Schools in the Next Century

We've come a long way since the one-room schoolhouses of the nineteenth century. Who could have predicted landmark shifts such as desegregation, public high schools, and mandated education for children with special needs? And yet, the basic model hasn't changed much. Most students still attend school from September to June, often remain confined to their desks, and spend much of the day (too much of the day, if you ask them) listening to teachers talk.

Is this the best way to prepare children for a job market that places a premium on technology, creativity, and teamwork? Hardly.

For schools to be effective in the next millennium, fundamental changes are needed, say many educational experts. And change is coming. We asked a few school-watchers to pick what they see as the biggest changes coming to your child's classroom in the year 2000 and beyond. Here's what they said:


1. Deep Learning. In other words, learning that's much more hands-on. Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis, describes this new type of learning as "much more out in the community, much more applied, and much more active." Your child might conduct water-quality tests on a nearby lake, write a persuasive essay on capital punishment, or design a physical-fitness program. In addition, learning will go beyond simple reading, writing, and arithmetic, to a focus on mastering higher-level skills such as critical thinking, analyzing information, and working in groups. To teach these skills, schools will deemphasize lectures and textbooks and emphasize experiments and projects. Teachers will act as "coaches"--answering questions and guiding inquiry.


2. Beyond the Computer Lab. While private industry has kept pace with the explosion in online information and technology, schools have been slow to understand the Internet's power and value. In the future, every student will have his or her own computer, and teachers will receive the technical training they need to stay ahead of the class. High school students in all parts of the state will be able to access the Internet to learn a foreign language or take advanced placement classes. "This means a virtual classroom for students who want to get involved in more than their school offers," says Sandra Peterson, co-president of Education Minnesota, the Minnesota Teacher's Union.


3. Creating Community. Tomorrow's schools will become centers for lifelong learning. People of all ages will use the school's resources; libraries, preschools, and early childhood and family education centers will spring up nearby. The resulting learning centers will enable you to establish a relationship with your child's school during the early years and continue that connection throughout their lives. Eventually schools will also be designed to include a multitude of community services, including medical clinics, employment centers, mental-health providers and social service agencies.


4. Freedom of Choice. Tomorrow's schools will operate more like businesses, placing a greater emphasis on accountability and high standards. In fact, schools will need to demonstrate improved student achievement in order to remain open. Districts will also offer more school choices to meet the social and academic needs of individual students. Parents will be able to select an arts or technology magnet, a language immersion center, a charter school with a specific educational philosophy, or a school in a neighboring district. Qualified high school students will continue to have the option of taking classes at colleges and universities.


5. Time Change. One powerful remnant of old-school thinking is rigid scheduling: fifty-minute periods, six hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year. The needs of a rapidly changing society will force schools to modify their clocks and calendars. Instead of studying science for one period each day, for example, your child may spend a full day on a biology experiment or several hours one afternoon interviewing a local geologist. Schools of the future will be year-round, with full-time kindergarten and expanded hours devoted to extracurricular activities, tutoring, or special academic programs. In addition, a growing number of children will require care before and after school which will be provided on-site. With income inequality increasing, longer school hours will become critical for closing the gap between at-risk and advantaged children. (Children from disadvantaged homes lose more during those off-school times than students who spend it immersed in books, camps, trips to the museum, and family discussions.)


6. The Heart of Learning. Participation in high school service-learning programs has exploded and will continue to grow. "Service learning," a new name for volunteerism, encourages students to carry out projects to improve their local communities, such as tutoring younger children, working with the elderly or cleaning up the neighborhood. Starting in elementary school, service-learning will become a regular part of your child's curriculum, giving students real-world learning experiences, improving school-community ties, providing valuable community services and extending academic learning beyond the classroom.


7. Parlez Vous Français? Probably not. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not require foreign languages in the early grades. Yet educators believe that American children must be competent in at least one additional language to prepare them for the next millennium. To accomplish that, instruction must begin early--in the primary grades or before. Although many educators worry that teaching a foreign language to children who are still mastering English will impede language learning, researchers have discovered the opposite. Bilingual children appear to have enhanced linguistic skills and score equally well on English-language achievement tests. Second-language learning will become a regular feature of the elementary school--and maybe even preschool.


8. Family Ties. Schools have begun to realize the valuable role parents play in student achievement. Many schools already hire parent-involvement coordinators, design homework that involves parents, and house parent-resource centers. These innovations will expand in the new millennium, with schools scheduling more meetings between parents and teachers to discuss shared goals for the child, using the Internet and voice messaging to regularly interact with parents, and organizing parent-teacher-community groups to address issues that affect children both inside and outside the school. Businesses will respond by allowing time for employees to attend school conferences and volunteer in classrooms. Research tells us that as schools work more closely with families, they will see improved teacher morale, higher student achievement, and stronger community ties.


9. Design Class. Since the early 1900s, schools have looked strikingly similar--brick or concrete, with separate classrooms for each grade, a gymnasium, a library, science labs, and rooms for art and music. Schools of the future will be less rigidly designed, with more flexible spaces to accommodate individual work, and group projects. Rows of desks, designed for passive learning, will be replaced with tables and work stations. In addition, schools will be smaller. "Research tells us that we should stop building megaschools," says Nathan. He foresees a network of small high schools, each built in conjunction with an organization or business--a hospital, a children's museum, or the state capitol, for example--so that students can apply what they're learning to the world beyond school.


10. Sound Beginnings. Brain research has shown the critical role early experience plays in a child's development. Scientists now know that to nurture a child's healthy cognitive and emotional growth, he or she needs appropriate stimulation in the years between birth and age five. Schools of the future will devote more resources to parent support programs, home visiting, developmentally appropriate childcare and early-childhood education to ensure that their students are school-ready. The goal, says Lois Engstrom, supervisor of the Early Childhood and Family Initiatives at the Department of Children, Families and Learning, is to make early-childhood and family education an integral part of the education continuum. This relatively small investment of resources should pay enormous dividends in stronger communities, increased student achievement and greater parent involvement in education.


Jenny Friedman, the mother of three children, writes often on educational issues.

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