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Alliance Policy Staff: Deeper Learning in the Heartland

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December 20, 2011 06:46 pm


Getting out of Washington, DC and into some schools is the best and likely one of the most important parts of a policy nerd’s job. I spent a day earlier this week doing just that in Minnesota. I visited three different high schools that part of the Minnesota-based EdVisions Schools network (

By way of history, EdVisions was started about 20 years ago by a small group of Minnesotans who were interested in developing a new type of education. As former educators from traditional education programs, the EdVisions team specifically looked at the things within a traditional education system that prevented students from being productive and engaged leaders in their own learning process.

The group’s first charter school, Minnesota New Country School (MCNS) was created in 1994 with 65 students. MCNS does not look like, nor does it feel like, a traditional high school. The building kind of looks like a funky office building with a large open central area and lots of personal workstations for each student. It is a quietly busy place filled with students and teachers who all seem focused on their work, whether they are working within a group or alone at a desk or table. There is no rigid scheduling system at MCNS and students plan and guide much of their own work. The state-mandated curriculum is “backwards mapped” into the student’s projects rather than having the state curriculum define what and when a student will learn specific items.

Students progress at a pace based on their ability to master concepts and the students are grouped within multi-grade “advisories,” each with a lead teacher/coach who guides and overseas their work. I talked with current students and former students about the school, how it differs from a traditional public school, what students gain and what students lose when they attend MCNS, and we talked a lot about testing. Both the teachers and students at MCNS have very strong opinions about teaching to the test. They are also extremely confident in their ability to compete toe-to-toe with students from traditional high schools. They feel the education they get at MCNS—which allows them to dig deeper into subjects in ways that make sense to them and have meaning—is far more interesting and does far more to prepare them for the challenges they will face in both college and the workplace.

Schools like MCNS send education policymakers running to their corners. The accountability hawks dismiss these schools as being soft on student outcomes. Without hard measures of student achievement, we can’t hold schools and teachers accountable, especially as it pertains to those students who are most likely to be underserved. I think this is how the founders of MCNS would argue that point: Holding students and teachers accountable based on current tests is not equitable nor does it measure college and career readiness. Instead, it promotes a teach-to-the-test environment that negatively impacts both teaching and learning.

For me, there just has to be more nuance to the policy conversations about accountability, especially as it pertains to high schools. If the conversation starts with a No Child Left Behind–type accountability system that uses adequate yearly progress (AYP) as the end-all, be-all measure of student achievement and offers schools almost no latitude for innovation and ends with a myriad of weak measures that don’t measure academic ability or any of the skills we want our twenty-first-century graduates to have, then we are just treading water. There has to be room for a deeper, more balanced discussion about post-NCLB accountability.

The waiver applications submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in November may well represent the first salvo in that policy conversation. Make no mistake; those applications are dense and confusing and trying to read them makes one feel like Frodo making his way through the middle earth. Depending on who you talk to, some say the states are just looking for ways to avoid accountability and the complexity of their applications amounts to little more than subterfuge. Others say that these waiver applications are the very important first step in a state-led process to define a more nuanced system of accountability that measures more than just AYP. However you feel, the first-round applications are likely imperfect and may even lead to some unintended consequences. Bu they are here and the hope is that we can learn something from the process that will eventually help us define a better system of accountability.

For the Alliance, the ongoing conversation about accountability is at the core of the work we are doing to support deeper learning. Deeper learning is simply what highly effective educators have always provided: the delivery of rich, core academic content in innovative ways that allow students to learn, apply what they have learned, and be assessed in ways that ensure both accountability and college and career readiness. The EdVisions network of schools is one of ten school networks that are part of a deeper learning “community of practice”that has grown out of the Hewlett Foundation’s vision for public education. As I visit different schools within these networks, I see some very bright commonalities and lots of unique personalization. Visiting the schools within this cadre of model networks helps me understand the policy barriers that innovative educators face as they seek to operate in a way that allows them to develop and grow. For our part, I hope we help these innovators understand what they need to do to demonstrate success in a clear and indisputable way and to consider how their own agenda can impact students beyond the ones currently enrolled in their schools. For more detailed information on deeper learning, visit the Alliance website at and look for a new Deeper Learning portal on the website in early 2012. This portal will provide a range of useful information, videos, and other resources to help you learn more about deeper learning.

Maria Ferguson is Vice President of Policy at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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