Boston Globe op-ed article on reforming middle school education, January 31 2024

By Gerald Chan and Steve Zrike

A new report from the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy describes the condition of education in Massachusetts and highlights the need for innovations to address chronic absenteeism, lagging academic growth, and other troubling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which have hit historically marginalized groups especially hard.

The report underscores what many students and families already know: Even in a state with top-ranked public schools, school districts can do better. Schooling must be redesigned from the ground up.

From our different vantage points — as a district superintendent with experience in school turnarounds and as a venture capitalist and philanthropist committed to innovation — we have long believed in the power of education and felt impatient with the pace of change in schools. In 2022, with pandemic-era talk of “reinventing school” devolving to a desire to just get “back to normal,” we conceived a bold experiment in the Salem Public Schools to reimagine one of the toughest segments of education: middle school. What we’re learning has implications for anyone who believes that education needs a revolution.

Salem Public Schools launched the pilot program in September 2022 with a cohort of eighth graders, selected by lottery, who mirrored the diversity of the district. Informed by the principles of human-centered design, teachers began by asking these students about their day-to-day experiences of school, and taking their answers seriously — including when they said school was boring. Less than a quarter agreed that “Overall, most of the time, I love school,” and only 12 percent affirmed that “At school, I get to learn things I’m interested in.” How much might chronic absenteeism fall, and academic outcomes rise, if educators designed the school day so it was something that students would genuinely hate to miss?

By May 2023, twice the number of students reported that they loved school, and chronic absenteeism in our cohort fell by more than 50 percent. While academic outcomes often lag behind other indicators of school improvement, the pilot cohort in year one outperformed their school peers on the ELA and Science MCAS tests. With the pilot now in its second year, a picture of a very different kind of school experience is coming into focus.

We believe it’s time to question basic assumptions of where, how, and with whom learning happens. Flexibility with schedules and curriculum pacing has allowed students to undertake deeper learning that has real-world relevance. Students leave school weekly to engage with the community — interviewing local business owners, creating tours of the Peabody Essex Museum, canoeing on the Ipswich River, and collaborating on civic action projects with Salem State University undergrads.

In the classroom, thoughtful use of technology helps students set goals, learn at their own pace, and track their progress, but technology doesn’t displace human connection. Hands-on design challenges ensure that students’ desks are covered with cardboard, glue guns, and building materials, not just laptops and worksheets. Students are building knowledge — and learning that there’s often more than one right answer. Taken together, these experiences disrupt the passive routines that too often characterize the school day and put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Partnerships are also critical. In most fields, practitioners aren’t tasked with the responsibility of research and development on top of their regular jobs. Collaboration with multiple organizations, including a nonprofit design partner, the WPS Institute, as well as universities and community institutions, has transformed students’ school days. Energized by a shared sense of purpose and supported to be creative, our teachers are more satisfied with their jobs, too. These collaborations have made it easier for community institutions to step up and share responsibility for the education of young people — something that will be essential if we want to reinvent the traditional model of school.

These experimental efforts underscore the Rennie report’s call to action: The state needs to do more to create empowering, effective, and exciting learning experiences for young people. Salem is now spreading promising innovations throughout the middle schools and is engaging other districts who are on a similar journey. Together, we should build an education system where a love of school is neither an exception nor a privilege, but the norm.

Gerald Chan is an investor and a director of the Morningside Foundation. Steve Zrike is superintendent of the Salem Public Schools and a member of the Condition of Education Advisory Committee of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy.

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