Like many parents, I constantly find myself wondering if I’m making the right educational choices for my children, a challenge that is particularly relevant as National School Choice Week approaches. A current of self-doubt flows through nearly every conversation or interaction we have; from the time our children are born to the time they graduate high school or college.
Throughout kindergarten and the elementary years, we are told that a school’s quality should be judged by the speed and extent to which our children can read, solve basic math problems, and excel in the first of an avalanche of annual standardized tests. Across middle and high school, the goalposts for a school’s quality shift to the array of AP classes offered, “rigor” of the content, test scores, and the number of acceptances to four-year colleges. In an honest attempt to make things easier, many online platforms combine all of these indicators to produce a single letter grade designed to elevate “good” schools and make our choices for us.
But here’s the thing: it’s not clear that these are the right indicators for what a “good” school should look like today. We know what a “good” school was: it produced workers who could follow directions, perform rote calculations, trust implicitly, write technically, and execute exactingly. I don’t want to denigrate the approach outright. That approach landed us on the moon and laid the foundations of today’s knowledge economy. It also produced computers that helped our society achieve huge technological advances. And it produced powerful AI that now outperforms humans in following directions, performing rote calculations, trusting implicitly, writing technically, and executing exactingly.
This is the world our children are inheriting, one that will only keep moving in the direction of more advanced technological capabilities. As a result, the elements we parents considered to be part of a successful education, and that the dominant system continues to elevate, are no longer applicable. The time has come to begin asking new questions about what a “good” education looks like.
What if a successful education now needs to ensure our children have their developmental needs met; are seen, known, and accepted for everything they are; can cultivate deep and authentic relationships with their teachers and peers; and develop a strong sense of identity by being strongly connected to their community? What if learning requires them to have their passions, strengths, and interests drive experiences that nurture the wide range of skills, talents, and cognitive abilities needed to build, perform, or master a craft—and to have multiple ways to both learn and demonstrate comprehension? What if success requires them to have opportunities to fail and fail again without fearing they are ruining their chances of success in life?
Over my career in education, I have discovered the vast majority of schools we all have access to—whether our neighborhood public school, the public charter school down the road, or the really expensive private school the neighbor kids attend—are designed in the same way as schools in 1920. They might have computers and individualized online curricula. They may offer IB programs and feature more STEM classes. They might have more projects, maker spaces, and flexible seating. But, at the end of the day, most schools are bolting new programs onto an existing model of school. They are not learner-centered in the sense of having transformed their thinking around the very purpose of education in the face of a changing world.
And, as much as it pains me to say this, it’s because WE, the parents, have been scared to ask for more. We have been persuaded that being a good parent means playing the current game as well as possible.
And, I get it. It is hugely intimidating to step off the educational pathway we know. It can be confusing to not be handed letter grades and cumulative GPAs on report cards. As parents, we can suddenly feel disposable if it is no longer our job to drive our kids’ education and make them do their homework. It can feel as though we aren’t fulfilling our responsibility as parents if we don’t prepare our kids for the world as it is now, where scarcity, competition, and the need to know how to take standardized tests still feel very real. And, yet, isn’t it our responsibility to prepare them for the future?
Fortunately, across the country, in large and small states and cities, educators, community leaders, students, and PARENTS are working together to invent the future of education for their kids; from age 2 all the way to 22.
These learner-centered programs begin by creating a strong sense of relationship and belonging that provides the foundation for learning. They allow kids’ passions, strengths, and interests to be the entry point for their education, ensuring young people are internally motivated and engaged. Rather than focus on absorbing and memorizing information—kids can Google that— they learn to examine, assess, and consider the implications of what they learn. These programs celebrate the fact that failure is not only part of learning, it is part of a successful life. Embracing that central premise makes kids less scared about their futures—and should make us more confident that they are being prepared to excel in a rapidly evolving world.
After all, what our workforce and communities need are people who can navigate the unknown and unpredictable. They need people who have the capacity for authenticity, compassion, empathy, and human connection. When skeptics see learner-centered programs in action and meet the well-adjusted human beings who emerge from them, they become believers, too. They realize this type of education is the only way young people will obtain the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to succeed as employees and citizens.
The best way to prepare our kids for the world of tomorrow is not the education system of the past, no matter how well it served us or how much it has been reformed or innovated. Even though it feels like a leap of faith, and even though school grades, accountability frameworks, and the mainstream education market tell us otherwise, the leap to a new vision of what “good” education looks like may be the most powerful choice we can make on behalf of our children. We know they can then develop the capabilities needed to grow into healthy, well-adjusted human beings, empowered to live individually meaningful lives in an increasingly complex world.
As parents, it’s time to ask for more and come together with members of our communities and schools to invent the future of education, building on a new vision for learning that is already unfolding. If we do, it will be a decision we know is best for our children.