Category Archives: Future of Schooling

McREL’s Elizabeth Hubbell on “critical uncertainties”

What does “school reform” mean to you? To some, it means complete reinvention of our school system; to others, it means taking what already works and building on that. What will actually unfold in the coming years is one of the “critical uncertainties” of the future of education, as Principal Consultant Elizabeth Hubbell, co-author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works and The Future of Schooling, explained to Solution Tree at the ISTE Conference in June.

The Future of Schooling looks at four possible scenarios for education in 2020, including school reform and the role of standards, and how those scenarios affect the role of teachers. Here, as part of Solution Tree’s AuthorSpeak series, Hubbell talks about the book and how McREL first became interested in scenario planning.


Get more information on The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020.

What’s good for the body is good for the mind

First Lady Michelle Obama tours the country speaking of healthy eating habits, Dr. Oz answers your health questions on daytime TV, and the USDA recently updated the food pyramid. As obesity rates rise, healthy living is front page news. Then why are schools cutting physical education (PE) programs? That answer has also been front page news: budget cuts and falling academic scores. Schools need to do more with less, and cutting PE leaves more time and money for academics. In California alone, according to a policy brief released in May by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 1.3 million teens in California do not participate in any school-based PE classes.

However, research shows that PE may be just what students need to perform better at school. Researchers Kathryn L. King, MD, and Carly J. Scahill, DO, from the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital implemented a program among 1st through 6th graders at low-performing schools in South Carolina that incorporated academic skills into physical activity. For instance, younger children used scooters to trace shapes on the ground, and older children climbed a rock wall outfitted with changing numbers to help them solve math problems. Students were engaged in this program for 40 minutes a day, five days a week. At the end of the year, test scores improved from 55 percent to 68.5 percent proficient.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules (2008), cites a similar study that examined the brain power of children before they began an exercise program. The children began jogging 30 minutes two or three times a week and, after 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly. Perhaps just as important, when the exercise program was taken away, children’s scores plummeted back to pre-activity levels.

Because students are expected to learn more and more information at an increased rate, they need all the brain power they can create. Scores keep falling regardless of the programs and strategies schools implement—not unlike a “check engine” light that keeps appearing because, no matter how many times you take it to the shop, the mechanic isn’t fixing the actual problem. Maybe the mechanic is even making the problem worse.

Have you noticed the academic effects of cutting physical education in your school? Is more academic time a viable reason to cut ancillary programs?

Are iPads the uber-ubis we imagined?

Last year, McREL released The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020 (Solution Tree, 2010), which looked at four possible scenarios of education. Our scenarios were dependent upon known certainties, such as advances in technology and changes in populations, while also looking at how critical uncertainties could impact education.

One scenario, Who Killed Buster the Bearcat?, highlighted student and teacher use of a tool known as “uber-ubis,” or tools that were uber-ubiquitous in this particular world. These tools served as e-readers, Internet browsers, video conferencing devices, and numerous other applications.

When the authors wrote these scenarios in the fall of 2009, the iPad was unheard of for most of the population. And yet…

Now we have a device that does indeed serve as an e-reader. It’s a device that can be used to regularly look up information, read and answer e-mails, video conference using Facetime, keep track of travel, and organize calendars. Educational apps such as eClicker are beginning to serve as quick assessment tools for teachers. Hundreds of educational games have emerged to help students practice basic skills as well as apps that allow the user to create movies, drawings, music, and pictures.

Is the iPad (or similar device) the uber-ubi? Time will tell, but it certainly seems as though it is headed in that direction.


Georgia’s vision moving closer to reality

An earlier blog, The Power behind Envisioning, describes the Georgia Vision Project, one state’s effort to rally residents in support of a singular high-stakes cause—providing all children in the state with an excellent education so they can be successful in college, career, and life.

A risky endeavor, you say? You bet it is, but so far, the response to the 45 recommendations has been great, say the planners. That response could be sheer luck, but it’s doubtful.

Take, for instance, the fact that the George Lucas Foundation has tapped Whitfield County Schools in rural northwestern Georgia (where 66% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) to be part of its new “Schools that Work” series. At first glance, Whitfield County, which includes five public middle schools embracing project-based learning, seems the polar opposite of the first school profiled in the series—San Diego’s High Tech High, a network of nine K–12 charter schools founded by a coalition of business leaders and educators and with an annual operating budget of about $27 million. Despite marked differences in school culture and resources, the schools share important principles: a common intellectual mission, personalization, and adult-world connections.

And herein is a lesson for us all.

Perhaps more school districts should be like Whitfield County, where educators are respected enough by the community to make decisions about what is and isn’t good for their kids; where supporting one another is a practice, not just an idea (e.g., administrators fulfill morning duties so teachers can meet and plan together); and where there is freedom to try and even fail at new ways to engage students in learning for today and tomorrow.

Recommendation 8.4 of A Vision for Public Education in Georgia is this: Develop a culture and climate that foster innovation and responsible risk-taking.  Whitfield County can check this one off the list.

Read why the George Lucas Foundation chose Whitfield County Schools as a “Schools that Work” school here:


New review of McREL’s The Future of Schooling

Dave Orphal, over at the Learning 2030 blog, offers this nice review of McREL’s latest book, The Future of Schooling.

In his review, Orphal praises the book for its timeliness. He notes, for example, that one of the critical uncertainties identified in the book—whether the outcomes of education will be standardized or differentiated—is currently playing out in the “movement to national common core standards” being countered by critiques from “Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink who argue that standardization is exactly the wrong direction to go.”

Orphal also praises the book for its balanced view on these issues, noting that the authors take “great pains to not reveal where they stand in some of the hottest educational debates raging the country.” He adds, “Neither pro-Rhee nor pro-union; neither pro-testing nor pro-authentic assessment; neither pro-charter nor anti-charter, there is plenty in this book to anger every side of our overly partisan educational reform circles.”

Our intent is not to anger anyone. Rather, it’s to provoke thinking about what the future may hold, to move people out of their comfort zones so that they can begin to prepare themselves for what may lie ahead. As we write in the book, “Some of these potential futures may capitvate and energize you; others may dishearten and frigthen you. Some may do all of the above. That’s the point.”

Read Orphal’s entire review here.

Approaching learning like a video game

Here are two common classroom scenarios: A student is bored while waiting for classmates to finish a test and, therefore, becomes disruptive, or a student is frustrated due to misunderstanding the material, but the class moves forward, anyway. One student wants to speed up past the group and one wants to slow down from the group. In either scenario, the student is left feeling unmotivated. But what would the scenario be if schools were not structured around groups, but rather the individual?

We’re all familiar with basic video game design: A player participates individually, and when a level is complete, moves on to the next level, right?  Adams 50 School District in Westminster, Colorado, has taken a similar approach in how students progress from level to level.

Students are tested and placed in one of 16 performance levels. They then move through the levels at their own pace, not according to a school calendar or their peers. There are still curriculum expectations, but students decide how to learn that content; they could write an essay, prepare a presentation, or work in a group and demonstrate key knowledge and skills.

Is this an approach you would like to see in more schools or in your own school? Do you think individualized curriculum is the master key to student success? Can this approach hold up against the Common Core and state standardized testing?

To learn more about how Adams 50 implements this approach to learning, read our story on the Adams 50 website.

The power behind envisioning

A coach says to an athlete, “Envision crossing the finish line. . .alone. . . far ahead of any other contender. . . victory is yours. . . feel it. . . taste it. . . claim it.” Through visualization, this athlete grows more focused, motivated, and confident, thereby increasing the likelihood of his or her success.

If you’re thinking, “That is one powerful technique,” you’re right.  So, if I’m feeling altruistic, can I just envision an end to poverty or hunger? What about education? Can envisioning work there? The state of Georgia thinks it can . . . sort of.

A Vision for Public Education in Georgia is an initiative developed by the Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA) and Georgia School Superintendents Association (GSSA) “to provide all children in Georgia with an equitable and excellent education that prepares them for college, career, and life.”

Officially sanctioned in the spring of 2009, the effort aims to make a difference for Georgia school children. Those involved in it—local school boards, superintendents, educators, parents, families, and students—envision success, and just as an athlete knows that high performance or mental preparation alone will not win the victory, so do the people engaged in this project.

GSBA and GSSA got down to work by establishing a planning team that further divided its expertise into five key components. One of their first tasks was to squarely call out the challenges facing Georgia’s students, families, and educators, and then identify the processes and procedures that needed to occur, existing best practices as well as promising ones, and any policy and program implications there might be. Throughout 2009 and 2010, with some assistance from McREL, they drafted documents, held focus group sessions across the state, publicly reported on a website whatever they learned and any decisions they made, and by the fall of 2010, they were developing a strategy to consider, adopt, and begin acting on their 45 recommendations Participants in the Georgia Vision Project never looked back.

Other elements contributing to their success are openness, having a shared purpose, and utilizing the best thinking of education experts throughout the state. They currently are holding 16 regional meetings over the state for local superintendents and their boards to share the work that’s been done.

The question as to whether education in Georgia is about to change for the better is not yet answered, but so far, the response to their work has been positive, and the state is poised to see some good things happen in public education. Surely, they needed their vision, but to their credit, they are doing the work.

See the steps Texas took to create a new vision for public education:


Making the case for bottom-up change in school reform

In President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, he called out the Bruce Randolph School, a turnaround school here in Denver. Once one of the worst-performing schools in Colorado, Bruce Randolph graduated 90 percent of its seniors last year—and 87 percent of them headed to college a few months ago. Obama attributed the school’s success to reform that is not just “a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.”

So how did they do it? According to a Denver Post article, then-Principal Kristin Waters first asked all teachers to reapply for their positions (only 6 out of 40 remained). Then, the school became the first in Colorado to be granted “innovation” status, a move that allowed it to operate more like a charter school, granting it autonomy from district and union rules and giving it more flexibility in terms of budget, hiring decisions, schedule, calendar, and incentives.

Waters said the school succeeded, ultimately, because it created “the supports for students, teaching them to ask for help and giving them that help…It was all about best practices, holding teachers and students accountable and creating high expectations.”

These factors are also at the heart of ongoing school improvement efforts in McLeansville, North Carolina, at Northeast High School (NEHS), which has moved from the academic “watch list” to the county’s “most improved school,” having increased test scores sharply for two years in a row. Since 2007, the school has seen double-digit gains in the percentages of proficient students in seven subjects, including increases of 34.5 percent in physical science and 25 percent in geometry.

The school did it by getting all teachers and administrators on the same page in terms of its main goal: to improve student engagement. Now, teachers hold themselves accountable by creating criteria for engagement and collaborating frequently, and “focus walks” by teacher leaders and administrators ensure that students are not only engaged but also learning in all classrooms via the same research-based instructional strategies.

In both cases, improvement efforts started at the student level. The schools didn’t bring in new programs or overhaul their systems; they simply figured out what their students needed most and found the best way to systemically meet those needs.

How does your school ensure students are engaged and supported? Do you have other examples of bottom-up change that have worked?

A Sign of the Times: Yale pulls investment in urban education

Yale University is shutting down its teacher preparation graduate program in urban education—a small, focused, and intense program—as well as its undergraduate early childhood education and secondary certification programs by the end of 2012. The university plans to reinvest these funds in a Promise scholarship program offering full state college tuition for New Haven public school students.

Tara Stevens, a graduate of the soon-to-be-obsolete master’s program, considers the program a long-term solution to educational obstacles in New Haven, particularly the wealth-opportunity gap. She claims Yale is only throwing money at the problem by creating a new program. Others from the school have concerns that while the Promise scholarship program will help some, ultimately, because of its hard-to-attain standards, the “promise” for many area students will remain out of reach.

The university is not the first to go down this path. West Virginia instituted a similar Promise scholarship program in 2001. However, the “whys” behind their decision raise larger questions about the future of our education system. Can a scholarship program benefit the education system as much as a rigorous, high-quality teacher preparation program? The reality is attendance is down in teacher education programs everywhere. The Panetta Institute for Public Policy released survey findings stating that interest in becoming a public school teacher has fallen from 45 percent in 2006 to just 28 percent in 2010.

What do you think about replacing a rigorous teacher preparation program with a scholarship program? Why are college students less and less interested in becoming teachers? Will we be seeing many more cuts to quality teacher education programs?

See the full story on Yale’s decision here.

See full survey results here.

Details about the West Virginia program can be found here.

Your Common Core problems—solved

With the arrival of the Common Core, states, districts, and schools are asking themselves: Do our state standards measure up to the new expectations? How can we identify and fill gaps in expected knowledge and skills?

McREL’s standards experts asked those same questions and have created ways to answer them. To help educators understand and identify differences, we’ve aligned our Compendium of state standards to the Common Core standards—and included instructional resources and a video tutorial that shows how to navigate to the information you need. We’ve also linked lesson and unit plans to Common Core expectations, via the Compendium benchmarks, providing supplemental material for teachers during this transition.

So how can states fill their gaps? McREL’s John Kendall, in the November issue of Phi Delta Kappan, explains how establishing a set of “transition standards” can help prepare their students for the new expectations. For example, a 5th grader who is expected to know a, b, and c this year, according to the state standards, will be expected to know a, b, c, and d when he enters 6th grade next year, according to Common Core. Transition standards represent “d,” the missing content, which needs to be taught to the 5th grader now, while he’s still in 5th grade. Having a transition standards document would help teachers focus on what students really need now to be prepared.

Is your school, district, or state ready for the Common Core? Share your story.