Real Change with 21st Century Learning Communities

By Robert Plants
Editor, Schools for the 21st Century

[Note: This article was first posted as a comment on Bonnie Bracey Sutton‘s “What Should Pres. Obama Do About Educational Reform?” by Robert Plants on 3 August 2010. -js]

This may sound a bit scattered so forgive me in advance. When Obama became President, I was excited to see who he would name to his cabinet post on education. When he named Arne Duncan, I almost immediately closed the book on my hopes for real educational change. I lived in Chicago during the time Obama was a rising star, and I can tell you that the city’s public schools were not that spiffy. I believe it was during this time that a scandal arose over the discovery of hundreds of computers that were stored but never ended up in schools. These were bought using the old E-Rate program. So Mr. Duncan to me is no better than any other big city education bureaucrat — a bad choice.

So what would have been real change? Well, I was really excited when the administration was talking to Linda Darling Hammond. Why? It’s because I know her work is on the cutting edge in education. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. She is behind hundreds of significant research projects over the past few years. Her research center has some of the best minds in the country. She is a colleague with my mentor John Bransford, and combined, they have developed innovative ideas for learning, teaching, and schooling based on years of research.

One of the most innovative ideas that I ever experienced came from Dr. Bransford through a collaboration with experts from economics. The idea is based on models of economic development that have been implemented with success in other countries. In this model, schools become 21st century learning communities. Children come to school with their parents and grandparents. Schools not only offer a basic K-12 education, but they also offer job training, healthcare, professional development courses, etc. These are exactly the kinds of services/support needed, along with parental involvement and role modeling, in low performing or failing schools to help learners become successful at learning. Why is it perfect? It’s because our schools’ failures are due to more than concepts that don’t work in a modern society; it’s that change must go deeper to have any substantial success.

Then, you ask, how might these ideas work in other schools? I think both sides of the political spectrum will agree that too many kids walk around without purpose and without any ideas in their head about what they want to be and do. This can and often does happen after four years of college. I think coming out of our secondary system, all learners must go through some form of community service for a period of two years. This would help them learn who they are and what their interests are. Those who are not college bound could continue in the skills and trades where they could be successful and provide a successful home environment while those who are college bound would have the experiences that help form the interests that would drive their time in college. They would know what they want to do and enter the appropriate majors and related experiences.

I know that my explanation is a bit scattered, but these ideas were generated by innovative people based on well documented research. Thus, this was the kind of real change I expected. However, so far, all I have seen is more testing and more accountability measures, which do not prove that learners understand and can apply knowledge. All it proves is that they might be able to pass certain tests.

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