The Unimaginable is Not Only Possible but Likely

This is a guest post by Gary R. Tipsord, Superintendent of Schools, LeRoy IL

Almost 60 years ago, the Russians put Sputnik into space and instantly the United States had a perceived crisis in Education. From that moment to present day, our government and the reformers have been trying to “fix” our nation’s schools.

Fast forward through numerous reforms to NCLB in 2001. This was a bipartisan piece of legislation designed to make schools more accountable for positive student outcomes. These outcomes were to be measured by multiple-­choice tests with results posted for all to see and potentially tied to school funding. While the premise of legislation was promising, the actual metrics of the administration of the assessments led some schools to be designated National Blue Ribbons Schools one year and then not meeting AYP (annual yearly progress) the following year.

It has always been clear that the measures of NCLB would ultimately be unattainable.  It would be wonderful if we could legislate away cavities in the teeth of our children, but a variety of factors beyond the control of the dentist probably make that impossible. Likewise it is impossible to say that all students will achieve to a standard unless that standard is set low enough to in essence make it meaningless.

It seems that every reform begins with the presumption that our system is inadequate or failing in some form or another. So, why not ask those who have identified the gaps to express their desired state for education? Why not embrace the conversation about education coming from the corporate world? Why not listen to the manufacturers and the construction trades? Why not engage with higher education for a conversation beyond ACT scores?

The change in perspective for our district’s thinking came from authors Sir Ken Robinson and Tony Wagner. Robinson challenged our current state of thinking about creativity and the ways that public education can either stimulate or suppress those skills and Wagner challenged our thoughts on essential skills, not just the knowledge that students need to be successful after they leave our doors.

We are charged with preparing our students for a world of unknowns that we cannot imagine. This is unknown territory and the fact that knowledge and technology are increasing at an exponential rate, we cannot possibly assess students abilities to cope with changes five, ten, especially fifty years from now with multiple choice, essay, or Scantron evaluations.  With the current economic realities, it must be acknowledged that the students of today will likely be working and required to learn new skills even decades after graduation.  This is unchartered territory for society and yet schools are charged with the initial preparation for this ability to cope with change.  So, how can K-12 education possibly remain stuck in a 1950’s model of teaching and learning.

We began to look for partnerships everywhere we could, with an emphasis on information and ideas rather than money and things. We wanted to hear the desired state for our students from those who would employ our students. We wanted to know what they needed our students to know and be able to do. This journey has involved conversations that ranged from Google and State Farm to our local flower shop and city hall.

These conversations have led us to make three very intentional leaps:

1.) Listen and engage with everyone we can about what they desire from education,

2.) Engage specifically with our students about their desires,

3.) Consider nothing as impossible if we believe it better for the future of our students.

We are endeavoring to create an environment that endorses risk and celebrates failure as a critical learning opportunity. One that capitalizes on the passions and talents of our students and our staff, and one that gives our students the opportunity to experience the real world application of their learning. While Sputnik may have led to a manufactured crisis and NCLB an ill-­fated effort to solve a perceived problem, to ignore the flattening of the world economy and to resist the evolution of a 1950’s model of education, the failure to innovate in education may lead to the first real crisis in education. We desire to selectively forget the past, in order tobetter define the future.  We choose this statement intentionally, “We are at a place in time where the unimaginable is not only possible but likely.”

So what is different, maybe nothing, maybe everything, in time we will know the true fruits of our labor?

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