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What Will It Take to Transform Literacy in America?

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    Alexis Margolin

At a time of much debate around "high-stakes" testing, one area of true high stakes for students is in the answer to this question: "Is what I am learning today going to help me when I get out in the world?"

"Preparing students for the realities of what is demanded of them as workers and as citizens is one of the greatest challenges in education today," says Scott Hartl, president and CEO of Expeditionary Learning, a K-12 education nonprofit which operates schools, designs curricula, and provides professional services, and recently published a new book for teachers, Transformational Literacy. "What students must be preparing for is a new kind of literacy – one that joins higher complexity of thinking and greater problem-solving capability to the character needed to sustain these skills."

"We've had a steady stream of data in the past 5-7 years that shows that American students are falling behind in higher-order thinking skills. Kids are coming to college underprepared, and then entering the workforce underprepared."

"States and districts all over the country are addressing this challenge differently, some with the Common Core and others with different higher-bar curriculum requirements," says Hartl. "But the one thing these all have in common is that they are setting a new standard of rigor and accountability for students. And these standards demand a shift in thinking – among everyone involved in education – about literacy and what it will take to transform it."

Some important shifts that need to happen, argues Hartl, include:

1. Escaping the "fast food" approach to curriculum.

  • "Most of us grew up in a classroom with textbooks that were whitewashed of any complexity. The material we read was designed for mass consumption. It was bland and overly 'processed.' The idea we've used at our Expeditionary Learning schools for the past 20 years, and more recently with our new curriculum, is that content matters. We join the skills for reading and writing with content that's full of provocative ideas that really make students think.
  • "If we want kids to care about their learning, we need to teach the basic skills of reading and comprehending text and writing through challenging content and topics like social justice and environmental impact that engage students in real controversy. Students don't just passively consume information; they become passionate about their learning when they can put their ideas into action, when they can use their learning to make a difference. These 'raw ingredients' of engaging with ideas that matter are radically different than the textbook model schools have employed for many decades." 

2. Letting teachers work the way they are built to work.

  • "The teachers who are in the classroom today came to the profession not because they wanted to teach to the test, but because they wanted to spark a kid's passion for learning. As teachers, we know what's working with students and what isn't. We know when they aren't engaged or are just doing things by rote, but we also recognize when they are inspired and find joy in learning.
  • "In designing a curriculum around complex ideas and deeper student engagement, we have found that teachers are leaping toward it. They are craving a classroom process that gets to the heart of why they wanted to be a teacher in the first place. The fact that we've had more than 2 million downloads from all over the country of our curriculum that we originally designed for New York State speaks to the wide demand from teachers."

3. Elevating character as a top educational priority.

  • "No matter which new curriculum standards states or districts are adopting, the new standards are going to be, or already are, much more rigorous than what we've seen before. Now, if you just start importing new standards into a classroom without *preparing* students to work this way, you are going to see failure. Students need to build solid habits of scholarship to meet the new expectations on them.
  • "We educators need to step up our expectations of what students are capable of – both in the quality of their thinking and the quality of their character. Making habits of scholarship – for example, the character to persevere despite difficult academic challenges – part of the academic progress is what we've been working on for over 20 years. We are teaching students to build habits such as creating multiple drafts of work, critiquing each other's work, and then responding to this feedback to take it up a notch. Going back to the content question, it's also about building habits of good citizenship by being able to engage students with ideas that matter around improving our world."

"We are opening a new chapter in education in this country, seeing changes to systems that have been in place for half a century or longer," says Hartl. "This is a transformative moment that will require much of *all* of us – students, teachers, parents, policy-makers, curriculum designers, school operators, and more."