Tough Choices

Imagine you’ve been made responsible for making dramatic improvements in our public schools…but with the stipulation that you must choose one point of attack and focus almost all of your energy and resources on that.

What would you choose? Pre-school? Teacher training? Professional development? A longer school day and year? More technology? More sophisticated assessments? Greater parental involvement?

The list of possibilities is intriguing and daunting. On one level, this is a parlor game, but it’s also a serious question because policy-makers make choices like this all the time.

Recently five Chicago principals-in-training, a college professor, the President of Catalyst and I were relaxing after an evening celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Catalyst {{1}}. Wanting to take advantage of all that brainpower, I posed the question, but with a twist: once someone had chosen an option, that one was off the table, and the next person had to select–and argue persuasively for–a different way to improve schools.

I should have taken notes on what ensued because it was fascinating. I was surprised that no one focused on technology or a longer school day and year. In fact, the primary emphasis was on teachers, perhaps not surprising because just about everyone at the table had been a public school teacher (including me, years and years ago). The participants argued for more professional working conditions for teachers, for improved teacher preparation and for relevant professional development (lots of scorn for what is now offered in PD). Preschool and early childhood programs were also eloquently supported, and one principal-in-training argued for fewer but better assessments of student learning.

When my turn (8th and last) came, seven ‘good’ and ‘obvious’ choices were off the table. No matter, because it gave me the chance to speak in favor of a change that would, I believe, transform the way we run schools. It would be inexpensive to boot, although most teachers would need training (and some would need a full makeover).

I proposed that, to bring about major improvements, at least half of the school year should be devoted to project-based learning. Not ‘some’ but at least 50%, and in every subject.

Doing that would mean a complete makeover; it would mean that teachers in different subjects would have to collaborate, as you see them doing in my colleague John Tulenko’s superb report about Portland, Maine, a few years ago. The best projects begin with a question that the teachers do not know the answer to, so they become genuine searches for knowledge. Many projects will be strengthened by the use of today’s remarkable technologies, and virtually all of them will require teamwork, data analysis, careful writing and a public presentation–all skills that young people will need as adults. This change would put schools in the ‘deeper learning’ camp, which is where they belong, in my view.

Yes, better training, more preschool, and greater parental engagement are fine ideas, but they do not get at the heart of schooling’s problems.  Today’s schools are out-of-date, horribly antiquated.  Because young people swim in a sea of information, 24/7, they need to learn how to figure out what information to trust and what to reject.  They need the exact opposite of the ‘regurgitation education’ that most schools now offer. Genuine exploration through a project-based curriculum is the best way I know to provide what kids need.

Now it’s your turn. Where would you put your money and effort?


[[1]]1. A remarkable publication that has consistently pushed Chicago to improve its education system. [[1]]

14 thoughts on “Tough Choices

    • All the teachers, teacher training, project-based education, sophisticated assessments, longer school days or pre-school involvement don’t matter one bit, if the PARENTS are not engaged.

      Education begins at home.

      Find new and better ways to get pre-school parents teaching colors and numbers and social skills before the child is trust into the classroom.

      Give the guardians (remember, not all kids live with parents) books to read to the kids. If they can’t read… find ways to get them into literacy classes.

      Teach the families how to use technology as a tool to get children engaged and keep them engaged in learning with those tools, when they come home.

      Break down the teacher/parent barriers. Not all education happens in the school building and few care-givers today have time or trust to come to the teachers for meetings. Hold parent/teacher meetings in the neighborhood supermarket where the parents can be found.

      Without the strong start from the parents and the continuing engagement of care-givers with the teachers, schools and administrators “education” will be like whistling in the wind: you can hear it, but nobody else can.


  1. If I had been the last to speak in that conversation, as you were, I would have been very frustrated to hear essentially the same-old, same-old suggestions that have been rehashed for more than 30 years since “A Nation at Risk” was published. You are half way there with your plug for project-based learning but the fundamental, transformational change that has to happen is the pervasive use of technology as an integral part of the students’ learning experience. In the 21st century, knowledge is a commodity, ubiquitously available, so the traditional function of “teaching” is no longer where the emphasis must lie. It must shift to the function of “learning” where students gain agency as they get older but train from pre-school on to take charge of their own path, at their own pace, whenever and wherever they are.


  2. I like your thinking, John.

    But my choice would be an all-out focus on kindergarten.

    Over the years, I’ve seen and helped develop many incredible kindergarten classrooms. When 25 kids enter first grade with 2nd and 3rd grade skills, not much can stop them.

    The biggest win here, though, is in the way these kids are treated.Teachers love them. Parents are thrilled. And the kids themselves, while too young to be truly arrogant, are confident, curious, perseverant, and best of all, happy. They really like school.

    I have a few lines I use when I make this argument:

    1. We already know how to teach kindergarten extremely well. We just don’t put much effort into guaranteeing that many kindergarteners get good instruction.

    2. When we get kindergarten right, we get a lot of things right.

    3. The best way to close achievement gaps is to never let them open up in the first place.

    4. A focus on K reduces the scale of education reform dramatically. All of a sudden, we’re only talking about 4-5 million kids and maybe 250,000 teachers. Those numbers are big but they’re less than 10% of what we work with now. And we’ve all learned that scale is the real challenge in reshaping eduction nationwide.

    This includes helping second language learners master English and putting all the effort we can into kids with disabilities, too. A decade-long focus on kindergarten would deliver an entirely new population of high school graduates the likes of which we have never seen before and can only scarcely imagine.

    To take up your thought, kids who get a fantastic kindergarten education would be ready, willing, and able to get the most out of a project-based learning system. So perhaps by putting two ideas together, we end up with the best of both worlds—the world we already know (how to run great kindergarten classrooms) and the new world you suggest (the project-based education system of the future).

    Great question to pose here, John. Can’t wait to see the comment stream run to 100+ suggestions!



  3. While all eight of the options mentioned have merit, not one is the silver bullet. Ironically, the rest of the high performing PS-12 world in the US and abroad knows what the silver bullet is: hire teachers in the top 10% of the class in a reputable liberal arts program from a competitive university, THEN give them the pedagogical training and mentoring they need in real-world acadene, in the classroom internships (preferably as part of a master’s degree program that produces teachers, not researchers and adminsitrators). Hiring the smartest people (high IQ + high EQ): That’s what the best private schools do (independent and parochial) and many of the best public schools do (magnet and charter); it’s what Teach for America does. And it’s what all the high performing public system internationally do (Finland, Singapore, Japan, etc.).

    Since public school teaching has been historically low status in the US, we perpetuate mediocrity – vs. high performing countries where the rigor of access to the profession confers high status to “make the cut.” While the US pays our teachers as well or better than high performing countries, we attract students into education undergraduate degree programs with the lowest grades, the lowest test scores, and the least rigorous academic program, private schools being the exception because they are exempt, largely, from requiring certification from the many dubious undergraduate education programs in the US.

    Doesn’t it make sense to have a math major or physics major or history major or literature major teach what they are knowledgeable in and passionate about, rather than an education major?

    Of course there are many exceptions where education majors are the brightest bulb in the pack, and there are extraordinary graduate schools in education programs (that are very selective, such as Stanford, Harvard, Peabody at Vanderbilt, Teacher College at Columbia University) but it’s not the general rule.

    Make it hard to get into teaching, like it is to get into law, medicine, engineering, etc., and we’ll transform the outcomes. Then the other 8 factors in play will come into play and work.


  4. Stop focusing on moving teachers around on the Titanic and make sure every child’s family has a living wage with adequate housing.

    School improvement MUST start with these basics for every child.


  5. You won’t be surprised to hear me talk about getting every teacher in every classroom to make one simple but transformative change: teaching the students to ask their own questions. Students at elite prep schools and at schools for students who have always struggled academically all take new ownership of their learning. Teachers are amazed, and students realize they are smart and that they are also learning skills that will serve them forever, beyond the classroom. Please visit to learn more.


  6. Great to hear your support for Project Based Learning – I agree that it would fundamentally change education if it reached the 50% level of use. The trouble we run into at the Buck Institute for Education when doing PBL professional development for teachers is their lack of time to plan curriculum and instruction. Some of our school and district partners are finding ways to provide more time, but until more teachers are relieved of having to be in front of students for so much of their work week, reaching 50% is going to be tough.

    Technology goes hand in hand with PBL – but technology by itself will not transform learning the way PBL would, assuming that children will still go to a place called school. Using technology with the same old pedagogical models will not be transformative. And while I agree that teaching students to ask their own questions is important, it needs to be in the right context – which is not a traditional classroom but a project-based environment.


  7. I would lay down support for creative integrated collaborations through the arts into every classroom along with your projects based idea. The process by which successful music educators deliver content nearly always results with exceptionally high achievement by most all students. With music as the vessel by which academic content is delivered, deeper connections on all levels of learning and memory are achieved.

    Cheers from a sunny, warm Houston.


  8. Until private interests and corporations stop interfering in the educational process with their profit-seeking “reform$”, we will continue to wrestle with any sort of progress. The floods of money going into “studies” and local school board and other elections is corrupting what was once a collaborative process driven by the needs of children and those who choose to educate them.

    None of this matters until we remove the money.


  9. Before I offer my thoughts to John’s specific question I would like to point out that pencil and paper are technology, and so are bound books. Something does not need to be based on silicon chips to be useful and appropriate technology. In fact, I think there is a real argument to be made to step away from the commitments to electronic technology in order to help students develop the skills that will make the use of technology of any kind more productive.

    That said, and writing as a teacher who does a lot of project-based learning, I think one problem with a lot of project-based learning is that the acceptable forms of the project are defined by the teacher, which can serve to disempower or disengage the students.

    I would, even before focusing on project based learning, have teachers engage with their students enough to truly know them. In a sense this is a variant on the teaching the whole child approach emphasized in recent years by ASCD. What are a students strengths and weaknesses? What are areas of fear? Here I note that a student who takes pride in being exemplary in a particular domain may be very unwilling to take the risk of being wrong. This leads me to what I think is fundamentally flawed in most of what is being done in education.

    We are creating generations of students afraid of being wrong, of making mistakes, of failing.

    In October 2013 I was one of about a dozen classroom teachers in a groups with university educators and administrators, people from foundations, others from think tanks, still others who were technological entrepreneurs The even was held at the National Academy of Engineering. And the thing I heard over and over is that we have to teach our students how to fail. Perhaps it is that I am enough of a Vygotskian in my approach that I believe the greatest learning comes from failing but being able to examine how and why one failed. Everything from grades to standardized tests with multiple choice items is in opposition to this basic understanding of how we best learn.

    We as teachers may have a huge amount of content knowledge of our subjects, and a great deal of experience in pedagogical approaches to helping students connect and make sense. But what is new with every student and thus with every class is the unique set of experiences and understandings with which that student arrives. Our failure is in not fully engaging that uniqueness, and using it as a primary element in our educational approach.

    So if there were one thing I would change about education it is this – I would get rid of multiple choice questions, because they tend to promote convergent thinking, which does little to advance true human knowledge. John describes project-based learning. I would prefer to think of performance based assessment embedded in the instruction, with a major portion of that requiring reflection by the student on the process. We should be teaching our students HOW to learn, how to construct meaning, how to inquire. All assessment therefore should be considered formative because even were we to answer perfectly every challenge we encounter, we could still ask ourselves with what we need to be challenged to understand the limits of our knowledge, understanding and skill.

    Hope this makes some sense.


  10. While I agree that project-based learning does serve to engage students and create a different role for faculty, I still have in my mind a piece that John filmed probably 25 years ago. I believe that it was a school in Boston and the student was doing his final oral presentation using a very impressive model of a building as key to his project.

    In the conversation that followed the student’s appearance, the teachers in the room all praised the great presentation he had made, how far he had come, and talked about how much work he had done.They were clearly ready to pass him with flying. The process in that school required the participation of a non-school person, in this case an architect. He pointed out that the structure was not viable and would collapse if built. That experience confirmed to me that having an independent third party with expertise in the field on the evaluation team was essential.

    The message is also that project based learning must be done with clear guidelines on what constitutes the process and how the project will be measured and by whom.


  11. Before “project based learning” became a buzzword, we were doing that in elective classes and after school programs like drama and musical theater, band and orchestra, sports, scouts, shop, cooking, fine arts, cheer, work-study, and clubs of all kinds. I’d like to see those elective and extra-curricular activities get more support and attention, especially at the middle and high school levels. The teen years are a critical period for building character, confidence and social skills. We need to be there in a big way for teens as they develop into the people they will be for the rest of their lives. Teachers, coaches, advisers and program directors can help teenagers find their way at a time when their relationships with their parents may be in flux. Middle and High School is where it all goes down. We need to make sure it goes well.


  12. In this state I live now, Michigan, there are many cuts going on in education but especially painful for the community, on many levels is the quiet dismantling of Special Education Services for the students in the Preschool all the way to the 18-26 transition population. Yes, Michigan has services for this population. The services for all people with disabilities, the agencies that support the individuals and their families and caregivers is also being underfunded. This includes mental health services.
    One knows the quality and morals of a community by the way they take care of the most vulnerable. Our Governor and legislature have not been out in the open with these changes. Gov. Snyder wants new roads at all costs but we have the worst roads in the country. The legislature can’t raise taxes because it would be political suicide for them. So they pass to voters. Gov. Snyder wants to tax the citizens to pay for these roads but give tax cuts to business and the wealthiest citizens. What is this world coming to?


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