5 things I’m telling my kids to prepare them for the future

Fast Company

As young people start to enter the workforce, things are going to be very different than they are now. Here’s how to prepare them.

October 8, 2018

I have four kids, ages 5 to 14, and I and know they’re very unlikely to follow the same educational path I did. I’m certain they’ll be preparing themselves for a very different job market. As my youngest is in kindergarten and my oldest just started high school, here are my thoughts for them.

Technology’s impacts are varied and yet to be determined. We like technology when it makes our daily lives easier and often more fun. But on the flip side, we worry. It’s natural to look toward the future and wonder what change will bring. Earlier this year, for example, Gallup found that nearly eight in 10 Americans believe artificial intelligence (AI) will destroy more jobs than it creates over the next decade. I believe the impact of AI will be much less significant than most predictions, but at the same time want to help people look ahead, eyes wide open.

Drawing on my time as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Future Council on Education, Gender and Work, I’ve tried to distill some of the Council’s most important research into advice for my children as they gradually age their way into the workforce.

Here’s what I’m telling them and why:

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]

ROBOTS (PROBABLY) AREN’T TAKING OVER

When I attended Davos in 2017, the metaphor most commonly used for AI was the Terminator: a scary all-powerful robot capable of doing your job, who then starts a robot revolution.

But the following year, as I’ve written before, the Iron Man metaphor replaced Terminator. The change reflected the shifting attitudes about tech: from completely replacing humans to complementing, or augmenting, their abilities and pushing innovation.

Personally, I think Iron Man is a better metaphor than Terminator for two reasons.

First, past technological revolutions, from the automobile to the ATM, have ended up creating more jobs than they destroyed. And second, contrary to popular imagination, technology still has a long way to go before it reaches the kind of capabilities that alarmists like Elon Musk have warned about.

Instead, I think Yann LeCun, who heads AI research at Facebook, has it right. “In particular areas, machines have superhuman performance,” LeCun says. “But in terms of general intelligence we’re not even close to a rat.”

Self-driving cars, for example, are still far from meeting minimal safety standards, and AI is still just fairly simple neural nets, not mythical omniscient machines. More importantly, while it’s great to be aware of the increasing powers of technology, the truth is that the prospect of automation creating serious joblessness is only one of what are really multiple plausible scenarios.

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]

YOU’LL BE IN SCHOOL THE REST OF YOUR LIVES

Why? Because skills are changing faster than traditional education is keeping up. There are a few reasons for this. After all,  per Moore’s law, technological progress grows exponentially, creating smarter and smarter machines, which require newer and newer skills. Plus, in an era of fast-paced technological and scientific breakthroughs, the more we discover, the more we have to learn new skills.

And while some leading universities now offer courses on the gig economy or new technologies like the blockchain, it’s far from being the norm. The vast majority of high schools and colleges aren’t adapting quickly enough to the change, leaving their students increasingly unprepared for the jobs market.

“Some studies suggest,” according to the WEF, “that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will have jobs that do not yet exist and for which their education will fail to prepare them.” And the WEF report “Realizing Human Potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution” predicts that approximately 35% of the skills demanded for jobs across industries will change by 2020.

In practical terms, constant technological change requires that my children’s generation needs to begin thinking of education as a lifelong pursuit. That means they might have to attend community college in order to get a certification, or get a Masters from a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) or a nanodegree from an online learning platform like Udemy–or all three at different points throughout their careers to remain relevant as the job market transforms.

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]

YOU CAN BE YOUR OWN BOSS

A little over half of the working-age population worldwide are traditional employees. But that’s changing, because working for yourself has never been easier, thanks to technology that enables greater collaboration.

As work becomes more digitized, it’s also becoming less tied to geography. UX designers, or copywriters, or Android developers don’t need to be in an expensive downtown office building to find meaningful work and earn top dollar. They can do their jobs anywhere.

And as work becomes less tied to geography, digital platforms, like Etsy and Upwork–which connect people to work together regardless of location–increasingly offer people a chance to be their own bosses.

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]

FOCUS ON SOCIAL SKILLS

As automation advances, the most prized skills are those that can’t be performed by a robot.

Sure, hard skills like programming, data analysis, engineering, and math are important; however, the WEF’s “Future of Jobs” report finds that technical know-how won’t be enough in the future.

“Overall, social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills,” says the WEF. “In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.”

[Image: Andrey_A/iStock]

THE FUTURE IS UP TO YOU

Despite a lot of the fear-mongering about the future, no one really knows how technology will progress.

A WEF study from earlier this year, “Eight Futures of Work: Scenarios and their Implications,” highlighted that uncertainty, pointing to other factors that will also change the way we live and work–like our education systems and immigration policies, which are both within our control.

After all, we make the machines. We create schools and write curricula, and it’s up to us how talent and work move across borders.

The future isn’t written in stone. It’s not inevitable. It’s yours to shape–and that gives me reason to be hopeful.

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Transforming Our World Through the Lens of Gen Z

NAIS

Suman Mulumudi was a freshman at Lakeside School (and had just graduated from The Evergreen School), when he began thinking about the importance of data to the practice of medicine. Observing his doctor parents, he began imagining potential benefits if one combined a stethoscope with an iPhone to capture and visualize heart data. Working with his father, Mulmudi created a prototype that will soon be available to the medical community.

While a graduate student at Stanford, Ashley Moulton conceived a master’s project about teaching kids how to eat healthier. Called Nomster Chef, this digital library of illustrated step-by-step recipes helps kids to cook with grown-ups. Thanks to Kickstarter, she is on the brink of making her dream a reality. With 29 days left to reach her goal, she has raised 90 percent of the funds she needs for launch.

Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. When only 11 years old, she used the power of social media to call attention to the plight of girls under Taliban rule. To spread her work, she co-founded the Malala Fund with her father, hoping to empower girls to achieve their potential and become confident, strong leaders in their own countries.

These three stories demonstrate the power of Generation Z and those who embrace Gen Z thinking.

What is Gen Z? According to Wikipedia, “Generation Z, also known as the iGeneration or Post-Millennials, is the demographic cohort after the Millennials. Demographers and researchers typically use the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s as starting birth years for this group, and, as of yet there is little consensus regarding ending birth years. A significant aspect of this generation is the widespread usage of the Internet from a young age; members of Generation Z are typically thought of as being comfortable with technology, and interacting on social media for a significant portion of their socializing.”

Like the Millennials before them, there is much speculation about this generation and the changes they will bring to the world. I have read widely about Gen Z to better understand their impact on education. One book that really captured my interest is The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business by Thomas Koulopoulos and Dan Keldsen. The authors argue that a series of forces will bring about a post-generational world in which what unites us will be stronger than what divides us, and that people of all generations will begin to adopt the practices of Gen Z.

Six Forces Shaping Society

The six forces outlined in the book present many opportunities for independent schools. Below, I summarize the forces and pose generative questions for school leadership teams to explore so that they may leverage the power of this emerging generation. I believe these forces provide hope for us all.

1. Breaking Generations. Due primarily to advances in technology and a near equivalent number of people in all age bands, age will no longer be a major shaper of attitudes and behaviors. Rather, people will be defined by their connections in communities. In addition, as people embrace lifelong learning, education will not be seen as occurring only at specific times in a person’s life.

Strategic Questions for Schools

  • What opportunity does a world of intergenerational learners present for schools?
  • How can students of all ages partake of our services at different stages of their lives?
  • How can we enrich the learning environment by thinking about grouping learners differently?

2. Hyperconnecting. The internet has vastly increased our ability to connect, but the Internet of Things has pushed that even further by creating a world in which machine to machine connections are now possible. As devices that were never meant to work together do, they open the road to new possibilities, as exemplified by Suman Mulumudi’s efforts to create a smarter device by pairing a stethoscope with an iPhone. In addition, the lines between online and offline are blurring, changing the ways we live, work, and play.

Navigating this new hyperconnected world can be daunting, particularly for those who were not born digital. This has given rise to a new form of mentoring — reverse mentoring — in which a digital native can guide learning and using new technologies.

Strategic Questions for Schools

  • Could launching both mentoring and reverse mentoring programs in schools promote creativity and teamwork among five generations learning and working together?
  • Are there opportunities to connect two different offerings or ways of doing something that, when paired together, create a breakthrough?
  • How can we use the principles of hyperconnecting to enhance learning?

3. Slingshotting. Luddite is a term that is often used to refer to people who refuse to adapt to changing technologies. But have we misperceived their behavior? Have some people turned away from emerging technologies because they were too hard to use or did not improve their ability to do something? Slingshotting refers to tech users, who had been left behind previously, slingshotting forward, skipping multiple generations of technology and arriving at the same place as those who suffered through technology’s evolution. As more members of the Silent Generation adopt technology, forecasters predict that there will be full internet penetration between 2020 and 2025.

Strategic Questions for Schools

  • What opportunities are there for using technology to increase effectiveness and efficiency across the workforce, now that user-friendly technologies are further driving technology acceptance across generations?
  • How can we leverage this force with our parent communities as well as for fundraising and friend-raising purposes?

4. Shift from Affluence to Influence. One of the most profound changes in the marketplace today is the effect that social media has on influencing behavior. Just think of how the music world has changed through the explosion of social technologies. No longer is capital needed to launch a musician — communities of influence can drive fame and fortune. Social networks can also drive movements, as evidenced by Malala Yousafzai opening up educational opportunities for women worldwide through her blogs.

The shift from affluence to influence has also changed the way advertisers market. They’ve moved from paid media (ads, billboards, etc.) to owned media (creation of a community-owned, yet company-branded experience: think Apple stores) to earned media (influencers taking on your cause in social media).

Strategic Questions for Schools

  • How can schools make use of social communities to drive influence?
  • What if schools created owned spaces on campus for families and the surrounding community?
  • How can schools make use of influencers to create awareness of their unique value propositions?

5. Adopting the World as My Classroom. Educators are already keenly aware of this force in education, with technology driving the concept of anytime, anywhere education. The adoption of competency-based education on the college level continues to grow, and some speculate that Gen Z may be the first generation that looks to alternative educational paths post high school. Gamification is also unlocking new ways to excite learners and challenge them.

Strategic Questions for Schools

  • What would school look like if we considered educating people at any age?
  • What opportunities would this open up?
  • How might we think about school beyond the classroom?
  • How essential will a brick-and-mortar school be in the future?

6. Lifehacking. Gen Z has a propensity to work around or “hack” systems. Today, three types of hacking are changing the marketplace: crowdfunding, 3D printing, and new attitudes about intellectual property. The essence of hacking is about breaking through barriers and connecting people, mobilizing communities, and driving outcomes that otherwise would not be possible.

Strategic Questions for Schools

  • How can we use new processes and/or emerging technology to do things more efficiently and effectively?
  • How can we apply lean start-up principles to the school context?
  • How can we leverage this innate ability of Gen Zers to drive the learning process?

Stoneman Douglas Students Were Trained For This Moment

Slate

How the student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High demonstrate the power of a comprehensive education.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma González gives a speech at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb. 17.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma González gives a speech at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb. 17.
Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School returned to class Wednesday morning two weeks and moral centuries after a tragic mass shooting ended the lives of 17 classmates and teachers. Sen. Marco Rubio marked their return by scolding them for being “infected” with “arrogance” and “boasting.” The Florida legislature marked their return by enacting a $67 million program to arm school staff, including teachers, over the objections of students and parents. Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill opted to welcome them back by ignoring their wishes on gun control, which might lead a cynic to believe that nothing has changed in America after yet another horrifying cycle of child murder and legislative apathy.

But that is incorrect. Consumers and businesses are stepping in where the government has cowered. Boycotts may not influence lawmakers, but they certainly seem to be changing the game in the business world. And the students of Parkland, Florida, unbothered by the games played by legislators and lobbyists, are still planning a massive march on Washington. These teens have—by most objective measures—used social media to change the conversation around guns and gun control in America.

Now it’s time for them to change the conversation around education in America, and not just as it relates to guns in the classroom. The effectiveness of these poised, articulate, well-informed, and seemingly preternaturally mature student leaders of Stoneman Douglas has been vaguely attributed to very specific personalities and talents. Indeed, their words and actions have been so staggeringly powerful, they ended up fueling laughable claims about crisis actors, coaching, and fat checks from George Soros. But there is a more fundamental lesson to be learned in the events of this tragedy: These kids aren’t freaks of nature. Their eloquence and poise also represent the absolute vindication of the extracurricular education they receive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

The students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America.

Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country (fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.

Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.” Every middle and high school in the district has a forensics and public-speaking program. Coincidentally, some of the students at Stoneman Douglas had been preparing for debates on the issue of gun control this year, which explains in part why they could speak to the issues from day one.

The student leaders of the #NeverAgain revolt were also, in large part, theater kids who had benefited from the school’s exceptional drama program. Coincidentally, some of these students had been preparing to perform Spring Awakening, a rock musical from 2006. As the New Yorker describes it in an essay about the rise of the drama kids, that musical tackles the question of “what happens when neglectful adults fail to make the world safe or comprehensible for teen-agers, and the onus that neglect puts on kids to beat their own path forward.” Weird.

The student leaders at Stoneman Douglas High School have also included, again, not by happenstance, young journalists, who’d worked at the school paper, the Eagle Eye, with the supervision of talented staff. One of the extraordinary components of the story was the revelation that David Hogg, student news director for the school’s broadcast journalism program, WMSD-TV, was interviewing his own classmates as they hid in a closet during the shooting, and that these young people had the wherewithal to record and write about the events as they unfolded. As Christy Ma, the paper’s staff editor, later explained, “We tried to have as many pictures as possible to display the raw emotion that was in the classroom. We were working really hard so that we could show the world what was going on and why we need change.”

Mary Beth Tinker actually visited the school in 2013 to talk to the students about her role in Tinker v. Des Moines, the seminal Supreme Court case around student speech and protest. As she described it to me, the school’s commitment to student speech and journalism had been long in evidence, even before these particular students were activated by this month’s horrific events. Any school committed to bringing in a student activist from the Vietnam era to talk about protest and freedom is a school more likely than not to be educating activists and passionate students.

To be sure, the story of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students is a story about the benefits of being a relatively wealthy school district at a moment in which public education is being vivisected without remorse or mercy. But unless you’re drinking the strongest form of Kool-Aid, there is simply no way to construct a conspiracy theory around the fact that students who were being painstakingly taught about drama, media, free speech, political activism, and forensics became the epicenter of the school-violence crisis and handled it creditably. The more likely explanation is that extracurricular education—one that focuses on skills beyond standardized testing and rankings—creates passionate citizens who are spring-loaded for citizenship.

Perhaps instead of putting more money into putting more guns into our classrooms, we should think about putting more money into the programs that foster political engagement and skills. In Sen. Rubio’s parlance, Marjory Stoneman Douglas was fostering arrogance. To the rest of the world, it was building adults.

Student-Centered Learning in Spotlight at World’s Largest Ed-Tech Show

Associate Editor

 

What will today’s kindergartners need in order to succeed in the world as the Class of 2030?

“Student-centricity,” according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company on behalf of Microsoft Education, and showcased on the opening day at Bett, the world’s largest educational technology show here.

“That’s a theme we heard loud and clear: focusing on the learner,” said Barbara Holzapfel, the general manager of education marketing for Microsoft, during a presentation about the findings that attracted hundreds of people at a “standing room only” session of the conference.

They want to be supported by teachers who understand their needs, and want to be able to explore for themselves what interests them, she said.

Exhibiting that very trait were three 10-year-olds from Hong Kong, who came to the massive ed-tech show with their teacher Ms. Wong, to show off some of the inventions they built and programmed, including a paper airplane launcher and a tea-making machine that allows their teacher to choose how strong she wants her tea.

Here, the 5th-grade students from a government school explain what their invention does:

The automatic tea maker was a gift for their teacher, who explains their invention:

And the girls explain their favorite part about collaborating on the month-long project to create an automatic tea maker:

But what will all this student-centricity mean for teachers? “Teaching is one of the professions at the least risk of being automated,” said Holzapfel, who said the field is expected to grow exponentially.

The teacher “will morph into a guide and coach for students,” she said. “This is a generation that expects to have voice/choice in their own learning journey…and how they navigate it.”

Jobs of the Future

Lower-skill jobs are likely to continue to be replaced by automation. By 2030, “the fastest-growing occupations will require higher-level cognitive skills in areas such as collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity,” the researchers found, according to an announcement about the study. “To help all students build these crucial cognitive and social and emotional skills, educators will need training, technologies, and time.” (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Schools and the Future of Work.)

McKinsey’s research was based on input from 70 “thought leaders,” an analysis of 150 pieces of relevant research, and surveys of 2,000 teachers and 2,000 students across the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Singapore.

The future of learning, work and life “is going to be profoundly social,” said Holzapfel, so students will need to develop and apply social and emotional skills. In fact, researchers found these “soft skills” to be twice as predictive of academic achievement as home environment and demographics.

Among the students surveyed, 50 percent indicated social-emotional skills were among their top priorities, compared with 30 percent of teachers. But perceptions differ. While only 30 to 40 percent of students feel they are receiving feedback on these skills, between 50 and 60 percent of teachers feel they are providing it.

Personalized Learning: Part of the Solution

Personalized learning is one of the most promising ways to develop social-emotional skills, according to the study. (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality.)

“Research in the past has shown that personalized learning improves cognition and skill development,” said Holzapfel.

“Seventy percent of students believe they can achieve higher growth and more content mastery when they are supported by teachers who really understand them as individuals,” and their individual learning needs, she said.

But personalized learning “is in very high demand, but very short supply,” she explained, noting that 70 percent of teachers say time is a barrier to the approach. Teachers and students in the study disagreed on the pace of learning, with educators identifying time constraints and the ability to individualize to so many students as central to the problem.

Microsoft sees technology as key to the solution. “Artificial intelligence, mixed reality, collaborative platforms, and technologies that go way beyond that—all of these technologies can be really powerful tools” to help teachers save time and gain insights into the learning and progress of each individual student, Holzapfel said.

Will Letter Grades Survive?

Edutopia

A century-old pillar of the school system is under fire as schools look to modernize student assessment.

Under pressure from an unprecedented constellation of forces—from state lawmakers to prestigious private schools and college admissions offices—the ubiquitous one-page high school transcript lined with A–F letter grades may soon be a relic of the past.

In the last decade, at least 15 state legislatures and boards of education have adopted policies incentivizing their public schools to prioritize measures other than grades when assessing students’ skills and competencies. And more recently, over 150 of the top private high schools in the U.S., including Phillips Exeter and Dalton—storied institutions which have long relied on the status conveyed by student ranking—have pledged to shift to new transcripts that provide more comprehensive, qualitative feedback on students while ruling out any mention of credit hours, GPAs, or A–F grades.

Public Domain

Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut is one of 157 private schools that are part of MTC.

Somewhat independently, schools and lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: The old models of student assessment are out of step with the needs of the 21st-century workplace and society, with their emphasis on hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, problem solving, persistence, and collaboration.

“Competency-based education is a growing movement driven by educators and communities focused on ensuring that students have the knowledge they need to flourish in a global economy,” said Susan Patrick, chief executive officer of iNACOL, a nonprofit that runs the website CompetencyWorks. “The future of jobs and the workforce will demand a new set of skills, and students’ capacity to solve complex problems for an unknown future will be essential.”

For their part, colleges—the final arbiters of high school performance—are signaling a surprising willingness to depart from traditional assessments that have been in place since the early 19th century. From Harvard and Dartmouth to small community colleges, more than 70 U.S. institutions of higher learning have weighed in, signing formal statements asserting that competency-based transcripts will not hurt students in the admissions process.

The emerging alignment of K–12 schools with colleges and legislators builds on a growing consensus among educators who believe that longstanding benchmarks like grades, SATs, AP test scores, and even homework are poor measures of students’ skills and can deepen inequities between them. If the momentum holds, a century-old pillar of the school system could crumble entirely, leading to dramatic transitions and potential pitfalls for students and schools alike.

PICKING UP STEAM

Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland, was frustrated. His school had recently begun offering real-world, full-day courses in subjects like engineering and entrepreneurship, but he was finding it difficult to measure and credit the new types of skills students were learning using A–F grades. Looney started reaching out to private high schools and colleges looking for alternatives.

Courtesy of Scott Looney

Scott Looney, head of school at the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio.

Though he found that many educators shared his desires for a new assessment system, he came up empty-handed.

“The grading system right now is demoralizing and is designed to produce winners and losers,” said Looney. “The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids. Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges. I think we can show the unique abilities of kids without stratifying them.”

Looney began brainstorming a new type of transcript for the Hawken School, but quickly realized he would need a critical mass of schools to influence college admissions offices to accept it. With the initial support of 28 other independent schools, Looney formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) in April 2017. The group has since expanded to 157 schools, including both historic institutions like Phillips Exeter and newer alternative schools like the Khan Lab School.

In joining the MTC, each school commits to phase out its existing GPA- and grade-based transcripts for a digital, interactive format that showcases students’ academic and enrichment skills, areas for growth, and samples of work or talents, such as a video of a public speaking competition or a portfolio of artwork.

The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids. Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges.

While the transcript is still in its infancy, organizers say it will resemble a websitethat each school will be able customize by choosing from a menu of skills like critical thinking, creativity, and self-directed learning, along with core content areas such as algebraic reasoning. Instead of earning credit hours and receiving grades, students will take courses to prove they’ve developed key skills and competencies. Looney insists that the transcripts will be readable by admissions officers in two minutes or less.

The MTC’s work is not entirely original, though, and takes its lead from a number of public schools—most notably in New England—that have been rethinking traditional methods of assessing students for more than a decade.

Some are supported by the nonprofit group Great Schools Partnership, which helped influence Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to adopt state board of education policies or legislation in the last decade on proficiency-based assessment systems. Other districts, in Florida, California, and Georgia, have made similar changes more recently, and pilot programs have emerged in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Illinois, Ohio, and Oregon.

©iNACOL

A map from iNACOL estimates that 48 states have at least some policy supporting competency-based education.

There’s also backing from colleges. The Great Schools Partnership was able to garner the support of more than 70 colleges and universities, suggesting that higher ed admissions offices are ready for the change.

“We are accustomed to academic reports from around the world, including those from students who have been privately instructed and even self-taught,” said Marlyn McGrath, Harvard University’s director of admissions, replying via email about the transcripts. “In cases where we need additional information, we typically ask for it. So we are not concerned that students presenting alternative transcripts will be disadvantaged because of format.”

MASTERY VERSUS SEAT TIME

But the new transcripts are just the tip of the iceberg, according to supporters, part of a larger movement to do away with a system where kids can progress through grades or courses without really understanding material and be promoted for seat time and good behavior. When students move on to harder topics, they continue to accumulate gaps in their knowledge—a setup for failure in the later grades or collegiate years.

Under a competency model, kids can no longer just “get by,” said Derek Pierce, principal of Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, which has used a proficiency-based transcript since 2005.

The new transcripts “get kids focused on doing their personal best on meeting or exceeding standards rather than getting a better grade than the kid next to them,” said Pierce. “There is no longer a ‘gentleman’s C’.”

However, without widespread agreement on the necessary skills and knowledge required for core classes, proving mastery may be just as elusive and arbitrary as the current system. Even MTC member schools won’t rely on a shared understanding of what mastery means. Instead, each school will be able to quantify it independently, leaving college admissions officers—according to critics—without a clear basis of comparison.

Our learning structures have to be much more nimble to allow today’s learners to navigate through opportunities where they can see themselves as the authors of their own education.

While competency-based education proponents argue that the new transcripts will identify students with skills that academia has traditionally overlooked, others worry about equity for marginalized students, who already struggle in the current system. Some critics have suggested that the new transcripts may be a way for wealthier schools, especially private schools like those in the MTC, to give their students an even greater advantage when competing for limited positions at the best universities.

©Khan Lab School

Competency-based transcript proponents like the Khan Lab School, pictured here, believe the new assessments are necessary to foster 21st-century skills.

There are other unanswered questions and challenges to be worked out, too. Will college admissions counselors have enough time, especially at large public colleges, to look meaningfully at dense digital portfolios of student work? Will the new transcripts create too much work and new training for K-12 teachers, as they struggle to measure hard-to-define categories of learning? Perhaps most importantly, will parents buy in?

“There’s still plenty of work ahead and some pretty radical changes taking place,” explained Mike Martin, director of curriculum and technology at Montpelier Public Schools in Vermont, whose district starting transitioning to a competency-based model in 2013.

Many public and private schools, like Martin’s, are still years away from full implementation, and others are grappling with the nuts and bolts of how to implement dramatically new systems for student learning and assessment. Those on the forefront of these changes, though, remain hopeful that the new system will push all students to develop the skills they need to succeed in college and careers.

“Our learning structures have to be much more nimble to allow today’s learners to navigate through opportunities where they can see themselves as the authors of their education,” said Martin. “Proficiency-based education is about getting every single student up to a certain skill level and ensuring every student can succeed.”