21st Century Schools…Transform or Reform?


Following up my last post regarding binary choices decisions made in today’s schools, I had an opportunity to review Newburyport Public School’s recently launched Strategic Plan that is in the beginning stages of implementation, but holds promise for students and the district going forward.  Considering that the current kindergarten class will graduate in 2028, and babies born this past New Year’s Day will graduate post 2034, it is time for schools to shift their thinking from one of fixing or reforming schools to the bigger question of how to best transform them. Newburyport’s Strategic Plan leans in the direction of transformation; was developed by a full range of stakeholders; but more importantly that  diverse group of stakeholders including students, educators, community members, businesses and non profits will continue to guide the process going forward.

As my previous writings have addressed, it isn’t simply about getting the latest and greatest technology in the hands of students and teachers regarding 21st Century Learning. It’s more about understanding how to use technology as a tool to create the flexibility for learning essentially anytime, anyplace and perhaps most importantly, any pace. However…

…without access to good technology and connectivity, school districts will fall behind and fall behind quickly in developing the innovative environments that personalize learning structures for students to meet the demands to be college and career ready. Typically, schools lack the resources and more important a coherent plan that allows for adjusting to a rapidly changing techno;ogy environment with both minimal disruptions and costs.  An example of a critical decision for schools is a decision to utilize free open source material and curriculum with an emphasis on professional development; or continue to purchase packaged curriculum, licenses, and changing technology with year to year updates and budget implications. Newburyport’s Strategic Plan allows for either direction, but the important decision still needs to be made.

However, the strategic plan includes the critical elements for creating that flexible environments that allow for students to learn beyond the confines of a classroom and at an appropriate pace for how they best demonstrate understanding of essential knowledge.  The ‘how’ is always the challenge and in a 21st century teaching and learning environment that uses technology wisely, there should not be limitations placed on students bound by place and especially time.  Some of the strategies outlined in Newburyport’s plan that fall into the 21st century transform rather than reform mode include:

  • Opportunities to develop competencies and assessments that include credit for experiences for non traditional opportunities outside of the classroom.  This could include a varied or  menu of assessments to meet course competencies that allow students to earn credit through a combination of typical course assessments and/or an internship experience, and/or a project based experience.  Such systems of competency based vs. grade based credit is becoming more mainstream and accepted by colleges as a basis for admission
  • Developing partnerships in and outside the school district.  As an example, schools can now set up classes as learning studios where engineers in the field or college professors can virtually work with high school physics and math teachers throughout a school year on a particular challenge that connects with course competencies and real world or local issues. Efforts to connect with businesses, universities, and non-profits is not a new concept, but the results of those efforts have often been sporadic and informal due to the physical scheduling of opportunities and people’s ablity to leave their work environment is quite limited.  Today’s technology can provide consistent connections because virtual connections from the university or workplace to the classroom potentially provides a deeper level of learning and understanding.  Students will be better able to use these experiences to demonstrate mastery of course competencies by connecting and applying what they’re learning across the curriculum to the real world.

The second point regarding partnerships is one that great strides haves been made in the Newburyport greater educational community.  However, this is the nexus of where leveraging technology to transform schools is at…actually integrating the real world, universities, businesses, non profits, not only into the classrooms as an add on; but also into the curriculum connecting student learning to real world issues and solutions.

As Newburyport’s Strategic Plan is implemented, the community will need to gauge whether it tips into the notion of transformation and 21st century possibilities for which it has provided. We need to choose our century and ask, “Why will students need to come to school as we move through the second and third decades of the 21st Century that current students will experience?” It certainly will not be solely for the transmission of information based frameworks of 20th century schools.  Success and achievement will be measured more by innovation where students will need to access and apply what they know to new environments that connect to a much broader world. In Thomas Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat, he noted that if you are not an innovator in today’s market, you will be jobless. Schools situated in the 20th Century will not be graduating 21st Century innovators. Newburyport’s Strategic Plan offers a chance to provide the innovative teaching and learning conditions needed going forward.



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  1. […] & child development, and 21st century learning issues.  Two of my more recent posts about school transformation and moving to later starting times for the high school relate specifically to Newburyport. They […]

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