After nearly two decades in education, I’m still not certain what the term “reform” actually means. The concept itself is elusive, concurrently everywhere and nowhere. We were promised tremendous “reform” when charter school operators and Silicon Valley took over in recent years with a largely philanthropic mandate for change. Even as a longtime proponent of a free and open public school system, I’ve always understood that some adjustments were required to the system, what we choose to teach and how we prepare teachers. If we take a closer look at the promises and potential of school “reform,” after a decade or so of the term’s ubiquity, what’s actually different or interesting?
Even the most celebrated members of the “reform” community typically follow the old agrarian school calendar. Students are confined to grade levels based on chronological age. Curriculum is restricted to separate silos, with very little meaningful integration, and in many cases compartmentalized by teachers. Students sit at desks in rows, or sometimes clusters, maybe tables, with movement restricted to hallways. Assignments and directions are given to students, consumed by them, rarely created by them or with their assistance. I could go on, but what, if anything, did I mention that meets the threshold of significant change? We can definitely tweak pedagogy and improve curricular resources. Is that the goal then? To “reform,” or improve slightly what is already being done? For instance, change nothing about the school day itself, just tack on some minutes at the end of it. Continue trapping students in rigid academic tracks, but with apparently improved data sets?
I've Seen What Improvement Looks Like
Of all the innovations in education that I have observed in my career, those of us at MYSA School in the District of Columbia are taking a significant leap towards transformative practices. We are implementing curricula that is entirely interdisciplinary in a multi-age K-12 environment. MYSA combines the use of certain educational technologies with aspects of expeditionary learning. Our team is focused on building relationships with students that empower them to be equal partners in mastery. MYSA does this primarily with the creation of weekly student menus, an individualized document that catalogues independent projects and assignments into “courses.” [pullquote position="left"]Students begin the week planning what they will do and when, and deciding for themselves how they will work with teachers to meet their unique learning goals. This is not to say that we have all of the answers; moreover, we are also privileged by our status as an independent school, granting us a substantial amount of freedom from mandates. Yet, there are scores of independent schools adhering still to longstanding educational traditions, like curricular silos, standardized grading and exams and lecture methods. But as one of the few, if only, self-professed “micro-schools” in the country, MYSA is a perfect example of what occurs when a small group of educators possess the courage and fortitude to raise the low bar of “reform” to the heights of truly transformative practice.
Shaun Johnson is Director of Teaching and Learning at MYSA School, a multi-age K-12 “microschool” with campuses in Bethesda, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. He has taught in public, independent and charter schools, in addition to teacher preparation at the college and graduate levels.