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A New Moment in Education


This post was first published September 3, 2015 by The Huffington Post.

The annual back-to-school moment calls up recurring traditions of new moments for students: shiny new shoes and notebooks, yellow buses wending their way to scrubbed classrooms, new books and bulletin boards.

But there is another kind of new moment for education that needs to be acknowledged as well: The quantity of human knowledge is exploding. According to UC Berkeley researchers, between 1999 and 2002, there was more new knowledge created in the world than in the entire history of the world preceding.

The pace of knowledge growth accelerates every year, with technology information now doubling every 11 months. Our world is being transformed by these new technologies, as well as shifting demographics and the demands of a global economy. An estimated 65 percent of teens and 20-somethings will ultimately work in careers that don’t exist today.

Our children need to be prepared for this new world and all its complex realities. And that requires new approaches to learning.

New learning for new times

Unlike in past eras, there is no set body of knowledge we can transmit in carefully defined dollops throughout 12 years of schooling that will fully prepare our young people to meet their futures. The mission for schools can no longer be just to “cover the curriculum” or “get through the book.” It must be to prepare students to work at jobs that do not yet exist, creating ideas and solutions for products and problems that have not yet been identified, using technologies that have not yet been invented.

Rather than memorizing material from static textbooks, our young people need to learn how to become analysts and investigators who can work with knowledge they themselves assemble to solve complex problems we have not managed to solve.

The problem is, our current education system was designed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution, not the knowledge revolution. And our education policies are too often designed to hold the old factory model in place, rather than to stimulate this new learning and create the settings in which it can thrive.

It is critical that we acknowledge and address this new moment if we are to survive and succeed in this fast-paced, knowledge-based world that requires a different kind of learning for all children - not just a small few. This new learning must be supported by a transformed system of education that:

  • Provides empowering learning opportunities for all children that develop their abilities to find and apply knowledge; think critically and creatively; solve problems, communicate and collaborate; and contribute to the improvement of their community and society.
  • Is designed, managed and funded to support this kind of deeper learning for each and every child.
  • Assesses learning authentically, with tools that are used to inform teaching and support progress, rather than to punish students, staff, or schools.
  • Guarantees a diverse and highly competent educator work force with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to help all children succeed.
  • Continually improves through research, evaluation, sharing of data and best practices, and ongoing inquiry within and across every level of the system.

Addressing the new moment

In this new moment, a growing common ground is emerging on which Americans agree. Most people want an education system that guarantees that all children learn and graduate, find good jobs, and contribute to improving their communities.

We will see over the coming months whether a bipartisan Senate bill that seeks to expand this common ground and create room for state and local innovation can lead to a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act for the first time in more than a decade. It will be critical that our next federal policy allows schools to address the new moment for learning more effectively than did our last.

Building on the large body of evidence about how young people learn best, we need to make headway on how to establish and support 21st century teaching in our nation’s schools.

We also need to make headway on an equity agenda that will level the playing field for all our children. Today, the U.S. system provides the most unequal educational inputs and outcomes in the industrialized world, with more children living in poverty, without homes and food security, in more segregated communities, and with more unequal school funding than any of our peer nations.

Inequality is the single most fundamental reason for our country’s lackluster performance on measures like the Program in International Student Assessment (PISA), where we rank 21st in reading and 32nd in mathematics. Our focus on lower-level basic skills, rather than the higher-level abilities evaluated by PISA, is the other.

That our recent policies have not sufficiently changed the nature of learning and the extent of inequality is demonstrated by the fact that U.S. scores on PISA declined in every subject area between 2000 and 2012, with large racial and economic gaps among children’s opportunities and performance persisting.

A Learning Policy Institute

It is time to get serious about how to support and enable our education system to respond to the massive changes in learning that some other nation’s systems have been addressing more systemically, with much better results, over the last two decades.

That is why I am working with colleagues to launch the Learning Policy Institute, an independent, national education think tank that will conduct and communicate high-quality research to shape policies that can enable equitable and empowering learning for each and every child.

Why a new think tank?

There are many outstanding scholars who are doing important research about what works in our schools, and many outstanding practitioners demonstrating what can be done. But too often, both the knowledge from research and the wisdom of practice is left on the shelf or isolated in a few innovative schools. And when policy decisions are made, they’re often disconnected from research-based evidence and from the real-world experiences of educators, students and families.

The Learning Policy Institute will connect policymakers, educators, researchers, community groups, government and business officials, and others who share a commitment to high-quality education for all children with evidence to guide their search for smart policy.

We are building a team of researchers, educators, policy experts and communicators who can marshal, translate and disseminate research for federal, state, and local policymakers; work with other organizations to host policy briefings, seminars and debates; and engage in outreach and networking activities to help districts, states, and federal agencies learn from what works.

The Learning Policy Institute is based on a set of values that considers a high-quality education that helps all students prepare for the challenges of our fast-changing, knowledge-based society to be an essential component of a 21st century democracy. We will follow the evidence wherever it leads, and will work with those of any political affiliation or point of view who share that commitment.

What do we mean by “learning policy?”

Our name indicates a distinct perspective in which we place learning at the center of our attention. We’re not just talking about policy for its own sake, but policy that will promote deeper learning for all children to meet the needs of our society today. We believe that learning opportunities for children, educators, and schools need to evolve to meet the demands of today’s society, and that education systems must evolve to meet those needs. We believe that systems can learn when they are designed to promote continuous improvement - and that policy can be designed to create such learning systems.

Our name also signals how we will work. That is, we are eager to learn with and from others in the education arena and other fields of work, within the U.S. and globally, as well as from data-driven research. We believe that cross-cutting, transpartisan conversations - informed by what many people know about good practice - will help us find solutions to difficult problems. Therefore, we will join with others to organize convenings and forums where together we can develop pragmatic, evidence-based solutions that can address the complex realities facing public schools and their communities.

How is this Institute different?

Most research evolves from study questions and funding opportunities that are not particularly designed or well-timed to answer immediate policy questions - or to do so in a form that takes into account the contexts for implementation and what is possible in light of fiscal and political constraints.

We plan to focus on pressing policy questions and seek useful evidence by organizing and synthesizing previous research and commissioning new studies that are designed to answer those questions. Equally important, we will translate research and analysis so that it is accessible and digestible for policymakers and others working to shape policies and practices that enable each and every child to learn, think and thrive.

It’s become clear to many that fighting old, divisive battles over last century’s educational models won’t prepare our children for the new world they face. I invite you to join me in a new conversation, grounded in evidence about what works and focused on the learning our nation needs.