Rethinking Education

We recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of our Condition of Education in the Commonwealth project. Over the past decade, we’ve tracked progress in our education system, called attention to challenges, and highlighted promising models to strive toward and scale. We’ve released annual Action Guides looking at everything from social-emotional learning to rethinking assessments to recovering from a pandemic. 

Since we first began this project, the world has changed. The needs of students have evolved. Our understanding of how students learn has grown. Now, it’s time for this project to change as well. 

Our education system is at a crossroads. After years of disruption from the pandemic, we are seeing significant increases in chronic absenteeism, decreased academic achievement, greater need for mental health support among students, and persistent staffing challenges. There’s an instinct by some to return to “normal” and recover the stability and consistency of a time before the pandemic. And while this may seem appealing, we know we can’t go back. 

The old way wasn’t working well for all. While the pandemic exacerbated many problems in our education system, it didn’t cause them. For instance, in 2018, less than half of all eighth grade students were proficient in math, and far too many were disengaged from school. As a state, we have never fulfilled our promise to educate all students. And, for students facing systemic racism or economic hardship, or who are neurodiverse learners, putting back the old system often simply means rebuilding the same barriers that have denied them opportunities.

Our education system has become a relic of the past, designed for an industrial age when the goal of school was to prepare students to work on an assembly line. It’s time we acknowledge the shortcomings of this system and begin to build approaches to learning that match the ways our children and youth understand and navigate their daily lives.

It’s time to truly rethink education. And we see this as the new focus of our Condition of Education project. Over the coming year and beyond we will be asking bigger questions about how we rethink when, where, and how students learn. 

For example, how can we rethink people? We know that educators are dedicated and highly skilled professionals doing their best to juggle the many responsibilities on their plates. But we also know that the teaching profession, as currently structured, often places a uniform set of demands on all educators without regard to their interests, skills, and experience. Instead, we can imagine learning environments where all adults, especially those who are most accomplished in their field, are available to support students across classrooms and grade levels rather than working with a single class. Or we can picture teacher teams that move freely in and out of classrooms, connecting with different-sized student groups around areas of specialty. This would lead to a more dynamic profession where teachers can pursue their interests, enjoy more flexible staffing, develop stronger relationships with students and peers–and hopefully, avoid burning out and leaving the field entirely.

How can we rethink place and embrace the brave new world technology offers? We can imagine expanding the basic definition of a school by leveraging technology to break down physical barriers to learning. A world where a students’ place of residence doesn’t determine the quality of their education. One where students have easy access to the full strength of their communities and the broader world.

And, how can we rethink time and finally acknowledge that child development has never occurred on a set schedule? We can imagine shifting when learning happens so it better aligns with students’ development and family needs. It could be more personalized, allowing students to progress at their own pace to demonstrate competency, while ensuring support and enrichment is provided throughout the entire year.

While these ideas may seem lofty and out of reach, there are some models across the state that are already beginning to do the work of rethinking people, place, and time. 

The Alternative Choices in Education (ACE) Program in Brookline offers a competency-based program with thematic, 6-week mini-courses; small, multi-age advisory groups; and a learning experience that is self-paced, self-directed, and offers flexible scheduling to allow for college courses, internships, and community service projects. Collectively, these opportunities aim to break down the physical barriers to learning between the classroom and the real world. 

Students at the Carlton Innovation School in Salem learn in multi-age cohorts, following personalized learning plans at their own pace dependent on mastery and skill. Since scheduling is flexible, academic specialists and support staff can ensure students have full access to targeted supports based on individual needs. 

At Leominster Center for Excellence, a Big Picture Learning school, students spend two days a week completing a credit-bearing internship in an industry aligned with their goals. They have control over the development of their own academic plans and benchmarks, and they demonstrate their mastery through an exhibition where they present what they've learned to staff, parents, and mentors at the end of each trimester, redefining who is involved in the learning process from beginning to end. 

As part of the Campus Without Walls initiative, teachers and students leverage technology to join classes presented by experienced lead teachers from outside their home school. Students can engage in robust and diverse offerings that otherwise wouldn't be available, such as "Environmental Justice," "Forensic Science," and "The Supreme Court in Action."

These examples show us that rethinking our education system is possible. But how do we get there? Where do we start? We don’t have these answers yet. This process is one that will require input from the whole field as well as students, parents, and community members. So over the coming year and beyond, we will bring people together and forge new connections, while opening up space to ask questions that we can work together to solve. 

Our first step in this process is a virtual community forum on April 26th focused on Rethinking the Teaching Profession. How can teachers’ work day and work week be structured to enable more time for collaboration, reflection, and relationship building? How can schools rethink the "one teacher, one classroom" model? What would it take for the demands of the teaching job to be shared across a team of professionals? Please join us to discuss these questions as we gather input from staff across the education sector, including teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals. We will share ideas generated during this forum with policymakers and decision-makers. 

More events like this will be coming out throughout the year. We hope you will join us on this journey to rethink our education system. For too long we've expected that making improvements in individual schools would propel broader systemic change. This hasn't happened. It’s time for a bigger and bolder approach. But we can only do it together.

Listen in to our Condition of Education Community Conversation to hear more about the innovative ways the ACE program, Big Picture Learning schools, Campus Without Walls, the Carlton School are redefining when, where, and how students learn. And listen in to our Condition of Education Release Event to hear more about our vision for rethinking education.