Education Nation

Commentary: Innovating that Little Schoolhouse on the Prairie

Innovating That Little Schoolhouse on the Prairie

Portrait of pupils looking the laptop with teacher near by

For nearly two centuries, education in America has looked and felt remarkably similar: A teacher teaches 20 to 30 students in a classroom; all the students learn the same material at the same time; and students are tested intermittently to measure how much they have mastered.

Watch an old episode of Little House on the Prairie and notice that while everything else looks different today, the classroom looks remarkably similar.

Yet the innovations that have transformed almost every aspect of our lives—from communication to transportation to health care—have so far bypassed our nation’s classrooms.

America has not maintained this model because it has proven to work, but rather because it’s incredibly difficult to change centuries-old approaches. However, we can’t ignore the consequences of continuing to do the same old thing. Only 9% of low-income students end up graduating from college. High-income students are falling further behind their similarly-situated peers in other countries, according to the latest international assessments. Overall, roughly a third of U.S. high school students end up graduating from high school ready for college or careers.

While many reform efforts over the last twenty years have focused on issues relating to governance and human capital, few have addressed the one-size-fits-all nature of the classroom itself. As former teachers ourselves, we at New Classrooms could pinpoint moments when students were falling behind. With every lesson we taught, some children would get it, some wouldn’t and the next day we moved on to a new skill.

That’s why we started New Classrooms, an independent nonprofit. We knew there had to be a better way. But we also knew that while digital technology has helped to advance nearly every other industry over the last quarter century, this couldn’t be all about technology. If we provide every student in a classroom with a tablet but still treat that device like a traditional textbook, we’re not going to get a different result.

Instead, our efforts and those of others providing personalized learning models focus less on designing high-tech tools and more on redesigning the classroom experience in ways that only technology allows. For instance, we use technology behind the scenes to match each of 6,000 students around the country with a lesson that reflects both the skill they are ready to learn next and an approach that is most likely to work best. A student may learn by working directly with a teacher, by working collaboratively with her peers, by working with a computer, or with some combination of all three methods.

A recent independent analysis of results from the first year of implementation found students in New Classrooms’ middle school math model — known as Teach to One: Math — made 20% more gains in math than the national average, even though they come from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this is just one promising model among a field of talented educators trying out similar personalized learning approaches. Organizations like Summit Public Schools and Rocketship Education have had similar early successes and we need many more examples to fundamentally remake our education system.

These models require thoughtful approaches to the hundreds of details that go into the design of the classroom itself. When each student is learning at his or her own pace, how are grade-level standards applied? What about formative assessments? Homework? Issuing of high school credits? Teacher support? And so on.

The answers to these questions continue to evolve. Rollouts aren’t always seamless, and bumps in the road are the hallmark of any “research and development” effort. But transparency around these results allows us to understand the current strengths and weaknesses of these models as well as inform a broader, education-related policy agenda that is focused on fostering innovation.

These models are also far more holistic than many of the EdTech products that are now making their way to the marketplace. As products, most are largely designed for the same factory-model classroom that we’ve been tinkering with for the last 150+ years and are less likely to yield the transformative outcomes that our students so desperately need.

Our students are America’s greatest assets; they are the people who will lead, innovate and blaze the path forward for generations to come. But in order to secure a successful future for our children, our schools must stop living in the past.

That requires designing and cultivating new models of instruction that free us from the industrial-era classroom template and leverage the tools, capabilities, and know-how of modern times.