21st Century Learning easier said (or written) than done

Seth Rosenblatt

Seth Rosenblatt

In one of the more exciting moments in my tenure on the San Carlos School Board, this spring we passed a new Strategic Plan that recognizes and addresses the need for fundamental structural changes in a public education system designed for an era long past. It is very much aligned with the notion of 21st Century Learning — not just the adoption of new technologies, but the recognition that we are no longer constrained by 19th Century limits on the who, what, where, when and how of educating our children. Some of the highlights of the “wall-breaking” outlined in the plan include changing the content of the curriculum, developing a new approach to teaching and learning, redefining an “educator” (leveraging vastly expanded resources) and even extending and restructuring the school day.

This plan was the result of almost two years of work among district office staff, teachers, other staff members, parents and board members through dozens of meetings and much input in many forms. Although in any process like this there are certain to be varying perspectives, it was amazing to me how aligned almost all constituents were. Admittedly, the relative homogeneity of our community (which has downsides in other contexts) made it easier to reach such consensus. We also had a built-in “forcing function” in that we have to build new schools to meet our quickly growing enrollment (we passed a facility bond measure last November), and it became clear to the community that if we are to build new schools, let’s not build for the past.

I recognize of course that plenty of schools (both traditional and charter) both here in California and around the world are doing lots of innovative things — we hardly invented any of the ideas in this plan — but it’s fairly unusual to have an entire district (one which by any existing measure is already considered high performing) adopt a plan that requires rethinking so many of our ingrained practices and yet have near universal support in the community for it.

Now comes the hard part. Despite my excitement with the plan, I recognize that there is much inertia in the current system and even with the stated direction and support of the community there will be many obstacles to its implementation. Issues for both staff members and parents will emerge, particularly as we go from the theoretical to the actual. Our district has deployed a dedicated design team of educators to determine how we implement many of the ideas contained in the strategic plan, and we will start seeing more concrete implementation steps this coming school year. But there is a big difference between supporting the general concepts and supporting the specific steps that will emerge.

For example, our teaching staff has been incredibly supportive and in fact drove many of the issues contained in the plan. They largely recognize the need both for our children and for themselves. Rather than give lip service to the notion of teachers as “professionals,” how can we design a human capital model that creates a system of individual responsibility and authority, collaboration and continual learning, as well as strong career paths and compensation to match? Of course, breaking down the virtual and physical walls also means that the notion of work “time” and “place” gets very fuzzy. Such a model requires jettisoning the traditional notions of “seat time,” work rules, class sizes, the “calendar” and more. I believe that a majority of our staff members understand this, but when it actually happens will the uncertainty (and risk) of this new approach cause our employees to hesitate? One good sign is that we already have agreement with our teachers union to develop a new evaluation system (one that may take a form similar to one recently adopted by the San Jose Unified School District) that emphasizes professional growth, collaboration and risk taking.

In general our parent population — much of which works in Silicon Valley — thinks these changes are long overdue. But, having gone to school themselves, parents may show reticence once they see classrooms that don’t resemble what they’re familiar with. They will see their kids with many more project-based assignments, or witness their kids doing different work at home in a more blended learning model. Also, will board members have second thoughts when it appears that we’re experimenting with kids’ futures?

The California Education Code brings along too many hurdles to enumerate, including those related to instructional materials, labor rules and testing and reporting requirements. As a district with mostly charter schools (even though we govern all but one of these schools with a traditional school board governance structure), we have some added flexibility. But I predict we’ll run into a number of roadblocks along the way that will prevent an untainted fulfillment of some of the plan’s goals.

Of course, the perennial hurdle is lack of funding. It’s hard to make fundamental changes without substantial investment. Potentially some of the changes contemplated in the plan may actually save us money in the long run, but there’s no denying that our public schools need more resources just to do it the old way, let alone the new way. A very specific example: In the spirit of treating our staff like true professionals, we’d have to pay many of them significantly more but also start measuring work by goal rather than by time and discard many of the legacy comforts of treating everyone equally.

Interestingly, we’ve created a situation for ourselves that will likely generate two diametrically opposed perspectives within our community. The first will be hesitation and discomfort with significant changes as they become more real. But the second will be impatience with the perceived slowness in implementing such changes! This may just be the nature of public policy making, and if we get complaints from both sides of this argument perhaps we will have struck the right balance. Ultimately, as a board member, I have to take the long view. This is a five-year plan (and many of these changes may take even longer), so we (the board and the community) must remain both patient and diligent. The process must unfold, rules must change and resources must build up. Ultimately our job is to help get the community to agree on a direction, give our superintendent and staff all of the tools (that we can afford) to march down the path, create opportunities for discussion, and perhaps even changes in direction, along the way.


Seth Rosenblatt is a member of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District. He is also the past president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on numerous committees and tasks forces related to public education in California. He has one child currently attending, and one child recently graduated from, the San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in both regional and national publications as well as on his own blog.

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26 Responses to “21st Century Learning easier said (or written) than done”

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  1. Christopher Ritter on Jul 31, 2013 at 6:45 pm07/31/2013 6:45 pm

    • 000

    @navigio We might have run out if replies on the previous thread but I wanted to whole-heartedly agree with you. I’m more familiar with design thinking than critical thinking, but both process generally require you to test your theories and share the results for others to use. While this thread appears to be regurgitating the points in the strategic plan, I for one was made away of it and forked it for my own community. The comments on this thread will no doubtedly come up in my community, so it’s all a “live action” experiment for me which will hopefully lead to real-world results.

  2. Will Fletcher on Jul 30, 2013 at 12:25 pm07/30/2013 12:25 pm

    • 000

    What is the San Carlos K-8 district preparing these children for? The workforce?

    Parents want their elementary schools to prepare children for success at the high school level. They want the high schools to provide a foundation for acceptance to a good university. They want the university to expose students to (and prepare them for) post-education opportunities.

    Without HS district alignment, this reduced seat time, project-based assignment, and outdoor learning may prove detrimental to students if they are unable to conform to the high school learning environment; thus, losing out on the ultimate educational goal.

    I, too, am a 20-year Silicon Valley veteran, and here’s what I’m looking for from recent college graduates entering the workforce – the ability to work heads-down, focus on comprehensive, end-to-end projects, concentrate, and “get shit done.”

    Yes, it is important to use current tools and technologies to their fullest, but today’s children are not lacking AT ALL in this area. Collaboration and multi-tasking are great ways to break up monotony in the workplace, but at the end of the day, they lead to reduced productivity in a great majority of business roles.

    And the idea of a vidcon between a California classroom and an expert in Egypt may sound progressively appealing at a high level, but talk about a waste of educational time! Do you honestly think that’s the best use of Internet technology to learn about a foreign country?

    “21st Century Learning” is a buzz word, and a tired one at that. The key proponents are companies like Google, Facebook, Oracle, etc (the same SV leaders lobbying for increased H1-B visas and immigration reform to pad their workforces). Personally, I am turned off by the idea of business leaders shaping education reform – particularly, at the elementary level.

    The fact that the Facilities Plan and 21st Century Learning concept were approved at the theoretical stage and the details are just now under consideration is quite unsettling. That said, realization of the plan is a long-shot at best, making all this a long-winded, moot conversation.


    • Christopher Ritter on Jul 30, 2013 at 3:20 pm07/30/2013 3:20 pm

      • 000

      @Will as another 20 yr veteran of the tech industry, I am constantly amazed at how little people learn from the web. To be sure, they know their sports teams and their politics, but most of my colleagues are head-down and task oriented, paying little attention to current trends or recent discoveries in their field.

      This plan doesn’t focus on the technology but how to use it in order to tap into a world of knowledge. It doesn’t matter what you or I have learned as our children will more than likely be doing something radically different. Just imagine if your parents dictated what we learned in school, we’d have picked up all sorts of nonsense that we forgot simply because its irrelevant… Oh wait, that did happen. I forgot. :)

      To reiterate, it’s about how they learn, by focusing on problem solving and critical thinking. Social innovation and designing thinking are wonderful tools that I have struggled to teach my daughter, simply because its not on her math test. These problems persist through college, as the professors rarely teach those skills, not until grad school. It’s endemic in our educational system, and I for one congratulate the San Carlos community for thinking outside the box — that is, putting down the technology and teaching our children how to be a productive member of the global community.

      That and the fact that I assumed it was open source due to the nature of its message and released it on GitHub — fully attributed, I might add. Thanks @Seth!

      • Manuel on Jul 30, 2013 at 10:38 pm07/30/2013 10:38 pm

        • 000

        Mr. Ritter, would you be so kind as to share with me what you consider what it was you learned of relevance?

        Somehow I am getting the impression that you consider a significant portion of human knowledge irrelevant. I realize that you forgot what that was but if you can tell us what you did not forget perhaps I could reverse-engineer it.

        Thank you in advance.

        • Christopher Ritter on Jul 31, 2013 at 7:45 am07/31/2013 7:45 am

          • 000

          I’m not entirely sure what you mean by relevance, but the first example that comes to mind is one that I would recommend for the next iteration of the strategic plan, that is social innovation. As I’ve learned recently, the concept dates back to Ben Franklin who didn’t focus solely on User Centered Design (UCD) like many of my colleagues, but sought to innovate communities. I then learned this was the central focus of de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, how our new nation was adept at building communities. You wouldn’t know this from the state of our economy or our national attention to rugged individualism, but when you look at the Internet you see these same communities transforming the world, through Wikipedia and TED, Facebook and YouTube. The big lesson for me is that UCD — focusing on user needs and the rugged individual — leads to the prolification of SUVs, or as Henry Ford remarked, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” The impact of “more horsepower” has resulted in greater energy dependence, and traffic congestion, et al. To your point I would counter that I have fallen in love with the knowledge that my colleagues deem irrelevant when they’re head down, task oriented, in search of short term gains.

          • Manuel on Jul 31, 2013 at 10:12 am07/31/2013 10:12 am

            • 000

            I am not interested in defining relevance as I see it because I am a cultural pack-rat. I can’t expect everyone to be like me.

            I am interested on what it is you consider irrelevant learning in a K-12 environment (but Seth’s is K-8!) as you stated that “Just imagine if your parents dictated what we learned in school, we’d have picked up all sorts of nonsense that we forgot simply because its irrelevant… Oh wait, that did happen. I forgot.”

            Given that, I am curious as to what you define as irrelevant in a K-12 environment. Again, I’d like to know what it is irrelevant to you in that context as you are the one that says that most of what we learn in school, driven by our parents’ best intentions, is irrelevant.

            (I could assume what you mean, but I would probably be very wrong. Besides, assuming where you stand would not advance the discussion.)

            • Christopher Ritter on Jul 31, 2013 at 10:33 am07/31/2013 10:33 am

              • 000

              My apologies, I did miss the point of your question. As a parent I’ve had the opportunity to experience public education from start to finish twice now, and I wish I had a better answer. All I can say is the advice I gave my daughter, who is a gamer just like me. I told her that school is a memory game. The more you can remember the better you’ll do. I’m proud to say that she’s in the top 10% of one of the leading school systems in Ohio, but I’ll be damned if I can get her to do anything that isn’t on the test. I see this same attitude in my work environment whenever I bring up something that isn’t in the business requirements. I feel like I’m talking around the answer, but I’m not sure how to encapsulate my point. I guess I would say that memorization is pointless when the world of knowledge is at your fingertips, and if there’s any reverse engineering to be done, it’s in the process of critical or design thinking.

            • navigio on Jul 31, 2013 at 11:55 am07/31/2013 11:55 am

              • 000

              memorization is pointless when the world of knowledge is at your fingertips

              I understand the lure of this idea, but, personally, I disagree. Information is at your fingertips. That’s different than knowledge. I also think memorization is important (luckily, I was very good at it), but it does not equal productivity, and it may or may not provide a solid basis for career advancement (whatever that means).

              I also can only talk around the issue, but to me it feels like unless you make use of information within process, information remains disposable and worthless. Its nice that its at your fingertips, but people wont pay you for that fact. It can be pleasurable, but it usually ends there. Progress happens as a result of compounding upon an intimate understanding of the relationship of that information with the world. That can never happen if it remains only at your fingertips. Personally, I think this is one of the real dangers of the information age (there is another thread on here from a couple months ago in which this was discussed as well). Its actually quite humorous that we are discussing how the technology age is making information essentially worthless. 😉

            • Manuel on Aug 1, 2013 at 11:36 am08/1/2013 11:36 am

              • 000

              Memorization is not pointless. It is what has kept the human species alive. We still have to know what to ask when we consult our oracle of choice. We will not know what to ask if we are not educated what all those disembodied facts mean to each other.

              It seems that you and your daughter have fallen down the rabbit hole created by the latest educational fad: testing. Yes, memorization will help you there, but it won’t help you come up with the connections. That only comes from discussion with your peers, your elders, and those younger than you. Through dialogue (the ancient meaning, not the new one), we hone our understanding because we have to explain it to others. And you certainly can’t come up with new ideas if you don’t discuss them. For most of us, talking to others is a catalyst to thinking in different directions.

              That, to me, is the essence of education. Unfortunately, it cannot be measured in a bubble test. And it can’t be graded by computers either. At least not yet.

              So, yes, I agree that critical thinking needs to be encouraged. But that’s not what we are doing when our schools are still designed to create drones for an industrial economy that is no more in the USofA. Do we have the patience to nurture such a paradigm shift? And even if we did, what are we to do with those who can’t adapt to this new world? We need to have that conversation too and not just talk about racing to the top of a mountain that isn’t even there.

            • navigio on Aug 1, 2013 at 11:17 pm08/1/2013 11:17 pm

              • 000

              It is really heartening that so many of the recent comments have focused on what it means to learn and how different kinds of learning apply to what we hope will be valuable to society and its members. It is thinking like this that I think we do much too little of, especially within public ‘discourse’.

  3. Christopher Ritter on Jul 30, 2013 at 10:37 am07/30/2013 10:37 am

    • 000

    Thank you Seth for sharing this wonderful vision of a 21st century public school system! I’ve taken the liberty of converting your proposal into a machine readable format on GitHub in order to allow other school systems such as my own in Springboro, Ohio the opportunity to ‘fork it’ for their own use.

    San Carlos School District Strategic Plan 2013-2018

    Springboro Community City Schools Strategic Plan 2013-2018

  4. Mike McMahon on Jul 30, 2013 at 10:31 am07/30/2013 10:31 am

    • 000

    With a small K-8 school district under 2500 students was there any consideration to strategically looking at consolidating your school district with another to create a unified K-12 school district? While I understand the desire/need to be your own school district, the overhead costs of central administration is hard to absorb and alignment of curriculum for high school is difficult.


    • Seth Rosenblatt on Jul 30, 2013 at 10:52 am07/30/2013 10:52 am

      • 000

      Mike — Although certainly some have talked about consolidation, I strongly disagree with the premise that it would be beneficial to do so. There is little evidence to suggest that we would save money on overhead with a larger district, and if anything we’d more likely lose revenue from the local sources we are able to harness because of our small community (ed foundation money, parcel taxes, etc.). I wrote an article on my personal blog about a year ago on this topic: http://rosenblatt.org/blog/2012/06/10/a-strange-obsession/. And in addition to all of the arguments I make in that article, I would add that there is no way our district would have been able to craft such a strategic plan (with the requisite staff and community support) if we were part of a much larger school district. (Also note that we have about 3,400 students in our district).

      • Mike McMahon on Jul 31, 2013 at 9:37 am07/31/2013 9:37 am

        • 000

        On the fiscal side, I would agree that savings of consolidating all of your District office staff (approximately $500,000) that is duplicative could be offset by a loss of local support. What I am curious about is how well San Mateo and San Jose students are being served with so many mutliple K-8 districts and how they align with the various high school district’s curriculum.

        • John Fensterwald on Jul 31, 2013 at 9:46 am07/31/2013 9:46 am

          • 000

          I agree, Mike. An encouraging development is the effort by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, through VP Manny Barbara, to get the feeder districts more in sync with East Side Union High School District. The lack of communication and coordination for decades among the seven elementary districts has been irresponsible.

        • navigio on Jul 31, 2013 at 11:45 am07/31/2013 11:45 am

          • 000

          It should be possible to consolidate some services without having to consolidate entire districts. I also hesitate anytime someone says ‘consolidation’ for the point of saving money. The goal should be to serve students better. If that costs more, its supposed to be worth it.

        • Seth Rosenblatt on Jul 31, 2013 at 1:09 pm07/31/2013 1:09 pm

          • 000

          Mike — articulation is a constant challenge regardless of the school district configuration. Ultimately it depends on the focus of the appropriate teachers and principals (as regardless of the size of a district, it’s ultimately about a student matriculating from a specific school to another specific school), and many districts (including both K-8 and K-12 districts) face challenges in doing that even within their own district. Every grade configuration can and has worked as long as you have good teachers and leaders, involved families, sufficient funding and clear articulation and collaboration with the professionals who receive or from whom you receive students. Certainly some schools do that better than others, but it would be a weak assumption to believe that a consolidated district would naturally do it better. Certainly having a single person at the top can help coordinate these conversations better, but that benefit would most likely be evident in a relatively small K-12 district. In the case of our area, having a single consolidated K-12 district would be so large and diverse that it wouldn’t necessarily make the challenge of articulation any easier. But even if it were to, I believe the benefit would be minor, certainly as compared to all that would be lost by such consolidation.

  5. Paul Muench on Jul 30, 2013 at 3:00 am07/30/2013 3:00 am

    • 000

    Anything planned for encouraging and enabling students to become multilingual?


    • Seth Rosenblatt on Jul 30, 2013 at 6:53 am07/30/2013 6:53 am

      • 000

      Absolutely. It’s not an area we’ve done very well in the past, but it could be a great subject for experimenting with different forms of blended learning.

  6. Seth Rosenblatt on Jul 29, 2013 at 10:40 am07/29/2013 10:40 am

    • 000

    El — we do have a separate Facilities Master Plan (you can download it here: http://www.sancarlos.k12.ca.us/wp-content/uploads/3-14-13-FINAL-San-Carlos-School-District-FMP-_-LK-EDITS.pdf) which outlines the design and construction plans for our new and existing schools. In addition, the SCSD staff is working on a series of implementation plans to actuate the intent and goals in the Strategic Plan. Of course, the plan is for this process to be fairly fluid…as our “design team” learns more (and we get additional input from both faculty and community), it will likely tweak both the specifics in the facilities plan as well as the implementation of curriculum and related aspects of the Strategic Plan.

    Part of the plan is working more closely with our high school district, and although I believe we can coordinate successfully with them, it is a much larger district with a much greater physical footprint and demographic diversity than us. They are very much aware of what we’re doing, and we hope that any learnings we gain will inform their process, but I suspect changes at the high school district will take a bit longer.

    It is my goal to keep folks updated as we both implement specific changes as well as learn more over the coming years of our successes and failures in this venture.


    • el on Jul 29, 2013 at 5:50 pm07/29/2013 5:50 pm

      • 000

      Seth – I read that plan too – aside from the black box “technology” line items which I presume is mostly networking infrastructure, I still didn’t have a sense of what was “21st Century” in this plan that was different from what you might have done before this plan. IE, I think our district would have made this exact plan 10 years ago if we had money to spend… to an outsider, it’s still pretty high-level.

      I’m sure you’ll share more as it becomes concrete. I hope it is hugely successful for your district.

      • Seth Rosenblatt on Jul 29, 2013 at 6:51 pm07/29/2013 6:51 pm

        • 000

        El — the Strategic Plan is intentionally high level — it will be the work of our design team to turn it all into specifics, but I can share a few of the ideas we talked about. First of all, note that for us, “21st Century Learning” is not about technology per se. Naturally you need the technology infrastructure (the bandwidth, the capability for 1-1 computing, and the appropriate applications — including collaboration apps), but it’s more about actual and figurative wall-breaking. For example, with respect to facilities, the plans have many more common spaces with rooms of different sizes for small group instructions, large gatherings, more workgroup space, etc. The classrooms will all have flexible walls. There will be more outdoor learning spaces. In terms of teaching and learning, we’re talking about really leveraging worldwide resources (for example, when teaching ancient history, why not Skype an expert from Egypt into the classroom?) We’re looking at having teachers collaborate on a social-based platform. We’re also talking about changing the nature of the school day and year with the ideal that each kid have his/her personalized trip through their years in the school district — all guided, recorded and assessed with the help of technology, but ultimately only as a means to an ends. As you imply, there is still a lot to be worked out, and I will continue to share as it all develops.

        • el on Jul 30, 2013 at 6:29 am07/30/2013 6:29 am

          • 000

          I look forward to hearing more about how it works out!

  7. Seth Rosenblatt on Jul 29, 2013 at 10:30 am07/29/2013 10:30 am

    • 000

    Navigio — that’s a fair question. The model we inherited from the 19th century (and even earlier) employs a factory-model of education, with the notion of relatively interchangeable components (including teachers) on a rigid schedule with a rigid set of work rules and “standards.” As such, we adopted labor practices more akin to those of factory workers than those of other “professionals” such as lawyers, doctors, and engineers, who all have a much higher degree of autonomy, authority, levels of career advancement, training, support, and compensation. I would argue you can not change the other aspects of the model without also changing the labor model. As I mentioned in the article, how can we negotiate “work hours” or “class sizes” if those notions don’t exist anymore? I recognize that teachers need more protections than other professionals due to the intimate relationship with the “customer” (as I discussed in http://www.edsource.org/2012/having-gone-to-school-doesnt-mean-we-all-can-run-a-school/), but I think we can accomplish that goal while still have a more modern, professional labor framework.

    As to your second comment, I absolutely think that the current way we measure schools has little to do with the quality of the schools (see an article I wrote a few years back – http://rosenblatt.org/blog/2011/08/31/the-most-important-unimportant-number/). Although our schools are “high performing” by current measures, one doesn’t have to be sick to get better. We don’t know how we’re doing — and I suspect we could do a lot better — in promoting the skills we should most care about, like critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, etc.

  8. el on Jul 29, 2013 at 10:14 am07/29/2013 10:14 am

    • 000

    I read the document, and I confess that reading it didn’t enlighten me on what precisely San Carlos will be doing with its construction programs and in its classrooms and organizational schedule. I hope you will write more about the specifics of what is implemented, and let us know what works well and what maybe didn’t work out as intended.

    I’m also curious as to whether your district is working closely with your matching Sequoia Union High School District schools to implement some of the same strategies into those upper grades, and more about those specific ideas as they spread to the high school level.

  9. navigio on Jul 29, 2013 at 10:09 am07/29/2013 10:09 am

    • 000

    Hi Seth. I was wondering whether you can articulate why you consider ‘teachers as professionals’ as a component of 21st century learning. For many of the other elements you list, its possible to at least understand the connection with the 19th century model you’re trying to break (such as building design, hours, technology, etc), but I am curious about the teacher aspect. What exactly do you think we ‘inherited’ from a couple centuries ago as it relates to teachers, and how is that right or wrong (as it relates to your 21st century ‘goals’).

    I will also point out that its interesting that a district with an API well over 900 feels that it is not appropriately meeting the needs of its students. Although I dont want to put words in your mouth, this could imply that you feel the way we currently measure our schools has absolutely nothing to do with the ‘quality’ of education or real preparation for the future. Is that a fair statement?

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