Transitional times

We’re in between times—in between print and digital and in between age cohorts and personalized learning. I visited with two very different groups today, both making the best of the old model.

The first group writes software for smartboards—they automated the overhead. I’m not a fan of the white-hot smartboards. I’ve seen some reasonable applications but they generally go unused or are just a cooler overhead projector and perpetuate an obsolete version of education. It’s process redesign trapped in a box. The good news is that they had been at it for 8 years; the bad news is that their code looked like it.

The second group was a visit to a respected elementary charter operator. Little kids sat obediently with hands folded on their desks and responded enthusiastically to rote prompts. Enthusiastic teachers executed a highly prescribed curriculum. They focused on reading and writing from 8am to 2pm and math after that. This school got an A+ for execution and discipline. No question, it’s a better option than the urban school down the street, but is this what education should look like today?

For the vendors in the $25B instructional support market, it’s a strange in between time. Should they pitch updated stuff to the better equipped traditional classroom or build tools for personalized digital learning? If you build a tool for yesterday’s classroom, it will soon be outdated. If you build a tool for tomorrow’s classroom, it won’t be applicable in most classrooms today. It’s a daily dilemma for me and the companies I work with.

To the credit of the two groups I visited this morning, they both work primarily with K-8 students. I suspect the teacher-centric elementary classroom will last for a long time. Well executed and data-informed they works pretty well for most kids.

At the secondary level, teacher-centric classrooms work less well. Student preparation, ability and motivation varies widely. Teens are less compliant and accustomed to a multisensory world.

The picture of the future is emerging fast; there are a growing number of examples of personalized digital learning blending onsite support services. But this transition leaves vendor willing and able to invest in product development with a dilemma: today’s classroom or tomorrow?

Thinking about transitional times reminded me of an article I wrote nine years ago. I think it was published in School Administration and I think it’s pretty darn good (but it’s frustrating to still be in between).

Standing Between Times

Leaders of the great revolutions in history have found themselves standing between times – observers of what has gone before and predictors of what will be. Like the leaders of the print revolution in the 16th century and the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, those of us involved in education are standing between epochs, struggling to interpret the signs. The advent of the information age two decades ago marked the end of the century-long industrial age. A decade later, a commensurate shift began in education from an assembly-line system that prepared one quarter of students for professional life to a performance-based system that prepares every student for a knowledge-based economy.

A prodigious scholar, teacher and theologian, James Luther Adams lived through one era to see the start of the other. In his essay Prophethood of All Believers, published shortly after World War II, Adams discussed the role of prophets as commentators and predictors during times of change. To education leaders standing between these times, Adams’ words prove telling.

“They [prophets] have attempted to interpret the signs of the times and to see into the future. They have stood not only at the edge of their own culture but also before the imminent shape of new and better things to come. At times of impending change and decision, they have seen the crisis as the crisis of an age; they have felt called to foresee the coming of a new epoch. That is, they have been ‘epochal thinkers.’”

American public schools stand precariously between the times at the confluence of economic, societal and educational change. High expectations for all students reflect the realities of the new economy. Technology holds new learning opportunities for teachers, students and parents. Students come from increasingly diverse homes and are less motivated by traditional means. The exploding education market is proposing new service-delivery schemes, introducing new competition, and expanding choices available to students, parents, teachers and administrators. In the midst of this chaotic change, educational leaders are called to be effective managers in the old system while interpreting, facilitating and incorporating the emerging pattern of a new and better educational system to come.

The enormous complexity of epochal leadership is illustrated by a half a dozen trends that mark the emerging pattern in student learning, the profession of teaching, school architecture, educational accountability and the education marketplace. Some trends reflect the advancements of our day, while others are an updated version of what worked before the industrialization of education. Taken together, these produce a pattern of a high-performance, standards-based, technology-rich system – a model for this new era.

The Emerging Classroom

1. From information scarcity to abundance. Our schools were designed in a time of information scarcity. Today all of the world’s knowledge, which grows exponentially, is organized at our fingertips.

2. From teaching to learning. In a time of scarcity, teachers were the primary content providers. With information abundance and high expectations for all, teachers are now called to facilitate the construction of knowledge.

3. From passive recipients to active inquirers. Students learn more and are better able to apply their knowledge if they learn through active inquiry rather than being dutifully filled with facts and figures.

4. From coverage to competence. Even though coverage is being reinforced by standards in many states, there will be a return to a focus on competence in literacy, numeracy, problem solving and citizenship.

5. From technology as a subject to technology-enabled learning. Improved access, networks, training, web-based applications and new school designs will fully incorporate technology into the learning environment.

6. From impersonal to personalized. The individually navigated horrors of arena registration, six disconnected classes on a path of least resistance and the pervasive anonymity of giant impersonal schools will give way to intimate learning environments and personalized digital desktops and learning experiences.

The Emerging Profession

7. From teacher as victim to teacher as architect. With the growing recognition of schools as units of change and coherence, teachers are the ones designing or adapting effective instructional environments as well as selecting units, methods and materials of instruction.

8. From individuals to teams. The recognition that today’s challenges are too complex for individuals to face alone along with the growth of high-performance teams in other environments is leading to the creation of teams of teachers who share challenges and successes.

9. From union members to career professionals. A growing number of career and service delivery options, higher pay and broader respect will restore professionalism to teaching. A variety of teacher-owned enterprises will make teaching in the future more like the practice of law, real estate or medicine.

10. From theory-based teacher preparation to performance-based teacher preparation. There are no schools of education that adequately prepare teachers for a standards-based, technology-rich, high-performance environment. Coming from a variety of undergraduate programs and first careers, teachers will be trained and inducted by graduate schools, systems of schools and commercial providers.

11. From one-shot stand and deliver training to job-embedded, continuous professional development. A rich mixture of mentoring, personalized online learning opportunities and learning teams is replacing the occasional and unconnected training that most teachers receive.

12. From minutes of learning to lifetimes of learning. The growing recognition that some students will take substantially more time to achieve high expectations and the fact that most careers will require a lifetime of learning will shift the district debates from counting minutes in the day to creating new options for students.

The Emerging Architecture

13. From achievement for some to achievement for all. Our schools were designed to sort out bright students eager to pursue professional careers. In a knowledge-based society, all students must be literate and productive citizens. We know that it’s possible, we know that it’s necessary, we know that it is just.

14. From time to performance. Rather than moving in lock-step age cohorts, students in performance-based systems will progress continually and move to the higher levels of study when they are prepared to succeed.

15. From top-down districts to networks of like-minded schools. The failure of command control school districts, combined with common state standards, school-based management and accountability, has opened the door to networks of like-minded schools that share an ideology and common support services.

16. From large comprehensive schools to small focused schools. Large comprehensive high schools don’t work for many students and often are dehumanizing places for adults to work. Schools that work for all students are small and focused. Choice mechanisms are expanding networks of small, focused schools and accountability mechanisms will lead to the breakup of large ineffective schools into small effective units.

17. From discipline to core values. The artificial effort to impose discipline on inhuman environments will give way to personal, civic and occupational values modeled and taught by teams of teachers in intimate settings.

18. From treading water to making a future. After demonstrating a high level of literacy and problem-solving skills, students will spend the last year or two of high school preparing for the future rather than collecting just enough credits to graduate. Many students will leave high school well on their way to an associate’s degree or industry certification.

The Emerging Accountability

19. From grades to demonstrations. After the first round of train wrecks caused by the widespread misuse of standardized, norm-referenced tests as high stakes, high standards gateways, there will be renewed interest in demonstrations of student work that reflects both high, common expectations and the student’s personal experience and growth – academic, personal, civic and occupational

20. From annual dipsticks to continuous improvement. After making do with unsophisticated quizzes and annual tests (the results of which are returned the following school year), systems of schools will adopt online adaptive tests and standards-based assessments, which will provide continuous and consistent performance feedback to students, teachers and parents.

21. From retention to promotion. Retention is an archaic and ineffective relic of the sorting system. In performance-based systems, individual students will receive the time and assistance they need to succeed.

22. From activities to accountability. The thousands of pages of regulations and myriad special programs will give way to a deregulated system with clear performance accountability for students, staff members, schools and systems of schools.

23. From funding program compliance to funding students. Schools are funded with an odd assortment of federal, state and local buckets of money each with unique strings attached. Funding in performance-based systems will follow the student with an annual operating and capital allocation based on students’ particular level of need.

24. From reconstitution to recapitalization. State takeovers of schools and districts have failed to substantially improve performance because they have changed administrators without changing the nature of the system. Dysfunctional schools reflect dysfunctional systems, which often reflect their communities. Broad efforts to “recapitalize” school communities with new thinking, new opportunities for adult learning, new choices, new funding, as well as new leadership will be necessary to combat persistent failure.

The Emerging Marketplace

25. From common schools to schools of choice. The notion of common school is giving way to a marketplace of choice with a variety of delivery options for students, parents and teachers – comprehensive schools to comprehensive choice of schools.

26. From one size fits some to a rich variety of service-delivery options. In addition to more choices among schools as we’ve known them, students will be able to choose from online courses, home-based or store-front charter schools that combine home schooling and distance learning.

27. From politicians to portfolio managers. Rather than micromanage their administrators and represent political interests, school board members must take up the new role of educational portfolio manager, ensuring that there are opportunities for every student to succeed in learning environments as diverse as the community.

28. From district-supplied expertise to a rich marketplace of products and services. Trained consultants, proven school-wide designs, efficient back-office services and web-based application service providers will quickly replace the current dearth of quality school suppliers.

29. From charity to venture philanthropy. In addition to helping to meet unmet needs, philanthropy has important roles to play in enabling leaders, supporting new learning models and acting as venture capitalist for non-profit suppliers of school services.

30. From critics to collaborators. Successful systems of schools are engaging their critics, expanding their choices and enrolling collaborators.

The Emerging Questions

Two questions surface as we stand between the times watching these changes emerge: how will schools be organized to help all students succeed?; and how will adults learn to design and lead these learning environments that do help all students succeed?

School organization

Most American schools that are successfully meeting the needs of all children were designed and opened in the last decade (this is especially true at the secondary level). The 39 New York City schools in the Performance Based Coalition, the Met in Providence, the Francis Parker Charter School in Harvard, Mass., the New Country School in Henderson, Minn., and the Charter School of San Diego all are examples of public schools with graduation and college acceptance rates of near 100 percent. Many of the New American School designs are showing promising results as well. While broadly reflecting the emerging pattern described above, these schools are specifically designed around three relationships:

· The student’s relationship to the work. High expectations for every student are translated into regular demonstrations of student work.

· The student’s relationship to the teacher. With advisors, faculty teams and small campuses of fewer than 400 students there is no anonymity.

· The teacher’s relationship to his/her colleagues. Teachers have time to improve their practice and work on shared challenges.

The rest of our schools have simply not had the time, resources, expertise or political support for the complex redesign work necessary to help all students achieve. Most complex and controversial of all will be redesigning the large comprehensive American high school into small, effective learning environments.

Adult Learning

It is becoming increasingly clear that in order to promote student learning, we must promote adult learning: teacher learning, administrator learning, parent learning and community learning. Following are a few examples of successful adult learning strategies:

· Create a community conversation. In Mead, Wash., the superintendent, Dr. William Mester, commissioned a team to design and facilitate a community conversation that included a two-day meeting for 1,300 community and staff members. In nearby Spokane, the school district, which runs a public access television station, hosts weekly talk shows on education topics to promote public awareness and conversation.

· Increase investment in professional development. Tony Alvarado significantly improved achievement in New York City’s District 2 by creating and sustaining a clear focus on literacy and dramatically increasing the investment in adult learning to over eight percent of the district budget.

· Encourage learning leaders. The summer institutes at Harvard, lead by Dick Elmore and Tony Wagner, immerse teams of teachers and administrators in discussing the great questions dominating education. Many states and foundations are also creating learning and training opportunities for school leaders.

· Enable teachers as architects. In Federal Way, Wash., Carla Jackson, the school district’s Director of Organizational Development, assembled a team of her colleagues and with support from The Boeing Company created a process to provide planning and implementation grants to help schools adapt or adopt effective learning models.

The calling

Reinventing America’s schools to help all students achieve will take an enormous investment in adult learning. It will take courageous conversations community by community. It will take focused investments in teacher development. It will take public and private investment in school redesign.

These are our challenges. This is our calling. As Adams called members of the church to prophethood, we as educational leaders are called to “share the responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it.” The future of our education system – the future of our students – is in our hands; it is our history to make.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Kevin Meldrum

My reply is a question to which I do not yet have the answer. The question is: do technology and teaching materials have to be only one or the other of the old way or the new way?
Is it possible that some technologies (and smartboards come to mind here) might be bridges to more digital, student-centered learning? My wife is an English teacher who got a smartboard last year. The board has allowed and encouraged her to make student learning more individualized, digital, and interactive.
Are there bridge technologies out there that will fit the old classroom and improve it but also help us move towards the personalized, digital learning?


Tom: It is a great article. However, as a leader in the vendor market, I walk away depressed by how little has truly changed. We deal with this question every day in every portfolio discussion. And, unfortunately, the transition often limits doing what might be best in favor of what might be pragmatic. Thanks.

Tom Sundstrom

This post is really thought provoking and rich with insights.
Some good news is that the dilemma of being forced to choose between building a tool for either yesterday’s classroom or tomorrow’s classroom can be solved. But the answer is not in bridge technologies which would simply give you a solution for today. In fact, these single solution tools are the problem.
The key to solving the choice dilemma is eliminating the single purpose tools that are often called stovepipe systems. It’s time to abandon the stovepipe approach to delivering technology solutions to education and start embracing the broader enterprise process applications that have driven high efficiency and effectiveness in every other business sector.
The solution is defining an enterprise model with a scope that includes every educational process and every educational role. The model would incorporate functional provisions for supporting yesterday’s classroom through tomorrow’s classroom. Building off of that model, we could gracefully transition today’s system to tomorrow’s vision. Education needs a migration plan and you can’t build one without dealing with the whole enterprise.
Tom Sundstrom

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