21st Century Learning easier said (or written) than done
July 28, 2013 | By Seth Rosenblatt / commentary | 26 Comments
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.