New Ideas for a New Era of Public Education: Moving Beyond a Portfolio of Schools to a Portfolio of Student Opportunities
This specific essay was initially published as a component of CRPE’s collection commemorating their 25th anniversary, titled "Thinking Forward: New Ideas for a New Era of Public Education."
Over the course of 25 years, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has conducted extensive research, analysis, and refinement of innovative ideas aimed at realizing the full potential of public education. We have explored and tested various approaches to empower families in choosing educational environments that align with their needs, while also granting educators the freedom to design these settings. We have consistently kept the public interest in education at the forefront of our work. Our primary goal has been to address the diverse needs of communities and continuously push public officials nationwide to improve the quality of education. Our vision involves creating a flexible education system capable of consistent innovation and improvement to cater to the unique needs of every student.
We perceive public education as a collective objective, rather than being limited to a specific institution. We have actively sought ideas and evidence that strike a balance between the interests of students and families, and those of the broader public. In the years since our establishment, our ideas have greatly influenced the transformation of school systems in various locations, including New Orleans, Denver, and the nation’s capital. However, recent indications suggest that progress in these cities is beginning to plateau. Across the country, every school system continues to grapple with meeting the needs of the most complex learners and serving students most affected by trauma and poverty across generations. Furthermore, there are signs that the definition of an "effective" school needs to be reevaluated as we gain further understanding of what truly fosters optimal learning for children and adolescents, the limitations of standardized testing, and the importance of nurturing students’ ability to question and create, not just comply.
Meanwhile, the next generation is on the cusp of facing a multitude of challenges, ranging from the consequences of climate change to the evolving landscape of the economy. Education reformers globally are actively seeking new pathways to navigate these challenges.
In the past, CRPE has started with a fundamental question – what factors contribute to the cohesiveness, effectiveness, and innovation of schools? – and extrapolated the implications for policies and governance. However, by shifting our focus from the school itself to the student, we are led to explore new horizons, especially as we reflect upon lessons from the past and contemplate an uncertain future. Amidst all these considerations, there is a fundamental guiding principle that resonates throughout the essays in this collection: equipping each student with the necessary tools for an uncertain future by expanding and tailoring their opportunities for learning and personal development.
The ideas we present in these essays are not intended to establish a new school reform agenda, nor do they represent a new agenda for CRPE. We do not claim to possess all the answers. The essays are meant to stimulate fresh conversations and potentially lay the groundwork for individuals from previously divergent perspectives to come together and foster new ideas for the future. The challenges that lie ahead are too significant to be hindered by ongoing conflicts among different groups, advocates, and policymakers. Proposed solutions must be rigorously tested from diverse standpoints and, ultimately, should be implemented and overseen by local communities.
We have deliberately ventured into uncharted territory and explored grand ideas, but it is not our intention to suggest that school system leaders and policymakers should abandon their previous plans for implementing proven effective strategies. Our perspective is that the principles CRPE has always upheld – educator flexibility, empowered families making choices, a commitment to genuine equal opportunity, government assurances of quality, and authentic community engagement – are more crucial than ever. However, these strategies must evolve in ways that enable them to better address the individual needs of students.
Imagine a scenario where, in 20 years’ time, schools at the earliest grade levels prioritize highly personalized approaches, with a strong focus on early intervention and nurturing students’ unique interests and talents. Schools would go to great lengths to cater to the needs of exceptional students, rather than striving for mediocrity. This might entail redefining the role of schools as curators of services and support, rather than being the sole provider for every student.
Schools focusing on younger students would have specific outcome requirements centered around a limited set of core foundational skills that are directly linked to preparedness for secondary education. As for older students, they would have the freedom to select or construct personalized learning pathways leading to careers, such as earning competency-based credits towards high school graduation, pursuing college coursework, or obtaining industry credentials.
In terms of teaching personnel, there would be two distinct types: those who build strong relationships with students and curate customized learning packages, and subject-matter experts who specialize in teaching specific knowledge domains. The former would be located within schools, while the latter would often work in or alongside external education providers.
Schools would no longer function in isolation; instead, they would leverage learning opportunities available within the community, such as businesses, hospitals, clinics, social service organizations, cultural institutions, and colleges.
Anticipating equity challenges, particularly for low-income and rural families, would be of paramount importance. Attention to these challenges would be prioritized rather than overlooked. Community "navigators" and other organizations would play a crucial role in supporting individuals and facilitating the development of connections, networks, and a sense of community.
The government’s role in the education system is crucial for ensuring quality oversight, providing information to parents, and protecting students. However, the government should not necessarily be responsible for delivering services or prescribing specific methods.
Moving from unbundling to rebundling: Safeguards and conditions for progress
These essays demonstrate that a personalized and adaptable learning system holds great potential for students facing complex challenges, poverty, and other vulnerabilities. However, achieving this potential requires community-based attention, investment, and oversight. Merely unbundling the education system is not enough. It is essential to carefully rebundle it with safeguards in place to ensure that a flexible learning environment benefits all families, including those who are less educated or disadvantaged. If the ultimate goal of public education is social mobility, both government and community actors must take steps to work towards a more adaptable learning system. Figure 1 provides an overview of how key stakeholders can contribute to this goal.
The government should focus on ensuring a diverse supply of school providers as well as fostering partnerships with various industries, communities, and service providers. Instead of trying to improve the average student, accountability systems should concentrate on defining essential competencies that every student must acquire, such as literacy, numeracy, and fundamental knowledge of history, civics, and science. State standards can serve as a foundation, but additional competencies tailored to individual students’ learning plans should be incorporated, including career-specific skills, advanced academic specialties, and achievements in areas like technology or the arts.
Throughout the years, we have emphasized the importance of providing parents with comprehensive information as the number of educational choices in a city increases. These essays reveal that families will require a wealth of information, whether it is enabling community providers to make their services known to students and educators, helping parents navigate the array of learning opportunities both in and out of school, or assisting students in setting learning goals and finding pathways to achieve them with the help of their advisors.
While common enrollment systems and transparent data on school performance remain significant, information systems must evolve to support students and parents in discovering potential learning experiences and making informed decisions. School system leaders should consider who is best-equipped to provide this service, whether it is the district itself or independent intermediaries.
However, information guides and technology-enabled platforms alone may not suffice; families will need personalized guidance tailored to their unique needs and goals. Several essays strongly suggest the necessity for "navigators" who can assist families or teachers in curating a set of learning and support opportunities for individual students, while also advocating for those students if any issues arise. Individual consultants and nonprofit organizations could fulfill this role. As mentioned earlier, certain schools or charter management organizations may shift their focus to the navigation function rather than providing all of the support themselves.
Community-based organizations may expand their roles to encompass more than attracting new school operators and creating conditions for their success. School districts, charter authorizers, and other school system leaders must also consider a wider range of community assets, including academic enrichment opportunities, tutoring providers, and social services. This will require collaboration with businesses, higher education institutions, medical and social service providers, and other community organizations. Although these entities have a vested interest in the K–12 education system, they often operate independently.
Transportation poses a significant barrier for many families in decentralized school systems. It also hinders access to learning opportunities beyond regular school hours or outside of school premises. School system leaders must explore new approaches to transport students to and from after-school tutoring, mental health appointments, and out-of-school enrichment experiences, or alternatively, bring these services to students wherever they are.
Unbundling the education system brings the risk of funding misallocation. It is crucial to have auditing and oversight measures in place to prevent misconduct. Considering that some operators, such as career and technical education centers or online course providers, may operate across traditional jurisdictional boundaries, state governments may need to strengthen their oversight efforts in this area.
Steps communities can take to bridge the gap
We do not claim to provide an exact blueprint for the future of the public education system. However, we do emphasize certain priorities, such as improved career training and a greater focus on students who are currently underserved by the school system. We also highlight important strategic elements, including reevaluating the career path and training programs for teachers, aligning funding and accountability systems with individual students’ needs, and ensuring equitable access to out-of-school learning opportunities. For policymakers and practitioners seeking to implement these concepts practically, we provide tangible starting points.
– Analyze data: Identify the students who are currently not receiving the support they need and explore ways to make the system more adaptable to their unique learning requirements.
– Engage with the community: Assess the learning opportunities available outside of the school system and evaluate whether all students have equal access. Develop strategies to make these opportunities more widely accessible.
—Examine gaps. Are there any learning opportunities or support services that students currently lack? Could accountability policies be implemented to identify and intervene early to prevent the need for more intensive interventions later on?
—Assess infrastructure. Do families have the necessary information to find educational paths that align with their goals? What systems could be put in place to provide access to this information? Does transportation pose a barrier to accessing learning opportunities? Could community-based guides assist low-income or disadvantaged families in accessing social services and out-of-school learning? Could these activities be funded through specialized accounts and their outcomes tracked?
—Consider funding. Can the district and its schools adapt to rapid changes in enrollment? Are they receiving adequate funding based on each student’s individual needs? Are there specific funding sources, such as supplemental funds for special education or extracurricular programs, that could be distributed directly to students in a "backpack" format? Can social service funding be combined with education-specific funds to support students’ educational objectives?
—Identify innovators. Seek out and invest in truly innovative education proposals that cater to the needs of students with leadership potential or other unique talents. Create school design incubators that apply brain science to develop new school models. Establish teacher training programs for educators interested in teaching in these new school designs.
—Break boundaries. Develop industry apprenticeship partnerships that offer triple credit for high school, college, and industry credentials. Authorize charter and autonomous schools focused on creating innovative pathways that combine college preparation with career development. Allow flexibility in regulations to enable experimental schools to serve grades 9-14 or 9-16, as well as adult education. Encourage the establishment of specialized microschools focused on exceptional college preparation. Allow families to allocate funds saved on electives towards personalized support for students or future retraining.
—Seek meaningful metrics. Shift accountability systems to prioritize "gateway" assessments that consume minimal time, and provide more intensive improvement-focused site visits for schools that would benefit the most from support. Emphasize parent information systems at the high school level.
Bringing it all together
Discussions about the future of education reform often get caught up in either-or debates. Should districts concentrate on improving their own schools or partnering with autonomous school options? Can students access job-related learning experiences without sacrificing college preparatory coursework? Should states invest in expanding universal pre-K and other programs aimed at laying academic foundations, or should they focus on building K-12 schools that foster faster rates of academic growth?
An adaptable public education system would avoid simplistic answers and instead focus on providing effective, flexible, and personalized pathways towards shared objectives. It would create opportunities for every student to achieve essential competencies and provide the necessary support for them to reach their full potential and pursue personal goals, such as job skills, language proficiency, social-emotional development, and accomplishments in science or the arts.
Most importantly, an agile education system would be open to change if something is not working or if a student’s needs are not being met. A student-centered system would be driven by the desire to do whatever it takes to prepare each student to solve future problems and seize opportunities that lie ahead for the next generation.
CRPE has been advocating and testing ideas for systems change for 25 years; we understand the challenges involved in implementing the proposals we put forth. A fully realized student-centered education system entails risks. Would individual gain come at the expense of community welfare? Would the safeguards we propose be sufficient to protect the most vulnerable and bridge opportunity gaps? Could "reformers" make the same mistakes as before and advocate for policies that lack strong support from the community? Would personalized career paths and deeper industry partnerships overly steer students or place excessive focus on careers within education? How would existing schools and districts cope with the disruptions and financial strain of increased customization? Is the traditional American high school still relevant in an era of agility?
These proposals also necessitate policy changes and system adaptations that may be difficult to envision in the present. Some require collaboration and agreements among higher education institutions, school districts, industries, and community service providers that have not historically worked together effectively. They imply significant shifts in how we train educators, and potentially changes to labor contracts. There may be new costs involved, despite options for redistributing funding.
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