How to Build a Better School

IDM Case Sample

Teacher's desk in classroomWhen you think about education, what comes to mind? Students at desks practicing reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic? Maybe your image incorporates collaborative groups working together on classroom projects or presentations.

How about education that allows students to pursue individual passions while preparing them for life and a career? How about education that allows students to imagine a future that doesn’t even exist — yet?

Does that sound like a fantasy? For the Donnell-Kay Foundation, the concept of a learner-centered state education system is a real goal that the foundation has been working toward in Colorado for over 20 years. And this year, Donnell-Kay’s ReSchool Colorado program is looking forward to launching prototype programs that will help make the dream a reality.

Where the disconnect is

As Donnell-Kay’s Executive Director Tony Lewis explains, “The U.S. is great at mass-producing many things, but education shouldn’t be placed in that bucket.” In 2014, the percentage of Colorado high school students who graduated on time was 77.3%, up from 76.9% in 2013. The small increase is nice, but the gap for those the system leaves behind is still concerning. The graduation rate for students with challenges such as disabilities, economic disadvantages, and limited English proficiency range between roughly 54 and 64%.

Donnell-Kay invests in research to identify not only why the current system isn’t working, but how a radically different approach could create an educational system that’s customizable for every individual learner. “We realized that we weren’t making dramatic improvements in education that would scale across the state,” says Lewis. “We took a hard look in the mirror and asked, ‘Are we making enough change rapidly enough?’ And the answer was no.”

That realization was the start of ReSchool Colorado, says Lewis, “a program to envision a system that is designed for today’s and tomorrow’s kids, not for kids in the 1800s.”

Amy Anderson, Director of the ReSchool project, explains that the current system is fragmented and confusing for students and their families. From disparate early education programs through primary and secondary grades and on to college, each step requires a re-start. Anderson says, “We lose a lot of kids at each of those transitional steps along the way. A lot don’t make it through college or find a successful trajectory in life.”

Anderson says ReSchool Colorado envisions a single, unified system that isn’t based on age, but on mastering competencies, so that regardless of where you are in your education, there is a place for you and a path to help you meet individual goals.

Dramatic shift

ReSchool moves away from traditional reform models that look to simply retrofit elements of the current system. Instead, it requires fundamentally rethinking the concept of education from the ground up, incorporating new ways of organizing, funding, and supporting education. Several key pillars are essential to the effort:

  • Advocacy — In a learner-centric model, families have direct access to public education dollars and direct influence on how those dollars are used for their students. Each family works with an advocate who is a true partner in helping them navigate the system.
  • Competency based — In a time-based, grade-based system, if you get a D in Algebra I, you still move on to Algebra II next year. In a competency-based system, we recognize that some students may need more time to master some concepts. On the flip side, others should be allowed to move on more quickly in areas where they have demonstrated mastery.
  • Mastery of non-academic skills — In addition to working on core academics, a learner-centric system also values and integrates mastery of competencies that are not as quantifiable: how you work with other people, how you collaborate, how you become a good citizen, how you take risks, and how you tackle critical thinking.
  • Broader ecosystem of education providers — To provide an expanded range of experiences for both academic and non-academic learning, the new system will expand the types of providers and locations for learning. Teachers with academic specialties will be able to focus on those without the distraction of unrelated administration. Learning will take place in a broader ecosystem of learning that may extend beyond schools to include online learning and place-based courses in local libraries and museums, or apprenticeships in local businesses.

Lewis says, “For example, if a welding business owner wants to take on an apprentice, that experience will provide students not only with the skill of welding, but also give them the opportunity to learn additional skills such as safety practices, mastering a craft, and even setting up and running a business.” Partnerships with local colleges, corporations, and small businesses are key, he emphasizes.

Making the vision a reality

Anderson says that for the past couple of years, her focus has been on shifting from generating ideas to making them real. “We have been having direct conversations with potential users of the new system, starting with families who are already non-consumers of our current system,” she says.

Anderson says ReSchool researchers have been actively working with homeschool families, families with children with disabilities, and families of at-risk youth. “For many reasons,” Anderson says, “there are large groups of kids for whom the traditional path through high school and college just isn’t an option.”

From these discussions, the program is creating a prototype educational model that Anderson hopes will launch in a preliminary form as early as this year. She expects this initial model to be the first of many iterations. “This is a long term process. We have to be able to learn from our testing. We have to work with real live people and discover what their needs and wants are. We have several years of testing and refining ahead before we can ask for the space to create a new system. But ultimately, that’s where we’re headed.”

A moral imperative

How do you design a completely new educational system around learners and provide those learners with customized educational opportunities that are right for them? It’s a big question.

But Lewis believes it’s a question we can’t afford to ignore. He notes, “In general, only half of the children in our system today are succeeding. The other half are not only unprepared for the workforce, but they are really unprepared for life. We feel like that is morally reprehensible.”

“In addition,” he adds, “our state has an economic imperative to ensure that people have viable work and our state has a viable economy. Meaningful education is the key to our future.”

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