In 1983 the Reagan administration in the United States published A Nation at Risk, a report that painted a dire picture of the American public education system, portraying it as outdated and failing students. Spurred by the claims of irrelevance, a demand for change swept through all levels of government. When the report was revisited 25 years later, however, little had changed, and schools have continued to struggle to enact meaningful reform.

The reality is that the claims in A Nation at Risk were not new, nor are they specific to the United States. Countries around the world have struggled to modernize their public education systems, and often fail to keep pace with societal and technological changes. In the independent sector, meaningful restructuring and research-based approaches have led to results far beyond those of most public schools. The best schools are changing in three key areas, shifting the conversations on our understanding of what education is and what it should be.

The Death of the Transcript

Whether it represented a single assignment or an entire class, many of us remember the sinking feeling of seeing a D or F on a crisp piece of paper, evoking the spirit of mediocrity or, even worse, the brand of failure. In education, we have known for years that letter and numerical grades have little to no positive impact on learning, but giving in to the calls for clear “measurement” has meant these standards persist despite research to the contrary. More importantly, they simply do not represent the breadth of learning that now takes places in schools, nor do they capture students’ unique skills.

In the best schools, the traditional transcript is on tenuous footing. In 2016 Scott Looney, Head of Hawken School in Cleveland, launched the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a group of schools seeking to offer an alternative that adheres to three principles: no standardization of content across member schools, no letter or numerical grades, and a consistent reporting format. Similarly, several major international schools across the globe have embraced The Global Citizen Diploma, a report that “allows students to qualitatively describe their whole learning in the context of becoming a global citizen and making a contribution to the world”.

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Simply put…the MTC hopes to change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.

These credentials share a key characteristic: a more holistic assessment of each student’s performance through a focus on their abilities rather than their knowledge. In a world in which virtually anything can be Googled, the ability to discern whether a claim is reliable, current and accurate is far more important than simply knowing a fact. By embracing a method of reporting that recognizes the value of these types of skills alongside standard subject-based knowledge, the best schools are not only providing students and universities with more useful, personalized data, but also freeing themselves to be more creative and progressive in developing their own curricula.

Building a Coalition Beyond the School Walls

Read through the annual reports from the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and those representing other countries, and a consistent pattern emerges. Both universities and employers are struggling to recruit qualified young adults, and it’s not due to a lack of technical knowledge. They simply cannot find candidates with the soft skills that enable them to manage their time, work effectively within diverse teams, communicate clearly, persevere through failure and lead others.

This results from an issue all too common for schools: a disconnect from the greater community. At some point in your life, someone likely told you that it would be different in “the real world”. In at least one respect, they were right. The subject-based learning that takes place in many schools all too often fails to reflect the world beyond their walls, a fact that the top institutions are seeking to address by partnering with local, regional and global organizations who can provide advice and resources to help develop programs that build character and cultivate soft skills.

In some cases, such as the Mastery Transcript Consortium, this entails collaboration with universities to identify ways to better prepare students for higher education. These types of partnerships only represent the tip of the iceberg. Top schools are now seeking out partners across a wide range of industries, relying on their expertise and resources to make classroom learning more relevant and reflective of what we experience as in our own work as adults. From cooperative efforts with Microsoft and Google to the creation of sports ventures with Chelsea FC and Jr. NBA, these schools are finding innovative ways to cultivate learners with the skills that universities and employers so desperately seek.

Making an Impact on the World

Perhaps the most important change that has emerged among the best schools is one of character development. From Enron to the global financial crisis in 2008, the previous decade clearly demonstrated the danger of business uncoupled from ethics. The international and intracultural conflicts since 9/11 reveal just how much we struggle to create lasting peace. Just as businesses have become more vocal in adopting public positions on political and social issues, many schools have begun to build a stronger focus on ethics, service and community engagement to address the many social issues we now face.

A minimum number of community service hours is familiar to many of us who attended school in the last few decades. Yet the very idea of service is being rethought by top schools, and they are weaving it into the very core of the curriculum. Unlike established requirements, their approach involves more sustained connections with the greater community. Students in these schools regularly employ needs analysis models in communities, engage in ongoing development projects and launch social entrepreneurship enterprises.

The drive behind these initiatives is not simply to apply their knowledge and skills in real contexts. It stems from a belief that creating a more just, secure future requires engaging with others from different backgrounds and experiences. Education throughout history has been closely linked with ethics, and only in the last century did the focus shift to purely academic study. The tide is beginning to shift back, and schools are recognizing that they have a duty to produce principled graduates who understand the obligation we all have to contributing to the communities of which we are a part.

Why Do These Changes Matter?

The continuing transformation of the best schools will slowly but surely impact education around the globe as other private and public schools begin to follow their example. As they engage with businesses, organizations and other schools, their influence will shape the public understanding of education and learning. This in turn will drive broader change and creating a new generation of conscientious leaders who are well equipped to deal with the many pressing challenges we face.

In truth, this is only one side of the coin. These schools must also address valid concerns: whether they cater solely to the 1%, the responsibility they bear in helping public systems progress, and the potential influence they have in homogenizing culture. Their long-term impact remains to be seen, but one point is certain: we are a world at risk, and the education that the next generation receives will determine whether they rise to the challenge.

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