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Now We Confront the Real Equity Challenge: Providing Access to 21st Century Learning

Now We Confront the Real Equity Challenge: Providing Access to 21st Century Learning

This post was first published December 11, 2015 by The Huffington Post.

Renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was once considered a long shot, but yesterday the new, bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law. This historical accomplishment comes not a moment too soon.

No Child Left Behind, the previous iteration of the act, importantly aimed attention on the achievement of underserved students. However, it was criticized for focusing schools almost exclusively on teaching for low-level multiple-choice tests in reading and math to the neglect of other subject areas and higher-level skills. Two key questions now are whether federal regulators will encourage states to take advantage of the new flexibility provided by ESSA to move teaching and learning purposefully into the 21st century—and whether states will assure that these opportunities are made available to all students, rather than an elite few.

The need for immediate action is acute. Today’s fast-paced technological advances are continually automating routine functions that once created low-skilled jobs. Not only can computers check you in at the airport and check you out at the grocery store. Together with robotics, they can clean houses, conduct surgery and steer self-driving cars.

Gone are the days where rote learning of routine skills leads to good jobs. As the pace of global change continues, the old assembly line model of education won’t suffice. The top skills needed for employment in 2020 are the abilities to make sense out of complex information and events, to think creatively to solve real-world problems, to work well with others, to engage effectively in cross-cultural contexts, and to manage many forms of media as well as quantitative data in sophisticated ways.

As other countries that have been attending to these skills are surging ahead, U.S. students’ scores during the NCLB era dropped on international assessments like the Program in International Student Assessment (PISA) and, more recently, on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress.

More importantly, people who lack access to higher-level skills will increasingly find themselves unable to join the workforce and participate effectively in society. This has enormous implications for us all. With a greater number of seniors living longer, for example, the social compact that supports our collective health benefits and social security cannot be sustained unless all of the younger generation can gain productive employment, support themselves, and pay taxes to help support others.

This is why it is our collective responsibility - as parents, educators, community members, and as a society - to ensure that all young people have equal access to a high quality, world-class education. This goal has never been more important than in today’s fast growing knowledge economy.

Developing 21st Century Learning

In recent years, state and local policymakers have spearheaded initiatives aimed at updating the “mile wide, inch deep” learning standards of the past with a newer set of “fewer, higher, and deeper” learning goals. These emphasize critical thinking and analytic skills, as well as the ability to investigate, communicate, and collaborate in order to solve problems and create products and solutions. Such deeper learning competencies are needed for success in postsecondary education as well as in the global marketplace.

We have many examples of schools that know how to provide these skills and are succeeding with historically underserved students. These include Boston’s Pilot Schools, California’s Linked Learning Academies, the Bay Area’s Envision Schools, members of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, and national networks like the Internationals Network for Public Schools and New Tech High Schools Network, as well as innovative schools in districts ranging from Danville, Kentucky to Denver, Colorado.

Research on schools like these has found that they have stronger academic outcomes, better attendance and student behavior, lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates, and higher rates of college attendance and perseverance than other schools serving similar students. These outcomes are particularly pronounced for students of color, low-income students and recent immigrants. The schools have many practices in common, including;

  • A focus on authentic instruction and assessment in the form of project-based learning that develops content mastery and language skills, performance-based assessments, collaborative learning, and connections to the world beyond school;
  • Personalized supports for student learning in the form of advisors who work closely with students over multiple years, teams of teachers who know how to design effective instruction and differentiate supports, and integration of social-emotional learning, as well as needed social services;
  • Supports for educator learning through opportunities for shared reflection and analysis of what is working and needs to improve, as well as extensive collaboration and professional development focused on learning to teach this kind of sophisticated curriculum to diverse learners.

In high-poverty communities, many of these schools have recruited external partners to establish wraparound support systems for students and their families, including physical and mental health services, before and after-school programs, and summer learning opportunities that enable all students to succeed. Across all of these settings, teachers balance high expectations for all students with sensitivity to individual real-life challenges, so that they can help students manage and surmount obstacles, develop perseverance and a growth mindset, and become resourceful and resilient - all key skills for all of life.

Creating Equitable Access to Deeper Learning

The good news is that we know more about how to teach for the kind of learning today’s world requires. The bad news is that these kinds of learning opportunities are the exception rather than the rule, as schools have had to swim against recent policy currents to do this kind of work. In the months and years ahead, it will be critical for states to follow the lead of pioneers like New Hampshire, Kentucky, and California in redesigning their systems of curriculum, assessment, accountability, educator support, and school funding to allow new models of education to flourish across communities.

Most states have developed new college and career ready standards that articulate these more ambitious learning goals. Fewer have yet developed widely available professional learning opportunities for educators - including those in high-need communities - that will enable them to develop the necessary teaching strategies and support systems. ESSA could help increase educator capacity quality by providing states and districts with resources for high quality induction services for new teachers, ongoing evidence-based professional development for teachers.

As in Kentucky, this will require developing more sustained professional development programs and moving beyond the one-shot, “spray and pray” teacher workshops commonplace in the U.S. These will ideally be led by expert teachersand grounded in collegial efforts to select, develop and test new curriculum and lesson ideas, reflect together on what’s working and how to refine teaching, and figure out how to reach students who need additional supports.

In addition, because most previous tests were not designed to measure these skills, efforts have been underway to develop new assessments that can support and evaluate student progress toward the new college and career-ready standards. States will need to develop systems of assessment that blend more thoughtful state assessments with local performance tasks which can offer more information about critical student competencies.

ESSA will allow some states to develop and implement innovative pilot programs that could reduce unnecessary testing while expanding performance-based methods — such as those being constructed in New Hampshire and Colorado — that can better inform teaching and contribute to student learning. As other high-performing countries have demonstrated, such tasks can measure and develop students’ abilities to plan, investigate, evaluate information, and use technologies to solve scientific, social, and engineering problems and communicate their solutions and products in multiple forms. Hopefully, as successful strategies are piloted, the number of states incorporating these kinds of assessments will expand, so that students across the country will be able to catch up to their international peers.

The new ESSA will allow states to expand the measures by which they track school and student performance, including students’ opportunities to engage in college and career-ready coursework and internships beyond the school walls; students’ access to educational resources and supportive school environments; and their learning of science, history / social studies, citizenship, and the arts, as well as social-emotional skills. In California, this has meant developing a system of accountability that funds schools based on pupil needs and looks at multiple measures for all groups of students in ways that can flag inequalities, while driving a system of continuous improvement.

All of these steps can expand learning opportunities. Yet, they will not be enough to ensure that 21st century learning is available to all of our nation’s children. Importantly, states and the federal government will need to address a wide range of structural inequalities that contribute to learning and achievement gaps. This includes dramatically inequitable school funding across states, districts, and schools and the intensified segregation of students on the basis of race and socio-economic status which have, together, created a growing number of under-resourced apartheid schools serving exclusively poor and minority students.

Even as our nation pursues new efforts at desegregation, these schools must be enabled to create the same exciting learning opportunities for their students to join the knowledge economy as those in the wealthiest communities in our land. The issues are so important and the disparities so wide that African American parents in Chicago recently took up a 34-day hunger strike to secure the continuation and redesign of a neighborhood high school as a Global Leadership and Green Technology school that could help bring a 21st century curriculum to a neglected community where students have often been denied the very fundamentals of a basic education.

Equity and Deeper Learning Opportunities for All Students

Last month, the Learning Policy Institute, in collaboration with Jobs for the Future and UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, launched a public dialogue with policymakers, educators, advocates and business leaders about how to build deeper learning opportunities for all students nationwide. With the President’s signature on the new ESSA, it’s time to broaden this conversation to focus on how states and localities can make powerful learning a reality for each and every child, so that success is defined, not by a test score that measures skills of the past, but by how well students are prepared for the world they are entering and must help to advance and sustain.