In Minnesota, we are awesome at educating some of our students. It is what our system was designed to do, and we do it well.
We batch kids by age, teach them mostly in the same way at the same pace, and it works great for some kids.
When we designed the current educational system back in the 1890s, that’s all we were looking to do. Back then, only 6 percent of Americans finished four years of high school.
Our expectations of schools have changed a lot since the 1890s. Today we want all our students to succeed. And while our demands have changed dramatically, our schools have not. We are still batching kids by age and teaching them mostly in the same way at the same pace. We are just trying harder.
After years of involvement with education reform efforts in various ways, I am convinced now that improving education outcomes is not about working harder. It’s about working differently.
Schools don’t have to look the way they do.
If we were starting over today, with the goal of having all children succeed, we would do it differently. We would recognize that kids come with different cultural and family backgrounds, different learning styles, and different aspirations. We would create a system that matches instruction and support with that diversity of backgrounds, learning styles and aspirations. We would tailor the education experience to the individual student.
If we are serious about saying that we want all kids to succeed, we’ve got to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach and toward customization. We’ve got to make education relevant for each student in terms of who they are, how they learn, and where they want to go.
This is not about giving kids iPads. This is about fundamentally reshaping how we define and organize learning.
It’s possible. Lots of industries have figured out how to do mass customization. And there are schools here in Minnesota and around the country that have figured out how to do it, too. These schools look really different than traditional schools. It blew my mind the first time I saw a school with no classrooms. It looked wrong to me. But the way the students were engaged in learning looked very, very right.
Deviating from what is normal in schools feels like “experimenting” — in a way that can feel risky and even scary. I’d suggest that everything we do right now in our schools is an experiment. A hundred-year-plus-long experiment. It is not a right answer, it’s just what we are used to.
Right now in Minnesota, nearly all our energy toward improving education is being done within the constraints of the current system. Educators are focused on achievement gaps like never before and are knocking themselves out to improve results. Here’s the challenge:
Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.
We have been putting more and more pressure on a school system to deliver results for which it was not designed. The strain on the system — the pressure on teachers and administrators — is extraordinary and exhausting.
It is time to think differently.
It is time to question all our norms and assumptions about what schools should look like. Why can’t we have schools in which every student is individually motivated and supported to learn in exactly the way they learn best and at the rate that makes sense for them?
There is much to celebrate in our schools today. So many committed educators who are inspiring students to great academic and creative heights.
There is also enormous potential in our schools. We can break through our current constraints. We can be a national leader in what’s next in education. We can do better for our kids.
At the Bush Foundation, we are putting our money where our mouth is. You can read about it on our website. https://www.bushfoundation.org/education-initiative
Jennifer Ford Reedy is the president of the Bush Foundation.