Beyond Schooling: Turning Schools into Learning Centers

What’s in a Name?

Schools and school districts are officially legislated and governed as administrative bodies, not learning bodies. Learning, in many ways, is secondary. Could a simple shift in what we call schools lead to dramatic results? If schools were renamed and reoriented as Learning Centers, could their purpose become clearer and more measurable, for many more students?

Schools, school districts, and state school systems are not required to produce spectacular results. Instead, they must comply with state regulations, follow state content and teacher contract guidelines, and perform to annual testing and data compliance standards without breaking laws. Although year-to-year improvement is desired and included in strategic plans, it is not required, enforced, or evaluated (e.g., as grounds for terminating leadership).

Nor is there official achievement goal-setting for which a state holds a school or district accountable, largely because all governance is local. The guiding principle in discharging the K12 administrative responsibility is “best-efforts.” Certainly, bottom limits to school performance and financial integrity do exist; when reached, the state may take control.

Yet, maverick educators and boards that take the initiative are free to make their schools or districts the best they can be: become highly competitive, win awards, and join national rankings. Examples abound of such institutions across the country at all levels of funding, from least to most advantaged. Most of them are managing, measuring, monitoring, and mentoring for outcomes from each and every student.

While rare, there is an intangible mix of chemistry and drive present when a school or district beats the odds and delivers equitable access to high quality education. We revere these schools and districts, but they are outliers—relatively few students and families, out of millions, have such advantages.

Of the nearly 100,000 schools and 13,000 districts in the US, many are burdened in multiple ways and are challenged to simply keep the doors open and lights on. Furthermore, managing staff, students, transportation, and food service often requires a near-Herculean effort given funding, labor, and support constraints.

Schools, a Difference in Kind

Schools and districts differ from other organizations and institutions in this country and from their counterparts globally. School districts are culturally embedded in every community; they literally grew from the ground up across the country. In most other countries against which the U.S. is measured, education is national, designed with clear strategic objectives for all institutions and outcomes for all learners.

Also, unlike other occupational or labor categories, there is no widespread, generally accepted guidance for U.S. schools as agents for the transfer of knowledge and experience to young people. Oddly, there is also no real understanding of why the current curriculum even exists as it does.

Unlike health, medicine, social service delivery, or psychological services, no scientific framework, economic theory, or body of knowledge exists for K12 education. The only official measurements are the blunt, year-end content standards tests and, in highly competitive high schools, external test scores, placement rates in highly selective colleges, and national rankings.

One way to think about meaningful outcome measures would not be in terms of high school grades and placement in higher education, but how many students subsequently complete college, gain employment, or begin a career.

Other professions and fields look to scholarly research and investigation for evaluation based on established standards while considering the shifting nature of each field. This is not the case with schools of education, which focus intensely on producing professional educators; they do not examine the nature or practice of education itself. Nor is the structure of schooling questioned. In every other discipline, if the structure and context is not producing results, alternate structures are explored and old ones replaced.

Instead, schools of education concentrate on the formal structure of grade levels and student grades as well as on maximizing existing staffing and adhering to required subjects and standards. Rarely would they be investigating and arguing for new forms of education even in light of little evidence of improvement in many urban and rural systems across the country.

While schools of education may not be looking beyond the structure of schooling, other academic research disciplines play a role in education and learning. Psychologists, by comparison, study learning in relationship to the brain and surrounding behavioral and psychological conditions that inhibit or promote learning. Sociologists and economists take a wider, social, economic, and demographic view of school environments and sum up statistically the overall progression of students into society and the economy (or, in the bleakest scenario, regression out of society into prison).

Learning science is a promising new field, but has yet to gain widespread acceptance or methods. In sum, no entity owns or studies learning as the primary outcome of education.

When the Best of Status Quo is Not Good Enough

In the absence of a scientific basis for schooling and with no formal requirements for governance beyond local lay boards, the direction of schools and education is largely formed by consensus among those who are willing to contribute to it and those with more self-serving motives. As a result, schooling is governed by committee, not by evidence or enforced best practices.

We would never stand for other public-serving systems, such as health, medicine, social services, tax collection, departments of corrections, or even motor vehicles to be run by lay boards elected by a small percentage of regional voters.

With no scientific input, there are few methods for improving on the status quo systematically. Typically, sides are drawn on issues, arguments tend to have equal weight, and decisions are driven by whatever opinions are put forth that carry the majority. In the best cases, there are agreed upon standards and the school community does its best to attain them.

However, not even the best of the status quo—think top 100 schools or districts in the country—have broken this mold. These out-sized performers continue to be gauged by adherence to state administrative guidelines, state tests, and AP, SAT, and ACT scores.

Administrative State versus the State of Learning

The current framework for American K12 education could be described as an “administrative state,” with all oversight and compliance functions aligned with state-defined performance and expenditure guidelines. However, such compliance by itself has no direct relationship to the measurement and quality of education delivery and the resultant learning and growth of each student, in or beyond school.

Could a learning center concept, rather than schooling, incorporate new measures and procedures while at the same time satisfy the formal and informal requirements of practice in the administrative state? If so, learning centers would move from an administrative-only model to what could be called “a state of learning,” or learning state as the governing principle for K12 education.

If schools and districts became “learning centers,” their outcomes would be easier to measure because the learning center would be based on measurable learning outcomes, not approximate ones, and its delivery methods could have equity and scalability as twin objectives, also measurable, because by design every student would be directly connected in this model.

Unfortunately, the administrative state relies on and promotes “best practices.” This is an aspirational top-down, approximate tool or methodology not meant to be enforced or to reach each student directly. Best practices are amorphous and difficult to measure because they are not tethered to each teacher and each teacher to every student.

In contrast, in the learning center, based on the state of learning model, practice-level activity would be about constant, ubiquitous, and equitable connections, interactions, and communications. The model would be horizontal, not top-down—connecting students, teachers, parents, staff, and administrators while still fulfilling the administrative compliance activities of schools and districts.

Administrative management would be understood to be about compliance and enforcement in general, learning management about guaranteed connections and interactions with all students.

From Administrative Practice to Ubiquitous Connections

Ubiquitous connections mean that everyone is directly involved, and no one is left out of the education and learning equation. This includes all students, teachers, staff, families, and administrators.

Ubiquitous connections also mean connections directly to the learning or content standards, to learning content and small assessments, as well as to state-mandated tests in math, English language arts, and science.

If the connections are established between students, the content standards, and their assignments and assessments, it would be possible to move to a central tenet of the learning center, learning outcomes management. Everything to be learned in a school, by every student as well as those teaching and supporting, could easily boil down to measurable elements.

Unfortunately, the technology and data systems in schools are 100 percent focused on complying with the administrative requirements of the state, not working to ensure every student is equitably serviced. Most of the systems of record in education, such as the student information system (SIS) that records grades, attendance, and emergency contacts, are designed to serve administrators and are not even available to parents and students. The same is true for learning management systems (LMS) and customer relations management solutions (CRM).

These traditional technologies are simply the evolution from grades and attendance in ledgers to floppy discs, to servers in IT shops, and finally to remote servers. Nothing has changed except the location of the files. Other technologies are used for improvement, but they are not tracked and connected to each student’s performance, and the results are not uniformly shared with students and families.

The existing technology solutions merely enhance the administrative-centric controls, as opposed to branching out and servicing each student, teacher, and family as might be expected from modern software.

Thus, the administrative model cannot possibly service every student equitably. In the learning center model, using learning outcomes management, every student, as well as his or her family, is part of the learning, education, and administrative process and allows shared ownership of learning. The technology to do this is certainly available; just take a look at your smart phone.

What Will It Take to “Flip” the School, Not Just the Classroom?

The Learning Center model, within the state of learning framework, measures, manages, monitors and mentors based on learning outcomes management (LOM), which takes every state standard, every student and teacher, and every test, assignment, and project and manages them digitally in a modern system that works with (through APIs), or replaces, the legacy systems of record in the administrative state.

Schools and districts that have already adopted or are committed to Competency Based Education (CBE) are perfect candidates to extend their CBE methods and practices, which are closely allied with outcomes, into more modern outcomes technologies. This could include universal or longitudinal transcripts that manage daily experience as well as wider non-school experiences and certifications.

The political will to serve all students equally is required to make the transition from schools to learning centers. In the meantime, there is nothing stopping brave and committed teachers, boards, families, employers, app developers, and others from collaborating on inclusive, data-rich models that support the learning process of every student and family.

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Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc.