It is graduation season: caps and gowns, relieved students, and happy parents across the country.
I graduated from Troy High School in Fullerton, California many years ago—more, in fact, than I care to either count or reveal, but suffice it to say that when I donned my cap and gown, Tony Orlando and Dawn had the number one song in the country, the Berlin Wall was still intact, the closest thing anyone had to a personal computer was a calculator, and people still thumbed through gargantuan white and yellow tomes to find phone numbers.
My son Lucas graduated from high school only six years ago, just as the Great Recession was ratcheting up, and, while much has changed in the span of days that separates my son’s graduation from my own, one thing that remains remarkably constant is the classroom experience in most of our nation’s high schools.
Why is that a problem?
Here’s why: while my son, like me, was lucky to finish college and land a job in his field straightaway—whew!—he and his classmates are unlikely to have a career path that is remotely similar to mine or that of my peers. After graduate school, I worked for nearly three decades for essentially the same employer—that curious industry known as the federal government—both at the White House and in Congress, before leaving to head the Hewlett Foundation’s Education Program.
According to a 2012 study by the Associated Press, however, 53 percent of today’s college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, the highest in more than a decade. Students born today will also probably have between ten and fourteen jobs before their thirty-eighth birthday. Further complicating things for this generation, according to the Department of Labor, is that most of the jobs that Lucas and his friends will likely apply for in the future—the good ones anyway—haven’t even been invented yet.
Coupled with automation and outsourcing, these trends have redrawn the map of the American labor market, requiring today’s high schools to reinvent the employees, employers, and citizens of tomorrow. To keep pace with the seismic environmental and social changes that are recalibrating America’s future, our children will need a different set of skills than we acquired in high school.
When I graduated from high school, it was possible to get a job that would last a lifetime, as long as you possessed a strong work ethic and a basic procedural understanding of the world. Lucas’ generation will almost certainly have to go a step further, and convince prospective employers that they can solve unforeseen problems, which don’t appear on any standardized test or surface in a job interview. They will have to demonstrate a certain nimbleness of mind—and possess an educational portfolio that indicates a certain kind of depth.
To help address the needs of today’s graduates, the Hewlett Foundation’s Education Program has invested, since March 2010, in an emergent initiative known as Deeper Learning, which we believe best equips high school graduates with the tools—or in educators’ lingua franca, “competencies”—they need to navigate the twenty-first century’s shifting and uncertain terrain.
So, what is “deeper learning”? First, perhaps, I should note what deeper learning is not: it does not represent an abandonment of the basic principle that high school graduates should master core academic content such as reading, writing, and math. Indeed, deeper learning is a bit like baking a cake, with core content as a key ingredient, but the final product relies on a mix of desired educational outcomes that emphasize the ability to think critically and solve complex problems; communicate effectively; and collaborate, learn how to learn, and value learning (or what we in education call an “academic mindset”). These higher-order thinking skills and learning dispositions enhance mastery of content and allow students to apply their knowledge to new situations.
Until recently, the tools and evidence base available to reformers in this arena were limited. But a new book, written by a Bay Area educational consultant, Monica Martinez, and a research study released this month by one of our grantees, the American Institutes for Research (AIR), provide us with the strongest evidence yet of deeper learning’s promise.
By eschewing a one-size-fits-all curriculum, teachers in the eight deeper learning schools studied were able to tailor the educational experience to their students’ unique needs and ambitions, and identify “the spark—a subject, idea or project that makes a student light up.”
That classroom success is beginning to materialize in ways that we can measure. In the recent AIR study, researchers found statistically significant increases—standard deviations of between 0.19 and 0.50—in all eight indices they established to measure opportunities for learning outcomes, including “communication, complex problem solving, creative thinking, and real world connections.”
What’s more, AIR found that the deeper learning schools they studied produce significantly higher on-time graduation rates. If non-network schools graduate sixty students on time, schools in the deeper learning network graduate sixty-nine students within four years.
These differences seem admittedly modest, but research of educational interventions typically show no change at all, so I hope you share the enthusiasm we felt at the Foundation to learn that our hopes for deeper learning are much more than mere wishful thinking.
They’re on to something here.
So, with another graduation season upon us, we should think hard about what our kids can actually do with their degrees. If they receive only a traditional education, do well on multiple-choice tests like the ones I took, and do not go on to postsecondary education, they will likely move very quickly from celebrating commencement to struggling to find a job and keep it. If, however, they can demonstrate that they can solve unstructured, complex problems using new information—made possible because they have mastered deeper learning competencies—they are much more likely to be successful in college, land that first job, and fashion a rewarding—and remunerative—career as an adult.
Changing education to deliver deeper learning won’t be easy for teachers, administrators, or policymakers. But deeper learning gives us a sense of where the finish line is, and while getting there will require a concerted effort from everyone—policymakers, teachers, parents, and schoolchildren—perhaps we should be mindful, now, more than ever, that America didn’t become America by failing to rise to a challenge.
Earlier this month, I was in Philadelphia for the annual American Education Research Association conference—the largest gathering of education researchers in the country. It is, in a word, overwhelming: roughly 13,000 education researchers sporting name tags and blue bags, looking exhausted or annoyed; scurrying through the vast maze of conference center hallways searching for sessions, colleagues, coffee.
Three things struck me about the whole event and the state of education research. First, with thousands of researchers examining some aspect of education that they are hoping no one else has studied, it seems to me that a lot should be known about education. The amount of research and breadth of topics is staggering. I randomly sat down at a roundtable discussion (number 21 of 40 or so tables) and it turned out that five researchers were studying the question of how teachers use assessment data in their instructional practices. This is exactly what I’d hoped to hear more about and I just stumbled into the conversation.
But I also discovered that while much is investigated, nothing is very definitive. So of the five research studies, a few were still in early stages, others had conducted some research but found “no effects,” and so on. Even with the “no effects” research, we all (including the researcher) hypothesized that perhaps this tweak or that would improve the results and they should try again. I’ve found this often happens in education research. Maybe it is appropriate that research is never really finished, but it is nonetheless frustrating when the primary recommendation is usually “more research is needed.”
Every once in a great while, something is actually concluded. We have decided, for example, that class size reduction, once considered the great silver bullet, does not consistently correlate with higher student achievement. Good to know. At least we don’t need to spend money on that any more. But even here, it turns out that class size reduction under the right circumstances does produce effects. So, the answer to the question, “does this work?” is most accurately answered by “it depends.” Context, culture, fidelity of implementation, and the mysteries of the human brain all figure into the answer and the inexplicable alchemy of it all make it difficult to create many generalizable and useable action steps emerging from research.
Look, I get it. No self-respecting researcher is ever going to make an unqualified statement that X always causes Y. That doesn’t describe reality, particularly in complex systems populated by unpredictable humans. But research is being funded in large part because we want to understand how to get better at what we are doing. To improve our education system we will need to take action and we’d like to do this based on evidence.
So, what to do? I have three suggestions. One, make it easier to find the research. One way to do this would be to create a taxonomy that categorizes all of those thousands of research studies and a clearinghouse with a really good search engine that stores them. Two, we need more meta-analyses that sum up what is known and give practitioners guidance (as best we know) about what should be done and what should be avoided. Lastly, we need open anonymized data (that protects student privacy) so that all of the millions of data points that are emanating from online education can be accessible to those thousands of researchers so they can learn stuff and speak with greater authority about what they know.
And we need more coffee stands in convention centers.