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Building a New Engine

What will it take to design an education system that prepares 21st-century learners?

July 12, 2015
Paul Reville on the Harvard campus

As the secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Professor Paul Reville oversaw a system of reforms that produced better student-achievement results than any other state in the country. But instead of resting on those laurels, he’s focusing on what schools — and school-reform efforts — have thus far been unable to accomplish: overcoming persistent achievement gaps and preparing all students, no matter their individual backgrounds, for success in the 21st century. We’ve got an engine that’s broken, Reville says; reforms may help it run, but they won’t get us where we need to go.

Can we design a new engine — one that will help all students succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy? Reville wants the Harvard Graduate School of Education to play a leading role in answering that question. This spring, he announced the launch of a new HGSE initiative called the Education Redesign Lab, which he hopes will drive a national conversation about rethinking education for the 21st century.

Reville will open an early chapter in that conversation when he hosts an interactive Usable Knowledge Webinar on July 23, 2015, from 2 to 3:30 EDT, called Building a New Model: A 21st-Century Education that Works for All. (To join him for this provocative session, register here.)

Meanwhile, Usable Knowledge asked him to outline his vision for a newly engineered system of education.

In a recent piece for Education Week, you give a bracing assessment of education reform in Massachusetts, calling it a failure. Explain what you mean, and how the Massachusetts experience is relevant to the rest of the country.

"We must differentiate our approach, much as a health care system differentiates its diagnoses for each patient.” -- Paul Reville, HGSE @harvardedMy point is that when states like Massachusetts set out to do education reform in the 1990s, we intended to achieve a radical new goal for education: educating all of our students, so that not just a few, but all were prepared to be successful in college and careers. Despite making progress in many states, and substantial progress here in Massachusetts, we are still a long way from having achieved the goal of educating all of our students for success. In Massachusetts, our impressive achievement and attainment averages, on which our nation- and sometimes world-leading rankings are based, conceal deep, persistent achievement gaps, most of which correlate with the same factors — like socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, special needs, English language learner status — that have historically predicted substandard performance.

I conclude that we set the right goal for education reform — to educate all of our students, and all means all, for success — but that we failed to adopt the right strategies and to design the right delivery system to achieve our unprecedented and highly ambitious goal.

You say that what’s needed now is a 21st-century model of child development and education — nothing less than a massive redesign of our system of educating and supporting children. Can you talk specifically about some of the features of this 21st century system?

The new system must operate according to the three following design principles: 

Personalization. It must meet every child where he or she is in early childhood and give him/her the support, guidance, and learning opportunities necessary for that child to be successful at each stage of her educational journey, enabling her to emerge from the system with at least some measure of postsecondary education ready to be successful in work, citizenship, family life, and lifelong learning. To accomplish this we must differentiate our approach to individuals in the education system, much as a health care system differentiates its diagnoses and prescriptions for each patient. Each child should have access to the quality and quantity of learning opportunities that enable him/her to achieve high standards. The system will adapt to the client’s needs, which will be inconvenient for adults but much more likely to succeed, especially for those children who have historically been least well served by our schools.

Integrated Health and Social Services. Our 21st-century system of education and child development must directly address those impediments to learning that arise in children’s lives outside of school. We need to braid our systems of support with our education systems so that we mitigate those problems that get in the way of children coming to school ready to learn and supplying their best effort when in school.

Equity in Access to Out-of-School Learning. During the K–12 years, students spend barely 20 percent of their waking hours in school. They spend 80 percent of their potential learning time outside of school. Affluent children have continuous access to enriched learning opportunities like camp, lessons, sports, travel, technology, and more, while disadvantaged youngsters have limited or no access to such learning. And it turns out that out-of-school learning has every bit as much to do with achievement gaps that show up in school as anything that happens in the classroom. Therefore, until we create a level playing field of access to out of school enrichment and learning, we have no hope of achieving our education goal of educating all students for success.

The Education Redesign Lab is a new initiative you’ve launched at HGSE to jumpstart the R&D on this — to start researching and building new kinds of systems. Talk about your plans.

The Education Redesign Lab aims to provoke a national design conversation and initiative to build 21st-century systems of education and child development. Our lab actively advocates for honest, data-driven conversations about the failings of the current education delivery system, the impact of poverty on student learning, and the necessity for designing and building new systems that guarantee that our twin educational goals of equity and excellence are achieved for each and every child.

We will be sponsoring field work with cities and states that agree to implement aspects of our three central design principles: personalization, integrated health and human services, and equitable access to “out of school” learning. We will evaluate these projects and document successes and failures. We will conduct research on best practices and on the impediments to scaling success.

We will sponsor design projects aimed at conceiving of new schools and systems. We will convene cutting-edge practitioners from around the world to meet, network, and learn as part of an effort to intentionally build a field.

Finally, we will advocate for the changes needed to implement the policies and practices that will most effectively contribute to achieving the goal of educating all students to high levels — and “all means all.”

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