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Breaking the Mold: Understanding and Developing New School Models - White Paper

Breaking the Mold: Understanding and Developing New School Models - White Paper

Classrooms  |  Innovative Leadership

As we continue to progress through the 21st century we are compelled to ask whether current models of schooling are well designed for the world beyond classroom walls. In particular, it’s worth reflecting on 3 essential questions in school model design, a term we use to refer to how schools are organized to deliver instruction to students.  

  1. Why do we have the school models that we do?
  2. Why should we be thinking about change?
  3. How might we think about changing school designs?

Why do we have the school models that we do?

The 180-day, 6.5 hour/day school calendar with 6 subjects did not begin with the question “What do students need from schools in order to be successful in the 21st century?” It’s the result of years of policy decisions in education that have layered upon one another to create what we view as “normal” for schools today. Some factors that keep current structures in place include:

  • Funding flows and categorical programming that tie financial resources to constraints such as seat time or specific staffing positions
  • Credit-granting systems originally designed to determine tenure for university professors that ended up dictating the structure of high school course selection
  • Measures of success limited to testing data in two primary subjects: ELA and Math
  • Non-academic services such as transportation and food services that influence school scheduling and staffing
  • School board policies and workforce agreements that limit flexibility in staffing models
  • Exemptions from restrictive policies that are often not available for schools or districts looking to do things differently
  • School cultures that lock in the status quo amid high leadership turnover and lack of time and resources to problem-solve collectively

Taken together, the interplay of these influences often discourages school design efforts, as statements of “We can’t do that” override questions of “How might we…?“ before they are even asked.

Why should we be thinking about change?

Even if the current structures of school work well for your district, it’s worth asking what’s changing around you, and therefore how you might want to respond. While education can remain a frustratingly static field, there are a number of developments that demand consideration from thoughtful teachers and school leaders.

  • We know more about how people learn than ever before. In large part due to advances in learning sciences, what we know about how children learn is becoming increasingly sophisticated. From the National Council on Teacher Quality’s 6 strategies that all teachers should know to principled guides like The Science of Learning, increased pressure is being applied to teacher prep programs to equip new teachers with pedagogical recommendations derived from the learning sciences.
  • Access to information is changing. Knowledge is increasingly distributed, accessible, and free, and children have the opportunity to pursue that knowledge and contribute to it more readily than at any point in history. From direct interaction in local communities to online networks that allow connections beyond state and national borders, the opportunity for students to directly engage with different perspectives, wrestle with large ideas, and share their own has never been more prevalent.
  • Technological innovations are making their way into the hands of students. While rapid innovations have occurred in the past, they may not have impacted students so readily. It took 40 years for the telephone to reach half of American households; smartphones approached that number in just 4 years. Given the amount of time and access students have to technology, schools increasingly find themselves having to help students navigate lessons on research, sourcing, self-regulation, and online relationships.
  • Workforce demands are changing. There are major questions being asked of the current education system’s ability to meet the demands of the 21st century economy as technological developments are placing strains on both high and low-skilled workers. Just five years from now, the skills necessary to perform well at work are fuzzier than one might think, with one study concluding that “on average...more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today.” In the past, businesses themselves would often shoulder the burden of retraining workers. However, the pace of change in the 21st century raises questions about their ability to do so.
  • Achievement gaps plague the current system. In the United States achievement gaps continue to persist both across school districts and within them, the consequence of which is effectively a “permanent national recession”, according to one study. Gaps persist along racial lines, where on average black and Latino students trail white students by 2 to 3 grade levels, and white students fall behind Asian students in test scores and graduation rates from high school and college. Gaps can be found across rural and urban divides as well: in rural areas, 17% of adults over the age of 25 have a college degree, roughly half the attainment level of their urban counterparts. However districts define and discuss achievement gaps, thinking deeply about how schools are organized to address them will be a critical component of the conversation.
  • Remediation after high school remains prevalent. While there is a positive trend in the graduation rate of students nationwide, questions remain about how prepared those graduates are for the workforce and further study: consider that half of undergraduate students in the United States are required to take at least 1 remedial course, a cost equivalent to $7 billion per year. In community colleges, which serve roughly half of America’s undergraduate students, the need for remediation is even higher: for example, 80% of community college students in California take remedial coursework in math, English, or both.

How might we think about changing school designs?

Every day school districts make decisions about when students will be picked up, how long class periods are, how much time teachers have for collaboration, and how large class sizes will be, among other choices. While it’s worth reflecting on what we know about these elements, it’s also true that reallocations of time or staffing models rely heavily upon a strong instructional foundation; in other words, one risks having redesign efforts lead to more of the same, but longer. Or more of the same, but with more people.

Planning should start with a strong vision for teaching and learning, informed by the needs and interests of local communities, and structural decisions about how to organize schools should be deeply intertwined with that vision. One might consider model those structural changes in 4 broad categories - details of category discussed in-depth in Part 1 of our school design white paper:

  • Scheduling: Class Period, School Day, School Year and Summer Programming
  • Staffing:  Class Size, School Size, Looping, Teacher Roles
  • Targeted Support: Advisory, Ability Grouping
  • Professional Learning: Common Planning Time, Professional Learning Time

Going forward, Part 2 of our series will focus on principles that leaders should consider in school redesign efforts, as well as highlight some of the most promising school design efforts at schools across the country. We hope both this guide and the one that follows assists you in your efforts to rethink what schooling can mean for students, families, and staff members in your community.


A graphic image with a thumbnail of a white paper. Text reads "Breaking the Mold: Understanding and Developing New School Models Part One", with a button reading "Download Now"

About Mike Wolking - Guest Author

Mike Wolking was formerly a Senior Strategist at Education Elements, and left to pursue the Ian Axford Fellowship in Public Policy in New Zealand.

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