared theory of change they collectively develop, these stakeholders can help create the space to design new structures and systems that allow learner-centered models to thrive.

Collectively, these regional labs must reflect the full diversity of the communities, regions and learner-populations served by the public education system. There must be no question that every single child and community can be well-served by learner-centered programs.

Once those groundbreaking ideas take hold and influence learning at the local level, we must enable policies that support their expansion. A public school parent like Sarah should be able to tap into a comprehensive set of learner-centered experiences that meet her children’s needs and are structured around their interests and strengths—from pre-K to high school graduation. 

Communities and families around the country need to see, in concrete ways, how learner-centered models work—and how they can equitably support young people in ways the conventional system simply cannot. Reaching a point where every family can access local learner-centered options will take no less than a decade of intentional and consistent effort towards this end. While this may seem like a long time, the last 30 years of education reform have demonstrated the unintended consequences that arise from hastily pushing poorly-thought-out reforms. 

Our education system has failed to keep pace with a world that continually changes. For our young people to succeed in a new, dynamic, interconnected society, we must take the time to actually transform our approach to education. We must come together to build a new, sustainable system altogether.

Ulcca Joshi Hansen, Ph.D., J.D.

Ulcca Joshi Hansen is vice president of partnerships and research at Education Reimagined, a national organization that is convening organizations from across the country to shape a new, learner-centered system of education. Prior to joining Education Reimagined, she served as vice president of the Public Education and Business Coalition (PEBC), and executive director of the Colorado Boettcher Teacher Residency, the largest statewide teacher residency program in the country serving both urban and rural school districts. Before joining PEBC, Ulcca served as associate director of educator effectiveness at the Colorado Education Initiative, developing and implementing the state’s statewide teacher and principal evaluation systems. Ulcca began her career in the classroom as an elementary teacher in Newark Public Schools. She holds a bachelor's degree from Drew University and a certificate in early childhood and elementary education, with a focus on special education. She also earned her Ph.D. in education and philosophy from Oxford University and a juris doctor degree from Harvard Law School.

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