The devastating picture presented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress has sparked much debate about what it will take to overcome two years of the pandemic, which followed a decade of stagnant academic achievement. Well, Joel Rose, CEO and co-founder of New Classrooms, argues that the most important thing we can do is rethink the “industrial paradigm” of schooling. I have known Joel for almost 15 years and have long found him an interesting thinker and New Classrooms an intriguing model. When he offered to share some thoughts about what schools should do, I decided to pick him up. Here’s what he said.
The headlines were hard to read: NAEP assessments of the nation’s 4th and 8th graders showed the pandemic had wiped out years of academic gains.
Alarming as it is, the news still largely ignores what was true before the pandemic, when only 11 of 25 students in a nationally representative 4th grade class were considered “proficient” in math — and when only six remained experienced graduation.
Learning loss may be more severe, but certainly not new.
Considering what to do about it requires reflection on a broader question: why movements over the past two decades to raise standards, improve teacher quality, modernize curricula, provide choice, improve assessment, foster accountability, and increase funding seem to have had so limited in nature. impact on college and career readiness?
One possible answer is that almost all of these reforms left the basic principles of the industrial paradigm intact.
This approach, where groups of students of the same age learn the same thing at the same time with a teacher and (usually) from a textbook, was developed more than a century ago as a means of ranking and sorting students along different life paths – effectively a temporary academic obstacle course with real consequences.
This is a paradigm that has at least two fatal flaws.
First, it is unforgiving of those who fall behind. What is taught depends on age, not knowledge. Stumble for any reason, like a pandemic, and it can be hard to catch up, especially in cumulative subjects like math.
Second, what the student experiences at school is limited by the teacher’s capabilities. Like many teachers, I tried to meet the unique needs of each of my students, design and deliver engaging lessons, carefully review their class and homework assignments, maintain close communication with parents, and more. This is what students, families and taxpayers deserve. But I just didn’t have the time or resources to do it sustainably.
If it were possible to achieve significant improvements in our overall education system without messing with the industrial paradigm itself, we would probably have seen it by now. Yes, all the reforms that have revived the last two decades can change the situation. But if pre-pandemic national skill gains of 2 percentage points per decade are the best that could be hoped for, it will be at least a century before the vast majority of students graduate from college and prepare for careers.
The K-12 sector requires another path that is freed from these constraints.
There are undoubtedly better ways to “do school” in the 21st century than what the architects of the 19th century industrial classroom paradigm envisioned. Learning today can be more personalized, more reflective of the science of learning, more supportive of education, more reflective of what local communities are looking for, and most importantly, more impactful to students. But these new approaches need to be developed and scaled.
How exactly can such a future be brought to life?
To help pave the way forward, New Classrooms (the organization I lead) has partnered with Transcend, an organization that supports schools in implementing new learning models, to release a new report called Beyond the Standard: How Innovative Learning Models Can Transform K-12 Education. The report focuses on the role of model providers: organizations that develop more modern approaches to teaching and learning and then support the adoption of these approaches in partnership with like-minded local school communities.
Model providers do not run schools. They are more like learning organizations that reimagine what students experience when they come to school. But because the models these organizations create can have a profound impact on the student experience, both model providers and school operators can share responsibility for student outcomes.
Several organizations are working to create a model supplier sector. Our own work focuses on development Teach one 360, proof of what an innovative learning model can be. It uses diagnostic assessment to create a precise, personalized math program for middle and high school students that adapts throughout the school year based on individual progress. Most uniquely, 360 integrates a mix of collaborative and independent teacher-led lessons and a first-of-its-kind scheduling algorithm so that each day students have access to the lessons and peer groups that best support their progress. (Note: The 360 will be relaunched in 2023, but an all-digital version called Teach to One Roadmaps used in schools today.)
Our experience has helped us understand the conditions necessary for schools to transition to a person-centered paradigm. It also highlighted the acute barriers to access to more schools. These include underinvestment in educational research and development, inertia in schools and districts that limits innovation, and education policies primarily around assessment and accountability that encourage perpetuation of the industrial paradigm.
The industrial paradigm class has reached its limits. While policymakers, systems, and school leaders must do what they can to deal with today’s crisis in learning, they must also begin to develop a vision for the future of schooling that moves out of the box and toward something better.
Joel Rose holds a BA in Political Science from Tufts University and a J.D. from the University of Miami.