Written by Tim Presiado with contributions from Megan Pacheco and Jim May
The U.S. education ecosystem is complex and too often the ‘change’ rhetoric is polarizing and blame-based. This article showcases our organizational beliefs and offers insights and tips based on a strong evidence-based track record of success. For nearly twenty years New Tech Network leaders have forged powerful partnerships with school districts of every size and locale to redesign how schools work so that more students experience school as empowering.
– Lydia Dobyns, CEO New Tech Network
This is a basic question with a seemingly simple answer – to learn. However uncomplicated it may seem, this is an answer that has grown increasingly complex in the United States in recent years, as education finds itself at the center of changes in culture, technology, and business. The changes have been rapid and deep, often causing uncertainty if not unease across all segments of American society. Keeping pace with these changes is challenging, to say the least.
Among the segments hit hardest by these ongoing changes is business, where an “adapt or die” mantra is prevalent across almost every industry. From the C-suite to the most junior seat, companies and their employees face intense pressure to keep track of, and keep up with, technology and economic changes from across the globe. These changes have radically altered the workplace culture and the workforce.
As businesses examine ways in which they can better adapt to these rapid changes, they are taking a closer look at talent pools from which they typically draw employees. As part of this examination, the businesses are identifying the characteristics and skills of employees that can thrive amid dynamic conditions in the workplace and produce the results companies need to grow. They have noticed a disconnect between what they need and what is available.
This examination has led to conversations, both public and private; and, naturally, the state of the American education system has been a topic in these discussions. Of the many questions being asked in these conversations, one of the most pressing is: Are we teaching students what they really need to know for academic and professional success in the 21st century?
About 20 years ago, a small group of entrepreneurs and educators, asked the same question. They decided the answer was no and they began exploring ways to build a different model for learning. Connecting their research to technology, they developed a new model for schools and founded New Tech Network in Napa, California. The model requires schools – administration, teachers and parents – to adopt a different mindset and create a new culture for learning. Using project-based learning, students are taught the social and emotional skills, known as Learning Outcomes, that New Tech Network (NTN) determined would be critical for success in college and the workplace, knowing that both environments would continue to evolve.
So the question of how to best prepare students for a new world is not new, and, in fact, it’s one that has been asked at many different points in recent years, as the United States has moved through periods of significant change.
The question now, though, is more pertinent than ever before because technology is changing at an exponentially faster rate than ever before. The rate of change in schools is not keeping up.
There is a growing recognition that the education model used in the United States today is out of synch with the changing needs of the businesses that will employ students tomorrow.
Businesses, schools, and governments at the local, state, and national levels are reacting. In fact, many states have adopted guidelines for schools that require the development of “21st-Century skills.”
Still, the pressure for school leaders and teachers to deliver results in the present prevents many school districts from considering a model that builds students who are best prepared for the future. Test scores. College admissions. School budgets. Urgent needs gain attention and resources while the opportunity to make important changes with long-lasting impact falls by the wayside.
“The design of schools and the day-to-day activities of that school overwhelmingly keep the things that they did yesterday, the things that they do today and tomorrow,” says Dobyns. “To actually get a new perspective on a different way of doing school, it’s almost impossible to do that while you are operating a school.”
The most significant change to make for creating the type of students who can thrive in college and career can also be one of the most daunting: a whole-school transformation that requires leaders and teachers to adopt a new mindset and create a new culture. This means shedding decades-old practices that are woven into the fabric of nearly every public school in the United States. This means telling established teachers they need to learn a new and a better way of educating their students. This means … genuine change.
Change is hard. Human nature is to tiptoe into change. Often, first comes careful consideration, then maybe even sampling in bits and pieces. Finally, perhaps, the adoption of some elements of change. This lukewarm approach to change is ineffective, especially in a school environment. For almost 20 years, New Tech Network has partnered with schools to create full-on change so different and better results are achieved.
Schools that have committed to full change through these NTN partnerships have thrived; schools that have opted to go it alone and adopt only pieces of a project-based learning system continue to produce the same results, the same kinds of students. New Tech Network knows that only whole school transforms the old school. NTN believes in boldness; for this is a key to true school transformation.
Increasingly, the students who thrive in college and, later, in the workplace, are the ones who have strong social and emotional skills. College and business leaders cite these skills as the keys to success, and the data supports them. The students who don’t have these skills will struggle.
New Tech Network’s whole-school transformation model has been developing these skills in children for more than a decade, and never have they been more relevant. The moment to embrace change and transform schools is now.
In academic, business, and political circles, the call for developing the skills required to compete and succeed in the 21st century has been a topic of discussion for a number of years, and it has a number of names. Career Readiness. 21st-Century Learning. College and Career Ready. Deeper Learning. Call it what you will, but here’s what any one of these titles means: being prepared for the changing world in which we live; high school graduates who have the skills, knowledge, and capabilities needed to succeed in modern economic and civic life, whether attending college or beginning a job.
In both college and career, here’s what students and employees are increasingly expected to do: problem-solve, work collaboratively, communicate clearly and consistently, and more. Content mastery is still expected, but knowledge is applied in different ways, often using digital tools. Work is often project-based, and not independent, requiring a different mindset and skill set to achieve goals and move ahead.
More students are moving ahead to college in the United States than ever before but data show that they may not be fully prepared for the transition. Nearly 70 percent of high school graduates were enrolled in a college or university in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Most students – about 60 percent – don’t complete their degree in four years, though, with many of them taking up to six years. A startling number – about 30 percent – don’t finish at all.
While the race to win admission to college is as intense as it’s ever been, these numbers raise a serious question: are students even ready for college when they get there?
“There’s a difference between getting kids through the gate of college and kids being successful in college,” says Cuilla.
Anyone who has made the transition from high school to college knows that one of the most exciting benefits can also be one of the most precarious: personal freedom. For most students, managing this independence is a challenge. A key characteristic for success in college is a student’s ability to take responsibility for their own behavior and well being. They must understand how to self-monitor and self manage; one of NTN’s Learning Outcomes, Agency, singularly prepares them for this in a way that conventional classrooms don’t.
“Let’s have a different conversation about what it means to be college ready,” says Cuilla. “This doesn’t mean getting in; it means getting in and persisting until graduation. That’s college ready.”
After graduation, of course, comes the workplace and more freedom. Have you spent time in a business office recently? What you see may startle you. The decor, the seating arrangements, the ping pong tables… not to mention the free granola bars and bottled iced tea. Then there’s the way in which people are working. Some are sitting in lounge chairs, talking and typing away on laptops. Others are huddled at a high-boy table, moving papers among each other and chatting. Still, more are gathered near the office door, set to begin their “walking meeting.” The style of the modern workplace is hardly recognizable for many. Work is getting done but in a very different way.
Employees are changing how they work, and where they work, too. If you visited the above scene three years later, it’s likely that many of the faces would have changed. Employees, particularly younger ones, are job-hopping at a faster rate than in the past. They are on the move in search of higher pay, better benefits, and new challenges. Professional success continues to be redefined – it looks and feels much different than it did even 10 years ago.
Workplace changes come as little surprise to the team at New Tech Network. They’ve been paying close attention for years to the shift in work styles and environments, and understanding what students need to know so they can be versatile and explore their options.
“We believe that our job is to help kids discover their natural talents and disposition and give them permission to dream, and then support them in every way possible to pursue that dream,” says Dobyns.
New Tech Network uses project-based learning to create outcomes that produce students who can succeed in all environments. NTN knows, based on years of working with school leaders and teachers across a wide range of environments, as well as extensive research, that these Learning Outcomes – Knowledge and Thinking, Written Communication, Agency, Oral Communication, and Collaboration – are the skills young adults need to navigate and adapt to the changes that are sure to keep coming.
New Tech Network understands that students develop in response to the types of opportunities they have consistent access to and are being supported to do. Decades ago, when educators identified that droves of students were leaving school unable to read, the education model shifted. It became the responsibility of every teacher to incorporate literacy standards into their curricula. An English teacher was no longer the sole responsible party to ensure students could read, the skill was deemed so essential that every teacher needed to play a role.
Students can only develop the skills that they need to be successful in their careers if educators prioritize the development of those skills in every course and throughout the school year, not only in a single project or experience. The key to developing workforce readiness skills in students is frequency.
NTN believes that these skills such as the ability to communicate, collaborate, and have agency and accountability must be taught in the same way as literacy. No longer is it sufficient for a Career and Technical Education teacher to be the only voice of career readiness in a school. New Tech Network believes that students who use real-world skills in subjects such as math, science, and English are significantly more engaged, more successful students, both academically and developmentally.
New Tech Network works closely with districts and schools to create innovative learning environments. Through a proven school model that includes a project-based learning platform, powerful professional development, as well as a community of supporters, NTN coaches schools toward lasting change and ongoing improvement.
The temptation, of course, is to dabble in project-based learning with the hope that these workforce readiness skills somehow stick for students. The prospect of training and supporting every teacher can be intimidating so a piecemeal approach is appealing, especially when financial costs are considered. Still, NTN knows, based on its work in more than 200 schools across the country, that a piecemeal approach is not effective.
Schools that choose to implement workforce readiness learning in pieces, including through individual elective offerings such as coding or 3D animation classes, won’t achieve their goal of developing students with strong workforce readiness skills. One project doesn’t change a practice. Repeated work in these practices across an entire school provides students with the confidence and competence in the areas of Knowledge and Thinking, Written Communication, Agency, Oral communication, and Collaboration, the New Tech Network Learning Outcomes.
Students need a daily dose of exposure and training in these areas to generate the proper outcomes. If in their daily learning experience students are getting a chance to engage in real-world problems and engage with adults and experts in a certain field, they get a much broader exposure to career and roles. These frequent interactions move students closer to mastery in these skill areas. These are the enduring skills that students need to succeed in college and beyond.
New Tech believes that if education leaders care about workforce readiness, they must stop thinking about innovation through the lens of new classes and start thinking about the potential outcomes that stem from social and emotional learning. Two of New Tech’s Learning Outcomes, Agency, and Collaboration, are a piece of nearly every organization’s – both at the college and professional level – definition of social and emotional learning.
Often, when education leaders are thinking about workforce readiness, they aren’t thinking about social and emotional learning, they’re thinking about certification programs and career pathways. The data, however, says that social and emotional learning will be embedded in the modern workforce. Some 97 percent of employers believe that the development of social and emotional skills is essential for being successful in the modern workforce, according to a study released earlier this year by The Aspen Institute called “From a Nation At Risk to a Nation at Hope”.
Educators, though, often disconnect social and emotional learning from instruction. The challenge is that an investment in social and emotional learning should actually increase the level of trust in a school and the level of skill in the school. It’s essential to get to a place where kids can play different roles in the instructional experience. The ability of students to assign meaning to information, not just committing to memory bodies of knowledge or following rules, this is the salient skill of the modern economy. Students must learn how to make sense of information.
Students must also learn how to work well with others – subordinates, peers, and bosses – if they plan to be successful in college and career. This seemingly simple skill has long been required in the workplace but it has taken on added significance as collaborative project work – in college and career – has become more prevalent.
“We see people trying to do project-based learning and not make the investment in the social emotional learning and the process breaks down when they try to get their kids to work on a complex relational project – they don’t have the relational skills to break down what is messy complicated and not straightforward,” says Jim May, Chief Schools Officer at New Tech Network. “Then these kids don’t have the skills they need in a modern, collaborative project driven economy. If people don’t have these skills, then projects break down.”
The world is changing at a more rapid rate than ever before, driven by emerging technologies, access to information and the sharing of that information. In the United States, schools are under increasing pressure to produce students who can thrive in this dynamic world, but schools have struggled to pivot, burdened by a system of learning that was built for a different era. While many schools seem to understand that change is necessary they lack the knowledge to create it. Unfortunately, there is no time to waste.
“How do you make people understand that the future is coming faster than they understand it?” asks Paul Curtis, who has seen his fair share of change during his 20 years of education innovation at NTN. “We’re talking about major shifts in the global economy; we’ve got to prepare our young people for it.”
The education model used today in the overwhelming majority of schools in the United States is ineffective in preparing students for tomorrow. For decades, students have attended school five days each week to learn. With few exceptions, they have learned the same way: with a teacher standing in front of the classroom sharing information and, in some cases, inviting participation on a 1-to-1 basis. This teaching style generates a particular kind of result – subject mastery – but it doesn’t produce skills that will lead to greater opportunities for students in their quest for success in college and the workforce. A change must be made.
For New Tech Network, the change is clear: a whole-school transformation that requires leaders and teachers to fully adopt a new mindset and create a new culture through project-based learning. Anything less than full adoption is a mistake. A piecemeal approach will waste time and money; widen the Opportunity Gap among students; and, ultimately, prove to be ineffective. Schools, students, and communities can’t afford this.
The students who thrive in college and later in the workplace will need to be armed with social and emotional skills that can only be derived from a learning environment that empowers them to ask questions, think deeply, and actively engage with their peers and adults. NTN schools have been encouraging such actions for years and its results are indisputable.