Our schools will get rid of AP courses. Here’s why.


A student takes notes in an Advanced Placement class at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington in 2014. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
June 18, 2018

In an era when the quality and nature of American secondary school education are subjects of vigorous debate, it is time to rethink our curricula. Together, we lead eight Washington-area independent schools, and we have been meeting regularly over the past several years to discuss research and compare experiences.

While each of us offers a unique academic program grounded in our historical missions and educational philosophies, we have jointly come to recognize the diminished utility of Advanced Placement courses. Consequently, collectively we agree that we will better equip our students for further study and for life beyond the classroom by eliminating AP courses from our curriculums entirely by 2022.

When introduced in the early 1950s, the rationale for the AP program was to offer particularly ambitious students an opportunity to pursue and receive credit for college-level work, allowing them to graduate from college early. Yet today, few college students graduate in less than four years. At the same time, almost 40 percent of high school students enroll in AP courses, meaning it is no longer true that only a few, exceptional students take them.

As a result, AP courses on high school transcripts are of diminished significance to college admissions officers. Further, we’ve conducted our own survey of almost 150 college and university admissions officers and have been assured that the absence of the AP designation will have no adverse impact on our students. The real question for colleges is whether an applicant has taken a high school’s most demanding courses; the AP designation itself is irrelevant.

Naturally, colleges and universities want the most capable and hard-working students. Therefore, in the belief that failing to take an AP course may hurt their college prospects, students reluctantly pass up more interesting, more engaging and potentially more intellectually transformative and rewarding courses. Because these tests loom so large for students, faculty often feel pressed to sacrifice in-depth inquiries to cover all of the material likely to be included on the test.

But the truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer courses that are foundational, allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests.

Theories of education have changed a lot over the past 50 years, and the ways we teach and test must reflect these changes. Rote memorization is giving way to learning that is more collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary — with an increased focus on problem-solving. We also integrate and connect coursework to real-world issues and provide students with more opportunities to engage in original research and deep analysis.

Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented more in these directions will not only better prepare our students for their futures but also will result in programs that are more engaging both for students and faculty. Moreover, this approach will encourage student motivation driven by their innate curiosity and love of learning.

This change does not signify any effort to diminish the academic rigor for which our schools are known. To the contrary, we believe that by capitalizing on the talents of our superb teachers and resources, students will be offered more stimulating courses that explore subjects in greater depth, enhancing the strength of our programs.

We are far from the first independent schools to eliminate the AP designation. Many excellent boarding and day schools around the country have embraced this change and seen students thrive and teachers flourish without any negative impact on college placement. What is unusual about our decision is that we came to this conclusion together and are announcing it jointly. We hope that by adding our collective voice to the conversation, we will make it easier for other schools considering a similar change to follow the same path.

As schools devoted to nurturing students’ potential, fostering their talents and preparing them to lead productive lives, we believe the flexibility we will gain from developing our own courses will better prepare our students for college and their professional futures. In this time of unprecedented challenges, we owe our students and the world they will enter nothing less.

Russell Shaw, head of Georgetown Day School

Susanna Jones, head of Holton-Arms School

Jim Neill, headmaster of Landon School

Marjo Talbott, head of Maret School

Kathleen Jamieson, head of National Cathedral School

John Kowalik, head of Potomac School

Vance Wilson, headmaster of St. Albans School

Bryan Garman, head of Sidwell Friends School

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In Praise of ADHD

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CreditSarah Mazzetti

Ten years ago, when my son Nicolai was 11, his doctor wanted to put him on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “It would make him less wild,” I explained to my mother, who was then 85. “It would slow him down a bit.”

My mother grumbled. “Look around you,” she said in Yiddish. “Look how fast the world is changing. He doesn’t need to slow down. You need to speed up.”

It was a surprising recommendation from someone who had never learned to use a microwave. But recent research suggests she had a point: Some people with A.D.H.D. may be naturally suited to our turbocharged world.

Today the word “hyperactive” doesn’t just describe certain individuals; it also is a quality of our society. We are bombarded each day by four times the number of words we encountered daily when my mother was raising me. Even vacations are complicated — people today use, on average, 26 websites to plan one. Attitudes and habits are changing so fast that you can identify “generational” differences in people just a few years apart: Simply by analyzing daily cellphone communication patterns, researchers have been able to guess the age of someone under 60 to within about five years either way with 80 percent accuracy.

To thrive in this frenetic world, certain cognitive tendencies are useful: to embrace novelty, to absorb a wide variety of information, to generate new ideas. The possibility that such characteristics might be associated with A.D.H.D. was first examined in the 1990s. The educational psychologist Bonnie Cramond, for example, tested a group of children in Louisiana who had been determined to have A.D.H.D. and found that an astonishingly high number — 32 percent — did well enough to qualify for an elite creative scholars program in the Louisiana schools.

It is now possible to explain Professor Cramond’s results at the neural level. While there is no single brain structure or system responsible for A.D.H.D. (and some believe the term encompasses more than a single syndrome), one cause seems to be a disruption of the brain’s dopamine system. One consequence of that disruption is a lessening of what is called “cognitive inhibition.” The human brain has a system of filters to sort through all the possible associations, notions and urges that the brain generates, allowing only the most promising ones to pass into conscious awareness. That’s why if you are planning a trip to Europe, you think about flying there, but not swimming.

But odd and unlikely associations can be valuable. When such associations survive filtering, they can result in constructive ideas that wouldn’t otherwise have been thought of. For example, when researchers apply a technique known as transcranial stimulation to interfere with key structures in the filtering system, people become more imaginative and inventive, and more insightful as problem solvers.

Individuals with A.D.H.D. naturally have less stringent filters. This can make them more distractible but also more creative. Such individuals may also adapt well to frequent change and thus make for good explorers. Jews whose ancestors migrated north to Rome and Germany from what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories show a higher proportion of the A.D.H.D. gene variant than those Jews whose ancestors migrated a shorter distance south to Ethiopia and Yemen. In fact, scientists have found that the farther a group’s ancestors migrated, the higher the prevalence of the gene variant in that population.

Or consider the case of the Ariaal, a Kenyan tribe whose members through most of its history were wild-animal herders. A few decades ago, some of its members split off from the main group and became farmers.

Being a wild-animal herder is a good job if you are naturally restless; subsistence farming is a far tamer occupation. Recently, the anthropologist Dan Eisenberg and collaborators studied whether people with A.D.H.D. might thrive in the former lifestyle but suffer in the latter. They found that among the herders, those who possessed a gene that predisposed them to A.D.H.D. were, on average, better nourished. Among the farming Ariaal, the opposite was true: Those who lacked the genetic predisposition for A.D.H.D. were, on average, better nourished. Restlessness seemed to better suit a restless existence.

A.D.H.D. is termed a disorder, and in severe forms it can certainly disrupt a person’s life. But you might view a more moderate degree of A.D.H.D. as an asset in today’s turbulent and fast-changing world. My mother, now 95, long ago realized that speed is the essence of our era. Her intuition about Nicolai proved correct, and she has lived to watch her grandson thrive without taking the A.D.H.D. medication she was dead set against.

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.

Why This Tech Executive Says Her Plan to Disrupt Education Is Different

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Students at Lumineer Academy in Williamstown, Australia. The school uses an alternative learning model based on technology businesses. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

MELBOURNE, Australia — At Lumineer Academy, a newly opened primary school in Williamstown, Australia, there is no homework. There are no classrooms, uniforms or traditional grades.

Instead, there are “creator spaces,” “blue-sky thinking” sessions and “pitch decks.”

If the school — furnished like a start-up with whiteboards and beanbag chairs — sounds like the idea of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that’s because it is.

That entrepreneur is Susan Wu, 44, an American who has been called one of the “most influential women in technology” and who has advised or invested in companies that include Twitter, Reddit and Stripe.

Ms. Wu and her team believe they are starting an education revolution. They say they have created a new model for teaching children, called Luminaria, that promises to prepare them to become the architects of — rather than mere participants in — a future world.

“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Ms. Wu. “What they cared about were homogeneous factories that produced a template of a kind of worker. The world has changed.”

Critics, however, see Lumineer Academy as another in a series of attempts by Silicon Valley to apply the same techniques used to churn out successful apps to instead turn out successful children.

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Instead of classrooms there are “studios,” which contain no desks but often have beanbag chairs instead. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

In the United States, as more tech executives have tried their hands at opening schools, education experts have debated, and in some cases warned about, the effects of corporate money and influence pervading the classroom.

In recent years, schools and education programs have been founded by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.

Despite glittering launches and promises to disrupt education, schools founded by tech executives have yet to demonstrate success. AltSchool, founded by the former Google executive Max Ventilla, announced last year that it would close several of its schools after a series of reported losses, despite raising $175 million from investors like Mark Zuckerberg, and charging tuition fees of around $28,000.

Ms. Wu is aware of the challenges her technology sector peers have faced, but she says her school’s model, team and location in Australia could set it apart.

Private education is much more common in Australia than in the United States. About a third of Australian children attend private schools — nearly three times the rate of American children — meaning there are fewer national sensitivities around unions, corporate influence and tuition. Like most independent Australian schools, Lumineer Academy is a nonprofit.

Ms. Wu says that she and her co-founders, Sophie Fenton and Amanda Tawhai, pack a one-two punch that combines her business acumen with their knowledge of education.

Ms. Fenton won Australian Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has written exams for the Victorian Certificate of Education — the final assessment required of students in the state of Victoria.

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“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Susan Wu, a former tech entrepreneur who founded the school. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

Though similar ventures by tech entrepreneurs have failed, Ms. Wu’s Silicon Valley peers said she was uniquely suited to founding a successful school.

“She brings new perspective to problems that have existed for a long time,” said Mike Curtis, vice president of engineering at Airbnb. “Almost any problem space — no matter how different it is from the last — she seems to be able to tackle.”

Lumineer Academy opened in January in a former customs house in a wealthy suburb of Melbourne. There are 130 students enrolled and tuition costs around 10,000 Australian dollars, or $8,000.

Unlike most Australian private schools, students at the academy do not wear a required uniform. Instead, students are encouraged to build their own wardrobes within a prescribed palette. (In nautical stripes and khakis, many children resemble those in a J. Crew catalog.)

Classrooms in the school have been rebranded “studios.” There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs and tables to stand at while working.

The Luminaria model claims to balance hard S.T.E.M. subjects, like computer programing, with soft skills like emotional intelligence and teamwork that are increasingly sought by employers. Ms. Wu said the model was based on a concept in physics known as first principles, in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies or biases.

Several recent studies have suggested that 30 to 50 percent of Australian teachers leave the profession within their first few years of work. Lumineer Academy has sought to capture some of them with a promise of freedom from strict curriculums.

“When I saw the job advertised, I thought, ‘This can’t be true,’ ” said Kim Staples, a 31-year-old teacher. “I was so frustrated in other systems, because they’re quite prescriptive.”

Ms. Staples said she would have stopped teaching if she hadn’t joined Ms. Wu’s school.

“I felt like I was too restricted,” she said. “I couldn’t give children the type of learning experiences that I knew was best for them.”

There is evidence of tech-world thinking throughout the school. In one studio, 8- and 9-year-olds worked on a project about socializing. The students outlined their thoughts using a multistep design process that could have been lifted straight from a start-up’s business plan: blue-sky thinking (thinking outside the box), scope (the work and resources required to get something done), MVP (minimum viable product), delivery and launch.

Outside observers say many of these tech-driven schools are giving new names to old pedagogical ideas.

“I was kind of impressed with the number of clichés and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy,” said Audrey Watters, whose blog, Hack Education, analyzes the intersection of education and tech. “In the case of Luminaria, they have everything, they have all the buzzwords: social and emotional learning, mind-sets, grit, S.T.E.M., mindfulness, authentic learning, global consciousness. I mean, pick two of those.”

Glenn Savage, an Australian education policy expert, said that it was difficult to see how the school’s lofty goals could fit within Australia’s “very structured” education system.

“It’s important that parents don’t work on the false assumption that sending students to a school that claims to do things radically different means that the students won’t be doing anything like students in other schools — because that’s just not the case,” he said.

One wall at the school displayed students’ work with the Asylum SeekerResource Center, a nonprofit organization that assists refugees hoping to resettle in Australia.

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Student-made decorations. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

The students had created a “pitch deck” — tech jargon for a PowerPoint presentation — aimed at persuading the group to collaborate with them on a project (it worked). In a nearby “creator space,” students were working to build a profitable micro-farm. They have been assigned to grow and sell goods at the local farmers’ market by the end of the school year.

One student, Ines Morgan, 8, said she particularly liked a project in which her class observed an ant colony.

“Our hypothesis was, ‘What happens when an ant colony gets disrupted?’ ” she explained. “They lived in chaos for like a day or two, but then, a few days later, they stuck together and just all decided to rebuild again.”

The school’s website promises to remove the “stress and anxiety” students encounter at other schools.

But if students are shielded from emotional adversity in their early years, critics say, they may struggle to cope when they reach high school — where desks, traditional teaching methods and puberty await.

Ines, the 8-year-old ant colony disrupter, said she had seen “a little bit of bullying” but that it was dealt with as a collective.

When asked how the situation was resolved, another student, Noah Helu, 8, said, “Well, it’s like what Ines learned about the ant colony: Sticking together helped us stop the bullying.”

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.

The Future of Coding in Schools

Edutopia

Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch, on why he thinks coding should be taught in all schools—it’s not the reason you’d expect.

For more than three decades, Mitch Resnick has immersed himself in educational technology and innovative learning models. Now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, and a co-creator of the popular Scratch programming language, Resnick remains a tireless advocate for student-centered education, collaborative learning environments, and the idea that coding is a form of literacy.

His new book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, is a look at our current educational moment. “Roughly two-thirds of grade school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” Resnick contends, hinting at the emerging worlds of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and “smart” houses. How do we prepare today’s students to meet that challenge?

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We talked with Resnick about the importance of coding in our school system, his thoughts on the changing roles of teachers, and new ways to engage students—and assess their work.

EDUTOPIA: You moved from journalism—writing about computers and business—to the field of educational technology and learning in the 1980s. What inspired that move?

MITCH RESNICK: The most important shift for me in thinking about computers and learning was actually the spring of 1982, the West Coast Computer Faire—which is like an early form of Maker Faire—and Seymour Papert was giving a keynote address. When I heard Seymour talk, it gave me new vision of what role computers might play in people’s lives: They weren’t just machines to get a job done—they could enable people to express themselves in new ways, and change the way people thought about themselves and thought about the world. That was very exciting to me.

EDUTOPIA: Are we still struggling with Papert’s early insight—almost astonishing at the time—that the computer isn’t just a processor of information but a platform for constructing human knowledge?

RESNICK: Yes I think so, and it mirrors a struggle in the education system that has nothing to do with technology. Many people think of learning and education as a process of delivering information or delivering instruction. Other people see learning and education as student-centered—learning is about exploring, experimenting, creating. Those are very different visions that predate the computer, but of course the computer can fit into either of those two models. It’s a wonderful device for delivering information, but it can also be a wonderful device for creating, exploring, and experimenting.

EDUTOPIA: There are influential people, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, saying, “What we need to do is get coding into every single public school. It needs to be a requirement in public schools across the board.” Is that right?

RESNICK: If it were up to me, I would introduce it. But I want to be careful because I don’t want to embrace it for the same reason that some people might. The first question I would ask is: “Why should we learn coding at all?” Many people embrace coding in schools as a pathway to jobs as computer programmers and computer scientists, and of course they’re right that those opportunities are expanding rapidly. But that’s not a great reason for everyone to learn how to code.

Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others—of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. I think the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.

EDUTOPIA: What does that look like in the school system? Does coding sit alongside math and reading? Is it integrated in some way?

RESNICK: These days I talk about our approach in terms of these four words that begin with the letter p: projects, passion, peers, and play. So that’s the approach I would take with coding, but also with any other learning: getting students to work on projects, based on their passion, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit. And each of those p’s is important. I think work on projects gives you an understanding of the creative process, how to start with just the inkling of an idea and then to build a prototype, share it with people, experiment with it, and continue to modify and improve it.

We know that kids are going to work longer and make deeper connections to the content when they are passionate about the ideas—when they care—and when they’re learning with and being inspired by peers. And I’d want to have kids experience coding in the same way.

EDUTOPIA: You’re describing a high-choice learning environment rooted in student passion and project work. Where’s the teacher in that mix?

RESNICK: The teacher still plays an incredibly important role, but in this approach it’s not so much about delivering instruction. One role the teacher is playing is the role of connector—connecting peers with one another to work together on solving problems. Teachers also act as catalysts by asking provocative questions: “What do you think will happen if…?” or “That surprised me, why do you think that happened?”

They’re consultants, too, and it’s not just about consulting on technical skills, but also about things like how you continue to work on something even when you are frustrated, or suggesting strategies for working with diverse groups of people. Finally, the teacher can be a collaborator, working together with kids on projects—because kids should see teachers as learners too.

EDUTOPIA: It sounds like a more democratic, open system, which seems to imply breaking down a lot of barriers?

RESNICK: I think breaking down barriers is a good way to think about it. When I think about the type of things that I might change in schools—and I know none of it is easy—a lot of it is about breaking down barriers. Break down the barriers between class periods, because 50-minute chunks are too constraining if you want to work on projects. Break down the barriers between disciplines, because meaningful projects almost always cut across disciplines. Break down the barriers between ages and have older kids work with younger kids—both groups benefit. And break down the barriers between inside of school and outside of school—have kids work on projects that are meaningful to their communities and bring people from the communities into the schools to support the teachers.

That’s one way of dealing with the challenge of a single teacher committed to 30 or more kids. It doesn’t have to be that way. Older kids can be helping younger kids, people from the community can be helping.

EDUTOPIA: A fair question—and a common criticism—is: How do you figure out whether kids are learning anything? How do you assess it?

RESNICK: I would take a portfolio-like approach, looking at what kids create. That’s what we do in our Scratch online community. You can see that a kid has created several dozen digital projects, and you can look through their projects and see their progression. For example, you might see the gradual adoption of new strategies—new types of artwork, but also new and improved programming structures.

I acknowledge that it’s difficult to arrive at quantitative measures, but I also think we each don’t necessarily need to. I sometimes make the analogy to the way I’ve been evaluated here at MIT. There are actually no quantitative measures in the process. Basically, they look at my portfolio: They see what I’ve created, they look at the trajectory and the progress over time, and they ask other people’s opinions about it. You’ll sometimes hear, “Well that’s not serious, we need quantitative measures to be serious.” Are they making the claim that MIT is not serious? I understand the criticism that it’s inefficient, but I think those are things we are going to need to deal with.

Again, it’s a big change and I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think we need to move in that direction.

Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project: It’s About Equity

Learning Policy Institute

Guest Author Young Whan Choi

What should a high school student be able to do upon graduation?

While students ultimately choose many different roads after high school, the Oakland Unified School District has made a commitment that we will prepare all students for college, career, and community. To this end, we expect all seniors to complete a Graduate Capstone Project in which students choose a topic, conduct original field research, write a research paper, and present orally to an audience that includes school staff and often community members.

Research shows that, when designed and implemented well, performance assessments like OUSD’s Capstone Project are essential for measuring and improving student performance with higher-order thinking skills like inquiry, research, analysis, problem solving, and communication. They are also essential for developing other important skills, like planning, organizing, reflecting, and self-assessing, as well as teaching students to be resourceful and resilient.

Oakland’s decision to institute a senior project in 2005 was rooted in advancing these goals. However, for many years, the district had not made any concerted effort to support the equitable implementation of the requirement. Five years ago, it was common for seniors at some schools to complete a rigorous research project and defend it publicly in front of strangers, while their peers at other schools were not expected to complete any kind of project in order to graduate.

In the Oakland Unified School District, a yearlong Graduate Capstone Project provides an opportunity for students to research, analyze, and become experts in a topic of their own choosing. A video, produced by the Learning Policy Institute and the Oakland Unified School District, shows how this complex project, which is used as a districtwide performance assessment, is building students’ ownership of their own learning and helping them develop and use critical thinking and communication skills.

The Power of Performance Assessments: Oakland Unified’s Graduate Capstone Project

Our teachers surfaced these equity issues, and together we began an effort to promote consistent expectations of high-level work through what we now call the Graduate Capstone Project. The work began in earnest in 2014, when teachers from a handful of schools convened first to identify a set of key graduation competencies, then to incorporate those competencies into evaluation rubrics, and finally to pilot them in their schools.

One high school’s experience with the rubrics illustrates their importance. At this school, students in all career academies had to write a paper as part of the senior project, but the academies had never used the same rubric for scoring until the 2014–15 school year. During that academic year, they also required every paper in the school to be scored without the students’ names and by two adults.

When the first drafts of the papers were scored in May, every single student from the academy with the highest number of Black students failed. This was not a failing of those students. Rather, the results revealed that the students in this academy had been allowed for years to think that their work was meeting a standard for college. When the school adapted a common rubric for all seniors and created a transparent scoring process, it exposed a history of low expectations.

Those students with unsatisfactory first drafts rallied with the help of teachers to improve the quality of their work in the final days before graduation. More importantly, the teachers and staff organized to figure out how to ensure students in all academies would not only be held to the same rigorous expectations the following year, but would also receive the same high-quality instructional supports to be successful. Their key steps included having regular meetings of the Graduate Capstone Project teachers to share instructional practices, identifying an adult mentor in the school for every senior, and moving up deadlines to ensure that students receive early feedback on the progress of their projects. The following year, students from all academies had comparable pass rates on the Capstone research paper.

By looking at student work and discussing how we would score it using the rubric, teachers calibrate their expectations of what high-quality work looks and sounds like.

This story speaks to the value of clear expectations for quality and to the even more critical question of how we ensure that all students learn what they need to be successful. In Oakland, we have found that the real opportunity of having common rubrics has been the resulting conversations that teachers have been able to have across our district. These conversations have led teachers to change their practices to reflect the level and types of instructional supports students need to be successful. Four times a year and for a week every summer, Graduate Capstone Project teachers from across our high schools learn together. We start with the rubrics because they give us a common language, but we don’t stop there.

By looking at student work and discussing how we would score it using the rubric, teachers calibrate their expectations of what high-quality work looks and sounds like. From there, they learn about different instructional practices from their peers and from instructional experts. They investigate these practices by trying them in their own classrooms to see whether they support all students to achieve the level of quality that we expect

With the district having adopted the common rubric, our next step is to begin central collection of data relating to student performance on the Graduate Capstone Project. With these data, we will be able to conduct a detailed analysis across school sites and student groups to understand how well we are meeting our equity goals by preparing all students with the knowledge and skills they need after graduation.

In 2017, we surveyed graduating seniors for the first time to better understand how they felt the Graduate Capstone Project was supporting their development of key college-ready skills. The results were promising: 83% of the 1,290 students who took the survey said the assessment was valuable for improving their skills as researchers; 81% said it was valuable for improving their skills as writers; and 84% said it was valuable for improving their skills as presenters. Further, 81% of the student respondents said the Graduate Capstone Project was valuable in helping them become more proactive learners. We’ll continue to administer this survey annually.

As we move forward, we hope to work with an external evaluator on a rigorous evaluation of the impact of the Graduate Capstone Project on student skills, engagement, and graduation rates. In the meantime, feedback from students and staff tells us we are on the right track. Our alumni come back and say their Capstone helped them get ready for college. Educators, for their part, remark on the sense of accomplishment students feel on completion of a Capstone and their excitement and engagement as they explore issues they care about.

We have included teachers as true partners at all stages of the work, from identifying key competencies for our graduates to revising the rubrics and developing the instructional improvement goals.

There are several practices that have contributed to our progress from a district that lacked a clear way to assess graduate outcomes to a district that has articulated competencies that are measured using common rubrics at most of our high schools. As central office leaders, we have listened to our teachers, whose perspectives are too rarely taken into consideration when making decisions. We have included teachers as true partners at all stages of the work, from identifying key competencies for our graduates to revising the rubrics and developing the instructional improvement goals. We have modeled the process of calibration on scoring student work, so that principals and teachers can lead this process with their staffs. We have also provided guidance to leaders to ensure that there are financial resources for teachers to participate in professional learning both during the school year and over the summer.

In our schools that have embraced this work most fully, we hear the staff having conversations about the quality of student Graduate Capstone Project work at various levels of the school—from grade level to department to career pathway to instructional leadership. If you walk through these schools during Graduate Capstone Project presentations, the audience won’t just be teachers who work with seniors. Instead, you will see members of the entire high school staff, because they understand that their efforts throughout a student’s high school career are a critical part of a senior’s success.

By starting with the end in mind, the school faculty can see where their instructional strengths and gaps are and set clear improvement goals. These concerted and unified efforts by a school to improve instruction lead to better student outcomes. There’s no quick fix for improving a school. Instead, it takes deliberate and persistent work for a school to transform student learning so that schools fulfill our promise to educate all students.

Young Whan Choi is the Manager of Performance Assessments for the Oakland Unified School District.