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Time to "Get Real" about the education crisis

Far too many American children continue to receive a public education that falls short of what's needed to realize the American Dream. Today, fewer than 25%(1) of American students actually receive the education required - not to simply graduate but actually qualify for the type of jobs - that pay enough to support a family and build a quality life(2).


There is an even darker side to our nation's current trajectory: Within the next 20 years, at least 70% of American voters will not qualify for jobs that pay enough to sustain their families and will, in all likelihood, need some form of public assistance(3).


The stream of reform efforts pursued to date has included small schools, charter schools, literacy programs, smaller class sizes, longer school days, accountability measures, standards, teacher evaluation, innovation grants...the list goes on. Although these initiatives are well intended, we are still losing as many kids today to academic underachievement(4) and more to poverty(5) than a decade ago.

The reason is simple. Repackaging the old debunked and fundamentally ineffective pedagogy of "lecture-memorize-test-and-forget" fails to prepare kids for the careers, citizenship and reality of life in the modern world. We know better and we can do better.


Better Exists


The bright lights are the schools that deliver the majority of their student's learning time in deeper learning, including project-based learning that has better measurable results in academics as well as in workforce skills. This also translates to significant improvement in graduation, college acceptance and college persistence results over their peers - across all socio-economic backgrounds.


For example, in Camden, New Jersey where the graduation rate has been less than 50%(6), the MET East High School using the Big Picture school design had a 100% high school graduation rate and a 100% acceptance to college rate(7). Another example is in schools using the New Tech Network design where students grow 75% more in higher order thinking skills between freshman and senior years than in comparison groups from other schools(8).

How we can change the current trajectory


We can change the current trajectory of this country where the American Dream is irrevocably lost - to a path that enables the majority of American children to achieve it. To attain this, we must quickly reach a tipping point where the majority of American children's school experience is with deeper learning pedagogy.


This means 30,000 schools must be transformed to deeper learning school designs within the next 10 years. This is the goal of the grassroots movement, American Dream Schools. It will be accomplished through cooperative and aligned actions at the Federal, State and local community levels:


1. Create local vision. Local community vision is established by study visits to two or more school design network demonstration sites by community delegations consisting of twenty-five to fifty business, civic, education and parent leaders. It is important that communities fight for a vision about what they want schools to become rather than focused on what they are fighting against.

2. Partner to accelerate. Communities across the country should partner with well-established deeper learning school design networks (e.g. New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, Expeditionary Learning, Institute for Student Achievement, etc.) to create 6,000 demonstration sites. These deeper learning school design support networks have strong track records of results and well-established replication support systems. Partnering is an accelerator versus each school team trying to invent a school design from scratch that would take years to gather enough data to prove that their design worked. A few select outlier schools with designs even more advanced than existing design networks can be supported to build their own networks.


3. Demonstration sites as transformation partners. Each demonstration school site will become a transformation partner to four other schools in that region.


4. Implement policies to support not hinder. Federal and State policies should incentivize schools and communities to partner with proven deeper learning school designs through startup and replication funding and regulatory waivers.


5. Change accountability focus. Change accountability focus from flawed high stakes testing and benchmarking to accountability for fidelity of school design implementation and outcome measures including low attrition, high college acceptance, persistence and completion. Other assessments are used only as internal tools for the school and not for high stakes evaluation by regulators.


The Dream in Action


Recently, we visited a Big Picture school that serves students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We were struck profoundly by three words that consistently arose in conversation with the students: "Help," "Community" and "Hope." From the kids whose real-life circumstances and experience should dictate the opposite emanated a deep desire to help make this world better, the sense of community and wanting to strengthen it, and the immense amount of hope in humanity and for themselves about the future.


The presence of this spirit in America's children gives us hope for the future of America. The power of deeper learning schools is that the schools' environment and culture nurtures and protects this spirit that is innate in the souls of children. This is an American Dream School and this is how we protect the American Dream.




(1) Only 22% of high school freshman are attaining at least an Associates degree or a Bachelors degree. Generally, to reach the median middle class household income of $70,000 at least one earning member of a household must hold an Associates degree and above OR two members must have some college or certificate.


(2) Pew Research Center (2012). Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier: The Lost Decade of the Middle Class.


(3) 70% is an estimated derived from the percentage U.S. residents in year 2030 whose education attainment is less than a bachelor's degree. The household income level for earners with a bachelor's degree is considered the minimum needed to sustain a middle class lifestyle. Any education attainment less than a bachelor's degree would subject the household to higher rates and frequency of unemployment and bouts with poverty. The U.S. Census 2012 National Population Projection was used to establish the U.S. resident projection in year 2030 including the race, ethnicity, and gender mix. 2012 bachelor 's degree attainment rates for each race, ethnicity and gender were applied from the U.S. Census 2012 Education Attainment of persons age 25 and over to the year 2030 projections. The primary trend is that while college degree attainment rates have been increasing recently, the high future growth of minority populations as a proportion of the population and with historically low college degree attainment rates will start a reversal—especially among the working age demographic.


(4) Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012. U.S. student results in Math, Reading, and Science have stayed relatively flat or declined over the past 10 years.


(5) Child Trends Data Bank (2014). Children in Poverty: Indicators on Children and Youth. Since 2003, child poverty levels have increased.


(6) USA Today (2013). N.J. governor announces takeover of Camden schools


(7) USA Today (2009). In high-dropout Camden, Big Picture kids prep for college.


(8) New Tech Network (2013). Student Outcomes Report 2013.

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