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Foreword to Anytime, Anywhere: Student-Centered Learning for Schools and Teachers

EDITED BY REBECCA E. WOLFE, ADRIA STEINBERG, NANCY HOFFMAN

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Foreword by Nicholas C. Donohue, President and CEO, Nellie Mae Education Foundation

The greatest opportunity facing our country today is that of sustaining and growing a flourishing society in the context of a fast-changing world. The days are gone when basic schooling coupled with ingenuity and hard work was sufficient for America to maintain a strong global economic position. The acceleration of technology, hyperconnectivity, and knowledge development requires a similar update to the skills individuals will need to support their families and build successful communities—and for the progress of our nation.

Our adequate preparation as a society for a fruitful future depends on increasing the skill and knowledge levels of each and every young person, which in turn depends on a lifetime of access to high-quality, developmentally appropriate and equitable learning opportunities. Yet instead, in the United States, we currently find ourselves in conditions of growing inequality, stagnant educational outcomes, and tightening school budgets.

Is it time to renovate our systems of education as one might renovate an old home? Can we just slap on a new coat of paint—or do we need to challenge assumptions about where, when, and with whom learning occurs?

At the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, we think it is the latter. To reach this goal for the coming decades, we are working to remodel systems with a set of principles that define student-centered approaches to learning. We believe these approaches and the systems necessary to nurture and manage them constitute the most promising route to achieving equity and excellence for all students, especially those who are underserved.

More specifically, we support movement from the current one-size-fits-all system, which is now overwhelmingly driven by time, to a more tailored approach, where the primary driver is learning, to meet students where they are. While we must set the same high standards of achievement, we must also provide different routes, environments, and pacing for each learner to get there. For secondary education, which is the focus of our grant making, this means:

  • Seat time, as defined by Carnegie units, is no longer the best indicator of whether a student has mastered skills and knowledge.
  • Students are not expected to learn the same curricula in the same way at the exact same pace.
  • Students are not tracked based on generalized notions of ability, but rather get the support that they need to master each standard or competency.
  • Students have multiple opportunities to deepen their understanding of concepts through application and practice, in school, in the community, in workplaces, and through online experiences.
  • Responsibility for learning becomes a shared effort, as students understand what they need to learn, where they stand, and how to move forward.

To encourage this transformation, we are investing in four related strategies: research and evaluation, policy change, practice, and public understanding and demand. Our resources support states, districts, and communities across New England as they implement, sustain, and build demand for student-centered approaches that foster deeper learning for every student. These strategies are guided by recent research on motivation and the learning sciences to better prepare students to thrive in work and life. All of our grant programs promote new student-centered models of schooling that offer a path away from a one-size-fits-all approach to more personalized learning for all students. More specifically, our District Level Systems Change Initiative includes long-term investment in districts with a commitment to simultaneously “raise the bar” and “close the gaps.”

Effective student-centered learning in a school is complex; spreading this approach through and across schools and districts requires a paradigm shift. Technology is already beginning to drive some of this redesign, and increasing interest from policymakers at all levels—including the priority of “personalization” identified in the federal government’s District Race to the Top grants—will result in increasing the speed of change.

As a result of our interest in student-centered learning, in early 2010 the Nellie Mae Education Foundation embarked on a long-term, significant investment in expanding the knowledge base and the field by partnering with Boston-based Jobs for the Future (JFF) to commission a set of research papers that has resulted in this book for educators. JFF brings a set of attributes uniquely suited to this task: a sophisticated, rigorous research capacity grounded in decades of experience in educational practice, combined with deep understanding of the challenges facing underserved students. We couldn’t have asked for a better partner in bringing together existing knowledge to bear on the emerging field of student-centered learning to answer a fundamental question: What do we know? This volume is the fruits of months of labor, combining streams of knowledge as varied as the development of motivation in adolescent learners and sustainable systems change in school districts.

We are painfully aware that support for an educational approach is no guarantee that it is implemented effectively or equitably. This edited volume focuses particularly on those students who have not been well served by our educational system in the past. There is no question that race- and income-related achievement gaps are overwhelmingly a result and reflection of the inequities in our society. That is why we need an approach that focuses on the real needs of students, whatever their starting point, rather than some imaginary “average” student who faces none of these challenges.

What does it take to achieve this transformation? There are many necessary steps and parallel pathways to navigate. This volume addresses a few key drivers that we need to better understand in order to create sustained systems change. One persistent theme focuses on the advancement of pedagogy and curriculum built on how people learn, as well as how children and adolescents develop. Another is to adjust, amend, and/or rescind policies that promote an assembly-line, batch-processing approach to secondary schooling. Rather, we need to frame it as an orchestra with learners at the center and all parts of the system working in concert to play in tune from a common sheet of music.

However, there is another dimension or set of participants in this picture: the “audience.” The advancement of an orchestra-like system of learning versus an assembly-line system of schools also depends on the continued enlistment and support of the community and the public.

Perennially tighter school budgets, rapid technological development, and openness to new ideas in an era of growing recognition that we have reached the limits of progress resulting from test-based accountability are all converging to create a spirit of innovation. Development of the Common Core State Standards is a step in the right direction, and creates opportunity for a new conversation framed by student-centered approaches. However, we recognize the need to carefully evaluate the results of this work, whether supported by the Foundation or others, because not every approach will be equally successful.

In our era, the search is on for effective, affordable approaches to ensuring that all students meet higher learning targets than ever before—and that those who are currently the most underserved have the opportunity to receive an education that allows them to thrive. Anytime, Anywhere suggests that such a path is available—and while not easy, it will lead to greater opportunity and equity for all students as they prepare for success in college and beyond.

When we began our collaboration with JFF, we couldn’t have anticipated the development of a powerful learning community between the authors of the chapters, who codeveloped outlines, reviewed one another’s manuscripts, challenged one another’s thinking, consulted regularly over the course of the project, and presented the papers publicly in dialogue with one another’s ideas. Sometimes there is a stereotype of researchers as academics far removed from the application of their work, but in fact, the authors were just the opposite—energized to drive a movement forward and constantly searching for ways to do this, both in their own work and as a group. They not only informed us, but also inspired us with their deep commitment to educational change.

We realize that we are stretching across a gap—building on the strongest evidence available even while acknowledging the need to create new, innovative solutions and develop the technology that makes them widely available. Much more knowledge is needed before we have the demonstrated proof to articulate just what this means for our educational system and how we should move forward to achieve the values of equality and progress that we share, but have not yet enacted, as a nation, such as: 

  • A better understanding of the architecture of new governance, finance, and management systems that the implementation of student-centered approaches demand
  •  The evidence base to show that creative and varied approaches to learning work, especially for students who need them most
  • Knowledge about how to rebuild public understanding of education systems that meet not only economic and job demands, but that strengthen our democracy and culture
  • A better understanding of systems that adapt to change approaches as new demands and opportunities arise

However, at Nellie Mae, we believe that there is simply too much knowledge already in hand supporting student-centered learning approaches for readers to come away from this book unconvinced. There are myriad proof points, whether found in schools, cognitive sciences, or the growing number of evaluations. The overarching theme that arises within this volume is: change is possible. The brain is plastic, shaped by experience over time—and motivation, the key to effective learning, can be developed through well-structured opportunities to master rigorous material. Maybe the system can change and adapt as well.

In education we talk a lot about evidence, yet our systems—from teacher preparation to accountability—rarely reflect what the research tells us. In supporting the expansion of the knowledge base for student-centered learning, our goal is to be both thorough and transparent. We don’t want to overstate these results—there is still much to be learned. But I challenge you to read these chapters and ignore the accumulation of convincing research: student-centered learning is an idea whose time has come, and it is possible to achieve the kind of deep change we need.

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