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What innovation in education is teaching us about the future of education

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What innovation in education is teaching us about the future of education

A spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, and customization is replacing a century-long trend toward standardization.

A split image, showing a black-and-white photo on the left of a child asleep at their desk, and a color photo on the right of a child on a skateboard

This article was originally published by Stand Together Trust.

The United States has entered a new era of education. For many students, a typical school day no longer involves boarding a yellow bus, sitting at a desk, and completing homework. Instead, students learn in non-traditional settings like neighbors' homes or at skate parks and from instructors who aren't certified teachers but are more than qualified to educate the next generation.  

A spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, and customization is replacing a century-long trend toward standardized, one-size-fits-all educational approaches. Americans are realizing that there is not "one best way" to educate tens of millions of students. Families and educators are opting for alternative education approaches that range from classical education to self-directed learning.  

Stand Together Trust partners have been at the forefront of this revolution, and here's what they're defining as new norms in education in America today.  

Childhood independence and student agency teach valuable character lessons kids might not be getting elsewhere.  

The world has changed since most of us were children. Gone are the days of hours of unstructured play and free time and autonomy and mobility without supervision. Most kids today have structured school days, followed by organized sports and activities, and technology that keeps them connected to nearly everyone they know at all times.  

Many educators and parents worry that these changes could also mean that children today will miss out on learning independence and autonomy -- two important traits of successful adults. 

Let Grow, a Stand Together Trust grantee, is an organization that gives children an opportunity to experience the independence and autonomy they may be missing out on today.  

"Somehow our culture has become obsessed with kids' fragility and lost sight of their innate resilience," says Andrea Keith, Executive Director of Let Grow. "Let Grow is making it easy, normal, and legal to give kids the independence they need to grow into capable, confident, and happy adults."  

"The Let Grow Experience is a simple homework assignment that directs students to do something they've never done before without adult assistance or supervision," explains the State Policy Network, which awarded Let Grow in 2023-2024 with one of their Ed-Prizes — a grant program that accelerates innovative solutions to improve education outcomes across the country. The Ed-Prize, sponsored in 2023 by Stand Together Trust, will allow Let Grow to expand the Experience to nontraditional schools like charters, microschools, and homeschools in New York and Massachusetts.  

Writing for the New York Times, Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, and Dr. Camilo Ortiz, a psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Long Island University, explain the Experience doesn't have to be overly complicated. 

"The instructions tell kids to go home and ask their parents if they can do something new by themselves (or with a friend), like walk the dog, run an errand, or make the family breakfast — just something they feel ready to do but haven't done yet. 

Teachers and parents have told us kids' confidence starts climbing when they participate. For instance, a seventh-grade boy pushed himself to go on a ride at Disney World — something he'd been too scared to do before. After braving the child-friendly Slinky Dog Dash, there was no stopping him: He went on ride after ride. Another seventh grader, a girl who was afraid to try out for the swim team, decided to start by walking to church by herself. That made her feel very grown up. Then she got her ears pierced (with her parents' permission). Then, she started doing CVS runs for her mom, which made her feel responsible. And then, yes, she tried out for the swim team (and made it). 

Sometimes, the impact is a little goofier. Ever since her elementary school started doing the Let Grow Project, one principal told Lenore, "fewer kids are sticking their feet out." 

"They'd been tripping each other?" Lenore asked. 

No, said the principal, "fewer kids are asking their teacher to tie their shoes."

The lessons learned in these examples aren't just what was accomplished -- how to ride a ride, try out for a team, or tie a shoe. Instead, these kids learned how to be brave and take a risk, how to build up courage by taking small steps toward the bigger goal, and that while others may be happy to help them, relying on themselves for things they know how to do is valuable, too.  

Competency-based evaluation systems will replace grading scales. 

Most people would agree: what kids learn -- like history, science, math, and English --aren't the only important lessons in school. How kids learn -- like by setting goals and striving to meet them -- are equally important lessons to support a child into adulthood. So, isn't it time that our school evaluation systems reflect that? Red Bridge thinks so.  

Also a winner of the State Policy Network EdPrize, Red Bridge, a K-8 school in San Francisco, will test their competency-based evaluation system called "Learning Credits."  

"Learning Credits are a system of assessment that puts students in control of what they achieve and when they achieve it. At its core, this system works the same way scout badging works. Students have a bank of credits to select from and sign up to be assessed when they feel they have mastered the material.

Traditionally, assessment has been solely the job of the teacher, which leaves students to face evaluation whether they're ready or not, interested in the subject or not, and moved forward regardless of how they do. 

Currently, in use at their own school, Red Bridge will use their prize money to expand the model to other schools."

Homeschooling isn't what it used to be. 

Homeschooling has been growing for a while now, and as the Washington Post recently reported, "For many home-schoolers, parents are no longer doing the teaching." reporter Laura Meckler explains:  

"Parents pull around the circular driveway to drop their children off in the morning. Students climb the steps and hang their backpacks on hooks. Katy Rose greets her charges and sends them into a classroom festooned with artwork, where they open their laptops and begin working through math problems. 

But Rose is not a teacher, and this is not a school. Every child here is a home-schooler. Rose, a registered nurse, had never studied or worked in education before starting her own "microschool," where her title is "guide" for students who study math and reading online and depend on her for many other subjects."

Rose's home school is part of Prenda, a network of microschools that has received funding from Stand Together Trust. Prenda's CEO calls their approach "an Airbnb for education" -- schools have profiles that include their location, education philosophy, and ages of students accepted.  

In many ways, homeschooling allowed families an opportunity to customize learning, but networks like Prenda are expanding options -- creating more unique options for customized learning. 

Canary Academy, another State Policy Network Ed-Prize winner and a Stand Together Trust grantee, wants to make homeschooling even more accessible to students and their families. Founded by Nasiyah Isra Ul when she was 15, Canary Academy is a one-stop shop where homeschoolers can get the best content, instructional materials, customizable courses, and advice. 

Nasiyah was inspired to create Canary Academy when she saw her young brother struggling in his homeschooling lessons. He learned better by doing, instead of the traditional pen, paper, and book lessons. As a homeschool student herself, Nasiyah recognized there are many reasons students may not be able to homeschool -- like cost and access to resources like content, curriculums, and advice from others in the community.  

With the Ed-Prize, Nasiyah plans to expand Canary Academy by highlighting stories of underserved, underrepresented, and socioeconomically disadvantaged successfully homeschooling, providing financial aid to those who need it, and building a community of families, mentors, and supporters for those who don't normally have access to homeschooling.  

"As a homeschool graduate myself, I understand just how important it is to have the freedom to choose what form of education works best for you," Nasiyah explains. "But many families do not have this luxury due to socioeconomic barriers. We hope to change this through our initiative supporting homeschoolers -- one day at a time." 

This one-day-at-a-time mindset is almost certainly shared among many innovators in education today. Yet, the landscape for learning is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Before we know it, the new norm in education will be that there is no norm -- the learning environments children are in will be as diverse as the students.  

Learn more about Stand Together’s K-12 education reform efforts.

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