Remodeling our Educational System for a Rapidly Changing World

In his most recent State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama applauded high school redesign efforts taking place around the country and encouraged districts to look to successful models for inspiration.  A few days later, Education Week, the national trade journal for educators, cited Pittsfield Middle High School as one of these models.

Pittsfield is helping to lead a growing national movement to redesign schools for the realities of 21st century life.   There is now widespread recognition that in order to prepare our young people for a rapidly changing society, we must “remodel” our educational system.

As with any remodeling project, the goal is to keep what works and change what has outlived its usefulness.  For example, a 19th century New England home with “good bones” still requires electricity and plumbing that are up to code and insulation that is more weather-resistant and fuel efficient—in keeping with modern industry standards.  Similarly, in our schools, we have a sturdy infrastructure in place, but the delivery system is highly outmoded.

For example, the traditional 6-hour school day and 180-day school year grew out of our nation’s agricultural and industrial economies.  First, families needed children to tend the farm during the summer months; later, industry needed workers with basic skills to fill the assembly lines.  Today, there are few fields to plow and the low-skilled jobs that paid a family-sustaining wage have given way to middle and high-skilled positions in an economy that is global, knowledge-based and innovation-driven.  Simply put, in order to thrive in a much more demanding society, all of our children need more time for learning and a far more sophisticated set of skills and abilities.

New Hampshire has been ahead of the curve in recognizing that our educational system must be better aligned with the new demands of economic and civic life.  In 2007, the state Department of Education released a report, “New Hampshire’s Vision for Redesign:  Moving from High Schools to Learning Communities.” The report articulated a plan for raising graduation rates and creating a more robust, relevant, and rigorous educational experience for every child.  Notably, New Hampshire was the first state in the nation to move from a system based on the Carnegie unit—a measure of the length of time a student has studied a subject—to a system that awards credit based on mastery of a subject.  Other states are just now beginning to follow suit.

In Pittsfield, we began our remodeling efforts in 2008, when we invited community members, students, and parents to a series of Saturday morning forums.  It became clear from those meetings that our community wanted to provide its young people with an education that was personalized and hands-on, and that would result in our kids graduating with a plan for the next phase of their lives and the preparation to actualize the plan.  (We would soon learn that, in education parlance, this is called Student Centered Learning.)

Pittsfield was at a critical turning point at that time:  the last of the nearby towns that were once part of SAU #51 seceded to form their own single-district administrative units.  As the Pittsfield School Board considered the fiscal ramifications of the secession, it determined that Pittsfield’s previously disjointed approach to PS-12 education needed to become more efficient, coherent and systematic.  From danger came opportunity.

But change is never easy, especially for a public institution that is ensconced in tradition.  To help jumpstart the process, we invited the Center for Secondary School Redesign (CSSR) to work with us.  In partnership with the community, we shaped a vision, organized our teachers into teams, and engaged them in intensive professional development.

In keeping with the student-centered approach, our educational strategies began to address in earnest the learning styles, strengths, interests, and needs of each and every student, and grades were soon replaced by “proficiency” and “mastery” of specific skills and knowledge.  Moreover, teachers moved from their conventional roles as presenters to coaches and facilitators of student learning.  Parents and community members went from spectators to full participants in the redesign process.  The traditional boundaries of time and space were replaced by “anytime, anywhere learning,” and we have created numerous opportunities for young people to intern in local businesses and learn the “21st century skills” that are so necessary to real-world success.

Of course, as in any remodeling effort, it takes time to fully realize a vision.  It also takes money.  In 2010, we received the first of New Hampshire’s School Improvement Grants (SIG).  That year, Pittsfield was also invited to join the federal Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) working group of thirteen high schools in New England that were funded to focus on student-centered strategies.  We also received generous planning and implementation grants from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the largest private foundation in New England devoted exclusively to education.

We are not “there” yet, and we definitely experience the bumps and setbacks that are inevitable in any remodeling process. But as a small rural school district not unlike so many across New England and the nation that struggle with a shortage of finances and talent, we are beginning to see real evidence of change.  For one, Pittsfield has gone from being among the five lowest-performing high schools in the state to near the top in math.  Reading is also improving.  The middle school was removed from “school in need of improvement” status, a relatively rare accomplishment.

We attribute this success to a number of factors:

  • Our students are more motivated and, hence, more engaged in their learning. They are taking ownership not only for their daily assignments and larger projects, but also for how their schooling connects to the bigger picture of life after high school—college, career and citizenship.
  • Our teachers are learning to be coaches and facilitators; they work collaboratively as we’ve increased the amount of common planning time.  They are becoming experts in their own right and share their knowledge with each other on a regular basis.
  • Technology is becoming more integrated into the curriculum. Every student in Grades 5-12 now has an iPad.  Teachers are learning to utilize technology so that it’s not an add-on, but rather part of a coherent strategy.  On-line courses enable our students to take college courses, recover credits, or create alternative school schedules.
  • Gone are the days of the parent-teacher conference; our middle and high school students now lead these conferences, with parent participation close to 100 percent.
  • Our community is highly engaged in the redesign efforts.  We have a growing number of partnerships with local business and organizations. Our Good-to-Great Team, representing a broad group of stakeholders, ensures accountability and continuous improvement.

We invite you to come visit us in Pittsfield anytime, but a great opportunity to do so is just days away.  On Thursday, May 30th, students at Pittsfield Middle High School will be sharing their work with the wider community at our second annual Exhibition Night.   From 6-8 pm, the community will have an opportunity to ask young people about their learning and to see evidence of that learning.  Our students are articulate about what they know and what they are able to do; they have learned how to reflect on the connections between their schoolwork and their hopes and dreams for the future.

Yes, our students still take tests and write papers, but what and how they are learning goes far beyond the blue books.  In Pittsfield, the “final exam” is life itself.