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10 Ideas to Transform K-12 Education

We can do better than one-size-fits-all education

We have the responsibility, and now the tools, to dramatically customize instruction.

Otto Steininger

These are exciting times in public education, driven by a growing awareness that we need to do much better so that our communities move forward to a strong future. We know that to succeed in today’s fast-changing world, our students need a set of “new basics”: a combination of deep content knowledge, complex problem-solving skills, and dispositions of perseverance and confidence. We know this is the preparation students require, but now we need to make sure that’s what they get.

We need to start thinking about graduation day as a transition point, not an end point. We celebrate small increases in high school graduation rates, but too often forget a diploma alone is no longer enough to prepare students for what comes next. In New England, half of our graduates going to college are not fully ready for college-level work.


The numbers are worse among the learners whom school has served the least well. Postsecondary remediation rates are as high as 66 percent for low-income and minority student populations. That’s nothing to celebrate.

For centuries, we accepted the idea that there is only one way for students to learn — go to school, sit at a desk, be taught by a teacher, then be tested . . . and tested . . . and tested. We’ve operated schools in ways similar to factories since before the Industrial Revolution.

But a one-size-fits-all approach to education is no longer enough. Given the demands our children face after high school, we must fundamentally rethink what it will take to get more students to achieve deeper learning outcomes. Student-centered learning allows us to guide this important work, meeting learners where they are and building on personalized interests about the need to provide more customized experiences.

Student-centered learning, also called personalized learning, is no longer restricted to the traditional classroom. It can — and should — now happen in lots of settings: in school, online, out in the world. And it involves a change in how we measure learning, making it not about whether students sit through nine months of English class, but whether they know English. It’s about the ownership students take of their own education.


We’ve seen many student-centered approaches transform education for learners in Massachusetts. Consider Boston Day and Evening Academy, a Roxbury-based alternative public charter high school where the entire student body once struggled. Many did not receive the attention they needed, had trouble with attendance, and were held back one or more times. Yet to date, most of the school’s more than 700 alumni have gone on to two- or four-year colleges or programs that further prepare them for higher learning and the workplace. Open 10 hours a day, BDEA asks students what they already know, and then teaches the rest of the subject matter they need to understand in order to earn a diploma.

There’s much more work to do. Innovations like BDEA and others around the state need time and support to mature and strengthen. We now have a chance to steward and nurture one of our greatest resources for the public good — our systems of public education.


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Nicholas C. Donohue is the president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in New England devoted exclusively to education. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.