If you read the mission statement of any K-12 school, chances are it will say something about preparing students for the future. This always strikes me as ironic. How does an educational model structured according to the needs of the Industrial Revolution prepare students for the rapidly changing demands of the 21st century? Most schools are still predicated on the standardization and compartmentalization of the factory system: creating a uniform batch of workers to perform single tasks repeatedly in an assembly line. However, this does not lend well to the current needs and realities of the job market, a setting which is highly integrated, globally diverse, and entrepreneurial. Thus, in order to best prepare the next generation for the demands and opportunities that the future holds for them, more schools need to adapt to the changing landscape of education, and parents need to be better informed about the options and opportunities available to their children, especially if the traditional school model has not been working for them.
Standardization is No Longer the Standard
Now, I’m not suggesting that standards fly out the window and schools should teach any which way they want. There is high value in having set protocols, measurable learning outcomes, and established curricula. However, teaching as if expecting all 16 year olds to learn the same material at the same pace, with the same depth of knowledge is an outdated paradigm. So is placing utmost importance on core academic subjects like math and science while relegating art, music, and athletics to electives or after school programs. There has been a growing movement to shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach towards models that are more flexible and allow for more individualized attention, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this growth as parents look for better alternatives, whether that’s a learning pod, microschool, or virtual program.
Similarly, with the pandemic disrupting testing schedules and available proctoring locations for SAT and ACT, many colleges and universities, including the UCs and Ivy League schools, went test-optional for Fall 2021 admissions, and many will go beyond that. In fact, a recent lawsuit settlement prohibits the UC schools from even looking at test scores should applicants send them, making these institutions test-blind schools until at least Spring 2025.
Opponents of standardized tests for college admissions claim that they give students from affluent families an unfair advantage, and the tests only measure students’ reading, math, and grammar skills in a de-contextualized setting. There are now over 1,400 colleges and universities that are not requiring the SAT or ACT as part of the admissions process.
As much as the word “standardization” brings about negative connotations within the context of education, other words like “individualization” or “differentiation” are overused buzzwords often touted as magic bullets. These misnomers give the impression that education can be a “build-your-own-burger” experience in which students choose what, how, and when they learn. I would argue that not only is this model neither feasible nor sustainable, it is also not beneficial for students who need clear structure and expert guidance in their academic journey.
As different school models can offer varying degrees of flexibility and customization in different areas, parents and students should see what’s most important to them and what makes most sense for their student’s needs. Students with learning differences who need one-on-one attention and customized pacing may turn to schools like Fusion Academy, Tilden Prep, or Futures Academy as potential options. For student actors/actresses, athletes, and musicians who need a more flexible schedule, a blended learning program such as Elite Open School can provide the option to schedule schooling around extracurriculars while also receiving live instruction, mentorship, accountability and guidance.
Online Education is Here to Stay
For many parents, students, and educators, the remote learning situation forced on by the pandemic was a stressful, overwhelming, and frustrating experience. Many schools across the country, and the world, did not have the technology, infrastructure, and teacher training to accommodate such a drastic change. For some, the transition to virtual learning was relatively smooth, with the ability to teach or learn from the comfort of their homes a welcome bonus. Regardless of one’s educational experience from 2020, the truth is that virtual learning is here to stay. Thus, the question that schools and educators should be asking isn’t whether remote learning is good or bad, but how we can make it better. As schools are reopening around the country, it’s expected that a vast majority of students will be going back to school in-person for the fall in a step towards the return to normalcy. Yet, for some, remote learning has opened a wealth of educational possibilities that allow for more freedom and flexibility, with remote options becoming the new normal.
Online learning is not new, and in the past few years, it‘s been gaining popularity and legitimacy, both in K-12 and higher education. As the quality of the educational experience has improved, and costs have lowered, the increased convenience and accessibility of virtual learning offer a strong value proposition for students and families looking for alternatives to the brick and mortar, 5-day a week model.
One example of innovative education delivery is Minerva Schools at KGI, which is disrupting higher education with its campus-less and classroom-less model. Instead of large lecture halls with professors talking at students, Minerva has students participate in interactive discussions and group activities virtually through its proprietary online learning platform. Students take interdisciplinary classes that foster critical and creative thinking as well as effective communication skills in small group seminars of 15 to 19 students. Professors lead seminars and ensure that all students are meaningfully contributing to the discussion. Students must come to class prepared to engage with the content material and apply it to real-world settings, rather than just passively absorb information. Additionally, students can choose to attend class from a coffee shop or their dorm room in one of the seven cities students reside in during their time at Minerva. With tuition and housing under $30,000 per year, Minerva is a much more affordable option than other universities, and the return on investment is high. 94% of Minerva’s inaugural graduating class landed a full-time job or were admitted into a graduate program within 6 months of graduating. Minerva students also score higher than their peers on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), a well-respected test that measures students’ skills in written expression, critical thinking, and problem solving.
Minerva is now bringing this learning experience to high school students with the Minerva Baccalaureate, through which students take demanding, interdisciplinary classes using the same active learning platform. To offer the Minerva Baccalaureate to high school students as an alternative to AP courses and the International Baccalaureate, Minerva has partnered with two leaders in secondary education, Elite Education and Laurel Springs. By the time they graduate, Minerva Baccalaureate students will have earned 32 units of college credit.
While the pandemic momentarily upended education, and as hard as it has been for students and parents, the silver lining is that school doesn’t have to go back to normal. Students, parents and educational institutions are finding new ways to adapt to changes and optimize the learning experience, while exhibiting the same grit and perseverance that carried us all through 2020. As we emerge from socially distanced quarantines with new perspectives and priorities, I believe we will continue to reassess “how things work” and make purposeful changes that better our quality of living, especially as it relates to fostering engagement and creativity.