by Juan E. Cabrera
Originally published Jan. 6, 2020 in the Houston Chronicle
In the 1860s, a typical Texas classroom consisted of rows of desks that faced the front of a class where a teacher would stand and lecture. Student work, presentations and lessons all revolved around memorizing content. At that time in history, teaching students this way adequately prepared them for the limited set of manual, repetitive career opportunities available.
One hundred fifty years and two industrial revolutions later, many classrooms and curricula across Texas still look the same. But not in the El Paso Independent School District, home of the sixth largest city in Texas and 22nd largest city in the U.S. In 2013, the administrators, teachers, students and families decided we wanted something different.
The traditional education model that required students to study one subject one hour at a time and often based a student’s entire semester’s worth of work on whether they passed or failed a single test was outdated. It also left students ill-prepared for today’s workforce that requires employees to apply their knowledge concurrently and incorporate career-ready skills like agency, collaboration and oral communication. A true education isn’t just what a person knows, it’s how people apply what they’ve learned.
With this in mind, we sought a learning model that would give our students the ability to chart their own courses and get the jobs they dream about – including ones that may not even exist yet. But how would we as administrators and teachers provide our students with this type of education?
In the fall of 2014, we found our answer: project-based learning. We also found a new partner, New Tech Network (NTN), an innovator in school-wide project-based learning and a leading design partner for comprehensive K-12 school change.
Our goal was to move away from a test-driven instructional culture, shift toward assessing career-ready skills in addition to core content knowledge, and embrace this innovative model that aims for students to regularly engage in authentic, complex thinking and problem-solving. We theorized that by engaging students more in their own learning and assessing multiple student learning outcomes, they would be better prepared for a career field of their choice and also improve on end-of-course exams.
Our theory is proving true and the results have been incredible, including:
- Students continue to outperform on all end-of-course exams for both the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic years.
- The first middle school data from the 2018-2019 academic year shows strong outcomes including that NTN middle school students consistently outperform non-NTN students across all performance bands in reading and math for both sixth and seventh grades.
Now at nine elementary, middle and high school sites and growing, this model has emerged as a powerful force within the El Paso ISD, transforming both adult learning and engaged student learning. Since the first two academies opened in El Paso in 2015, we will soon have nearly 4,000 El Paso ISD students enrolled to participate in this effective school model focused on providing students with deeper learning experiences.
This type of holistic, innovative learning is a growing trend. El Paso ISD recently hosted superintendents from across Texas who are also finding success with this approach as an effective way to meet student needs and see strong academic growth, particularly for underserved and English-language learner communities.
And now, because of the recently passed transformational school finance reform in the Legislature, every Texas middle and high school has a chance to provide those same choices to students and parents in their districts.
House Bill 3 specifically offers a financial incentive for engaging in school design and professional development. In the Career and Technology Education section of HB 3, campuses that are NTN members qualify for an additional $50 per student allotment.
The old ways of educating students are not producing the results our economy needs or our children deserve. We at the EPISD encourage district and school leaders throughout Texas to take advantage of this historic legislation and prepare students for the careers of tomorrow by exploring all of the opportunities in HB 3, including additional Career and Technology Education courses or – as we’ve done here in El Paso – the creation of project-based learning schools that better equip our children to live their dreams and change the world.
Cabrera is the superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District.