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Nadworny: Partnership for Change

02/11/13 7:55AM By Rich Nadworny
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(Host) Creating a great 21st century education system is hard. It's even harder, when you're Burlington and Winooski and you have over 50 languages being spoken in the high schools. Commentator Rich Nadworny is seeing first hand how one group is tackling the problems.

(Nadworny) Last year the Partnership for Change received a three-year grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation to remodel and reimagine high school education in Burlington and Winooski in order to prepare all of our kids to thrive in the 21st century. 

This January I was part a group from The Partnership who visited high schools in New York City to learn more about how others have implemented proficiency based learning systems. As a member of the steering committee, I accompanied teachers, administrators, community leaders and students as we viewed innovative schools in the city.

Proficiency based learning came about for two reasons: either students were receiving passing grades without being able to master basic academics, or they were continually failing on standardized tests without receiving proper, individualized instruction. We visited some New York Consortium schools, a group of small high schools that decided not to "teach to the test." Instead they developed their own student and teaching curriculum and assessments based on open-ended questioning; intensive
reading, writing, and discussion; student input; and
assignments extending over longer periods. 

How do they do this? For one, they've opted out of a lot of the standardized tests. For another, the teachers themselves develop the curriculum, called rubrics, rather than some outside "experts." The teachers review and revise these as necessary every two years, based on outputs and student assessments. A group of teachers and community people, not just one teacher, assess each student.

When I heard the teachers explain this, it sounded like they were working for a lean technology firm, gathering user data, innovating and iterating continually. They made the politicians pushing for more testing look like Frederick Taylor's time management relics, applying 20th century industrial age metrics to 21st century digital problems. 

In one international school we saw kids, who had been in the U.S for only 4 years or less, having such an intense discussion in an English literature class that it took one of the teachers in our group 5 minutes to realize that the young lady leading the class was actually a student and not a student teacher!

Most importantly, the results deliver. For example, 86% of African American boys in consortium schools go to college, compared with 37% nationally while 90% of Latino boys head to college compared with 42% nationally. 

Part of our work in the Partnership for Change is to look for different models and to find ways to improve our own school system in Burlington and Winooski. In the coming months, a group of educators will experience design-thinking training, developed by IDEO and the Stanford D-school, to see how we might to bring this amazing educational experience to our kids.

And in early February over 300 community members turned up to discuss and define what high school graduates need in order to succeed. If you're interested in reimagining what a 21st century education could look like, you can find ways to get involved at partnershipforchangevt.org.  

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