One of our two strategic plan goals is to be an education laboratory, in which our teachers are inspired to do their best work and to pursue new ways of teaching and learning that benefit their students. In an ed lab environment, relevant research informs curriculum design, feedback and data guide next efforts, and student engagement and achievement are the goals.
Teachers break out of silos, learn and plan together in new ways, and make learning objectives more visible to students. They share what they are learning, and seek promising ideas from colleagues at Catlin Gabel and from other schools. They are fearless in pursuing innovation in education.
In that spirit of discovery and leadership, we recently hosted a two-day workshop for schools who belong to the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), an exciting initiative we co-founded which seeks to address shortcomings in our traditional education system and in the college admission process. Seventy-five educators from 54 schools in 15 states and 6 countries met in the Miller Library to learn how to redesign high school curriculum so that students can better demonstrate their individual talents and accomplishments. The Consortium now includes over 150 independent schools – day, boarding, international, and online – and is supported by a board of directors and an advisory council that includes higher ed and public school leaders, as well as education thought leaders.
During our two days on campus, we heard from Kevin Mattingly of Teachers College, Columbia University, Denise Pope of Challenge Success at Stanford University, and Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School and founder of the MTC. Their message was consistent, and representative of what I hear at almost every conference I attend and in education media in general: our education system is flawed and our students deserve better.
Ample evidence suggests that the traditional structures of academic subjects, letter grades, bell curves, student rankings, common graduation requirements, age cohorts, and timed tests undermine student achievement as much as they encourage it. Research on the brain, motivation, engagement, purpose, and achievement show that a system designed in the late 19th century to serve an industrial economy is poorly suited to serve students in the 21st century.
The need for change is clear, but what are the obstacles? At our workshop we identified several: we all were educated and achieved success in the current system – imagination and courage fail when we contemplate a different approach. Our teachers and professors are experts in this system – taking risks and making mistakes risks competency and credibility. We know how to teach to predictable metrics – even though we know those measures are flawed and biased. And admission demand and graduate outcomes in our schools are strong – which lessens the urgency to change.
The Consortium’s mission is to move beyond hand-wringing and act on behalf of our students, leveraging our independence, reputational strength, and college relationships to design a new pathway through high school. Imagine if students could earn credit on their high school transcripts not only for history or English, but for more granular essential skills and concepts such as statistical reasoning, digital literacy, structural analysis, and literature research and interpretation, as well as self-advocacy, collaboration, and cultural competency. Imagine if Catlin Gabel teachers ensured that all students “mastered” core academic areas and provided opportunities to “master” other credits that allowed each student to differentiate themselves. Imagine if they could “master” those credits through performance or demonstration in or out of class, when they were ready. Imagine if college admission officers could better know each graduate and make better decisions about the unique individuals applying.
By hosting a gathering of leading schools willing to think creatively about our system of education and hypothesize about a different model, we are fulfilling our goal of being an education laboratory. Widespread systemic change is years away, but as we begin to experiment with new ways to assess mastery of skills and concepts in our Upper School math and language departments, we are on the leading edge of a movement with tremendous potential. As we move forward, we are enlisting colleges and universities as partners to ensure that changes we make benefit our students. We are reaching out to public school partners so that this is not one more way that elite institutions expand the privilege gap. And we also are looking inward, at how mastery learning in Upper School connects effectively to teaching and learning in Preschool-Grade 8. Time will tell if we can achieve a radical redesign of education, but one thing is certain: we will learn much in the process.
Suggested reading on this topic:
The End of Average by Todd Rose
Todd Rose, the Director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at Harvard, argues in his book that teaching and ranking students based on a standardized curriculum and deviation from the mean, “…compels every student to do exactly the same things the average student does. Be the same as everyone else, only better.”
The New Education by Cathy Davidson
Duke and CUNY professor Cathy Davidson suggests, “Prescriptive, disciplinary, [and] specialized training…makes less sense for our postindustrial and post-Internet world, in which the boundaries between work and home are far less distinct...”
“Why Elite-College Admissions Need an Overhaul” by Jonathan R. Cole, The Atlantic
Columbia University professor of sociology Jonathan R. Cole writes, “By gauging the achievement of secondary-school students according to current admissions standards, many of the top schools seem to have taken the quirkiness out of the student body—and the rebelliousness of intellect, style, and thought...”
“Colleges Want Students with Character, But Can’t Measure It” by Eric Hoover, Nautilus
“The flaws in standardized testing are well-documented at this point,” writes Eric Hoover, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. “They punish disadvantaged students and minorities, entrench class lines, and their predictive powers only forecast a student’s progress as far as the first semester of their freshman year.”