Ten for ’15: Education Reform for A Shared Future

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

It’s that time again. New commitments and new resolutions to make…and hopefully keep. As educators and children’s advocates we are involved in many initiatives whose goals are reimagining education and providing equal opportunity to all children. We are board members and advisors to some nonprofits that are doing remarkable work with kids — Sesame Workshop, Creative Commons, The Forum for Youth Investment, We Are Family Foundation, Learning Matters, Vroom and Journeys In Film — to name a handful. These organizations are inspiring hope and change, but we need to make an even stronger social commitment in order to give each child a decent shot at fulfilling their potential.

Here are 10 ways education leaders can take stock of progress and chart a new course in 2015. We start with five takeaways from a mixed track record in the past few years:

Takeaway 1: Let’s celebrate for a moment! Kids across the globe are healthier, more are going to school, and becoming literate. But unfortunately, the U.S. is treading water while the rest of the world is diving ahead. Thanks to the remarkable progress that groups like UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, Acumen Fund, Save the Children and others are making in fighting dread diseases with affordable health regimens, empowering girls, and activating entrepreneurs to make a big difference in families lives, we are building a brighter future for millions. A recent report on the Millennial Development Goals found substantial progress on well over half of all of the target metrics, ranging from maternal and child health to children’s literacy. In our country, children’s education and health care is getting better too — the expansion of affordable health insurance has made a difference to low and moderate income families. And high school graduation rates are up. Still, our progress is at a snail’s pace — four out of five low-income 10-year-olds still can’t read well, and only 80 percent of young adults have a high school diploma. Less than four in 10 are graduating from college — a requirement needed to soar in today’s economy.

Takeaway 2: Let’s get real about standards and accountability. The debate over common core has entered a “silly season.” You know the debate is warped when comedian Louis CK’s rant about the core goes viral, and when former champions of the core — from governors to teachers unions to scholars are bailing out. The grumbling is justified given the weak job advocates have done in explaining what national standards could mean for higher performance and educational equity. David Kirp’s recent piece in the New York Times did a brilliant job of analyzing the gulf between the design of the core and the slow and difficult implementation on the ground. The debate has been, sadly, dominated by politically motivated attacks, whereas more legitimate “speed of implementation” issues are more on target. Make no mistake: the core will fail unless the high stakes testing pressures that stakeholders — especially teachers and parents — are wary of are replaced by tangible evidence of deeper, more engaged learning. Our view: many adults are acting like children, scoring political points — and that has to stop in 2015.

Takeaway 3: We have also done a lousy job engaging youth — let’s listen to the children! Young people are in active revolt against traditional learning. Too many youth are bored to tears but still forced to learn the conventional offerings of “The Place Called School” (RIP John Goodlad). A recent survey of high school kids found that almost all of them — 98 percent, reported being bored with traditional offerings. New disruptive models of education — anytime and anywhere — are proliferating. Esther recently opened up a new journalism lab called the Media Arts Center at Palo Alto High which is a modern day engagement factory for kids. The idea is based on a “blended learning” model where kids gain tangible control over their own learning through creating and participating. Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York and other cities are actively trying to “remake learning” for a digital age through the work of youth serving organizational “hives.” These collective impact clusters have been catalyzed by leadership from MacArthur Foundation, New York Community Trust, Mozilla, the Institute for Museum and Library Services and Grable Foundation.

Takeaway 4: Literacy is being redefined and new equity gaps are on the horizon. The worries from educators that there is no reading going on among today’s youth is not based in reality. Recent studies indicate that the type of reading that is going on is different — short form reading and writing driven by participation in social networking forums is proliferating. There is reason for concern — children may be gravitating away from contemplative, reflective literacy experiences and missing out on relationship-building social emotional learning opportunities. But opportunities are ripe: many youth are beginning to connect and participate in new storytelling and digital literacy experiences that will allow them to compete and cooperate in a digital and global world of work. Our concern: we must zero in on new participation gaps between higher income youth and lower income kids that scholars such as Henry Jenkins of USC, Vikki Katz of Rutgers and Susan Neuman of NYU have written so powerfully about. These scholars document ways in which access to new technologies are a gateway to high performance, and educational equity. We need a new emphasis on closing an increasingly dangerous divide.

Takeaway 5: We need to “rethink the brain.” Scientists are presenting powerful new images of children’s brain development. Beginning in the first year of a baby’s life, where synaptic connections are being molded like a sculptor chiseling a block of marble, until they graduate from high school, children are experiencing remarkable leaps and bounds in their capacities. New insights in behavioral neuroscience and in learning and developmental science can help educators gain a richer understanding of early literacy and language development or for example, the role that digital games can play in helping children focus or to be kind to their peers. Educators should pay close attention to the pioneering language development work of Pat Kuhl, the new focus on “good for you video games” developed by Adam Gazzaley, Richie Davidson, Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler, and the work on executive functioning and gameplay by Daphne Bevalier. Finally, every preschool and elementary school educator would be wise to check out the remarkable work that Ellen Galinsky and colleagues are doing with their community training based on her pioneering book Mind in the Making.

Drawing from these takeaways, how might we renew our commitment to children with new resolutions for 2015? Here are five resolutions we as educators, concerned parents and children’s advocates plan to recommit to this year. We hope you will too:

Resolution 1: Relationships matter the most
Educators need to step back from the daily fray and consider an issue that is too often overlooked: the depth and quality of their relationships with students, peers and parents. Research on young children’s developing brains and self-regulation as active learners is now aligned with decades of research by experts on school climate and parent engagement. Dr. Daniel Siegel, a pioneering neuro-psychiatrist at UCLA, recently observed: “Studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom point to relationships as the most robust predictor of positive attributes in our lives across the lifespan.”

The power of school is enhanced or diminished by the types of relationships that are formed at the core of our educational enterprise. Teachers, parents, supervisors and students must be linked together in a relationship-rich environment that is open, flexible and which relentlessly promotes learning. The power and importance of relationships in school is the main focus of Esther’s new book to be released in a few weeks entitled Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom. Students need to feel empowered and have some control over their learning. What we have learned is that “playful learning” cannot be overlooked — we need only look at the amazing staying power and renaissance of global brands like Sesame, Lego, and Disney to understand the magic of playful and purpose-filled relationships.

Resolution 2: Let’s remember that although they are different than when we were growing up, families and teachers matter even more now!
Educators need to vigorously resist being placed at cross-purposes in education reform debates with families. Teachers who are held to stringent assessment metrics often worry about how much they can do to overcome the impact of poverty and family stress — and understandably are critical of policies that weaken autonomy and expect achievement gains that are unrealistic in the short-term. Educators and families need to work together more effectively. Teachers should see parents as collaborators in the effort to educate their children and vice versa. Studies show that the most important years to establish a “pathway to success” are zero to five. Sesame Street and dozens of pioneers in early learning ranging from effective home visitation programs and Head Start have developed programs that target these important years. But parents and teachers today need support since more than 16 million children in the United States — 22% of all children — live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level — $23,550 a year! If we are going to take a broader, bolder approach to school reform, we need to see the interests of families and the teaching force as deeply intertwined. That means we have to stop bashing teachers as a sport! And every educator needs to be an advocate for strong families.

Resolution 3: Let’s make “blended learning” models work at scale.
To engage and excite lifelong learning, we have to remove the moat that too often exists between school and home. Blended learning gives students more control, empowers exploration and cuts the boredom factor. Over four decades after Sesame Street revolutionized the use of television to educate children at home with vital school readiness skills, we still need to build a bridge between informal and formal learning in K-12. One new movement supported by the White House and other leaders called Future Ready Schools focuses on using technology more effectively in schools and at home. At the moment there are thousands of districts signed up to support it but we need the whole nation on board. We also have the capacity to utilize the creativity of educational media innovators in service to our nation’s schools. Some progress has been made to reinvent public media for a digital age, but key collaboration, financial and distribution barriers must be removed between traditional TV producers and new digital media producers to ensure that children’s interests are advanced. One very promising area that the Cooney Center is researching is the power of digital games to engage students. A recent survey found that the overwhelming majority of teachers using games in schools point to positive benefits of personalized, blended learning.

Resolution 4: Let’s reward failure. Real innovation starts by taking risks.
Educators have become too hesitant to try something new which might fail because they are so concerned about accountability. However, experimentation with new media platforms especially have the potential of accelerating progress in K-12 education. In a recent series of studies and scans of the program and digital apps innovation space, the Cooney Center and New America have been mapping and tracking ways in which creative uses of technologies are “Seeding Reading” skills today. With millions of our kids on a pathway to academic failure, we may well need to harness the technology accelerator — and fail a bit through active experimentation — to stop treading water.

Resolution 5: Reformers Need a New Vision: Think Global!
Finally, reformers and Common Core advocates need new allies and a better way of explaining why they are of tangible benefit as 21st Century global competencies. People are spending too much time arguing on the margins: protests against the core need to turn into campaigns to help implement them well and to drive a fresh new vision In a famous scene in the iconic movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman is counseled to think about the next big thing: “plastics.” Today’s graduate should have confidence that they can pioneer a career seeking break-the-mold solutions. Mastering four key competencies aligned with the Common Core: basic literacy, science and math literacy, digital literacy and global literacy will in our view be critical by 2020. We live in a flatter world where the challenges our generation has left — from global conflict and environmental degradation to promoting more equitable economic opportunity — is daunting work that requires a new vision. Yes, we must build college and career ready youth as so many reform advocates have declared. But even more centrally: it’s time to promote education for effective global citizenship.

We offer one version of a new path forward in education reform. Others of equal import exist, we are sure. In any case, let’s all resolve that new efforts to build a better future for all through education will be guided by new ideas, energy and purpose. The kids are counting on us!