by Michael Brick
7 inspiring ideas to deepen learning, engage students, close achievement gaps, and better prepare our kids for a 21st-century world.
As a preschooler in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, 4-year-old Hannah has been splitting her time between day care and an early-childhood education center. Her dad, Jason Morales, drops her off in the morning before his shift as a contractor. And her mom, Erica Oquendo, who works at a local development corporation, picks her up after work. Sometimes Hannah stays with her aunt when both parents work late.
But now Hannah is starting pre-kindergarten—and her local public school doesn’t offer any after-hours care. Her mom worries about how Hannah will continue to be exposed to art and music. And she has more practical concerns: “What will I do with her at 2:20 in the afternoon?”
For lots of parents, Hannah’s story is painfully familiar. In many districts across the country, the school day reflects a century-old model built to serve the demands of an earlier age—not modern families. And it often doesn’t reflect our current understanding of how children learn best. But what if we could wipe the slate clean and give the school day and the classroom a much-needed update, paving the way for profound improvements? Here, as imagined by leading education researchers, teachers, and policy makers, are seven ideas for a 21st-century school day.
1. Begin the Day “Over Easy”—with Breakfast
At Ellis Elementary in Denver, teachers are reinventing homeroom as a morning meeting over eggs and toast. “When students eat a good, nutritious breakfast, they can hit the ground running,” said Mayor Michael Hancock during a visit to the school last year—yet a 2011 survey found that though 77 percent of young children eat breakfast every day, only 50 percent of middle schoolers and 36 percent of high schoolers get a regular morning meal. According to nutrition researcher Gail C. Rampersaud of the University of Florida, “breakfast consumption may improve cognitive function and school attendance,” and Ellis principal Khoa Nguyen notes that tardiness and missed school days have dropped off significantly since the program began. And he’s noticed other benefits. “Both the kids and teachers know that they will have a few minutes every morning where they can eat, chat about what’s happening that day, and not be rushed,” he says.
2. Emphasize Learning, Not Testing
As a result of government policies like No Child Left Behind—which requires schools to improve on students’ standardized test performance year over year—educators are overwhelmed with testing and test prep. And that has contributed to an increasingly dysfunctional public school system, says Diane Ravitch, Ph.D., research professor of education at New York University and author of the upcoming book Reign of Error. “Schools and teachers are under so much pressure to get students to pass that most of the school day is spent teaching to the test. Subjects that don’t appear on the tests—art, foreign languages, even science and history—are being dropped from the curriculum,” she says. The result, says journalist Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, is that we’re producing many grads who are great test takers but not great learners. “Students don’t know how to deal well with confrontation, bounce back from defeat, see two different sides of a problem,” he says, “things that are essential not just in adulthood but in continuing your education past high school. It turns out the students who are most likely to graduate from college aren’t necessarily the ones who do best on the standardized tests, but the ones who are able to develop these other qualities.”
3. Teach 21st-Century Skills
In a Gallup poll this year of 1,014 young adults, those who said they had learned “21st-century skills” (like developing solutions to real-world problems) during their last year in high school were twice as likely to describe themselves as successful in the workplace. How can we get students to develop such talents?
a. Emphasize long-term projects. Consider the way most professional jobs work, says Tough. “You’re probably not working on one assignment today, and another one tomorrow, and another one the day after that. Instead, you’re working on a project over a period of time—revising it, perfecting it, presenting your findings to others.” Those are precisely the skills that students need to develop, he says.
b. Use technology. How can schools get kids to embrace technology inside the classroom the way they do outside of it? According to former teacher Will Richardson, author of Why School?, “it’s got to be in service of answering big questions.” For example, at the Science Leadership Academy, a public magnet high school in Philadelphia, 10th graders studying chemical engineering asked: How can we make an efficient biodiesel generator that people in developing countries could use to create their own electricity? “And they did it!” says Richardson. “Technology was able to augment the students’ work, allowing them to connect with leading engineers or create 3-D computer models.”
c. Make classes multidisciplinary. At New Technology High School in Napa, Calif., classes combine different disciplines (think: digital media arts/geometry). Last year, in bio-fitness, ninth grader Haley Kara used deductive reasoning to diagnose a mystery illness; and in chemistry, 10th grader Brian Shnell designed a bio-dome that could sustain life on another planet. “Splitting subjects into slots is easier for us,” says Richardson. “But that’s not what the real world looks like. It’s much messier.”
4. “Flip” the Class Work
What if, instead of spending algebra class listening to their teacher give a lecture, students were sent home with short video lectures, then spent class time having the concepts reinforced with interactive labs or discussions? Implemented correctly, this concept (called a “flipped classroom”) can have two benefits, say experts. One, students get exposed to the most engaging lectures available. (“The theory is that if a renowned educator gives a better chemistry lecture than Mr. Smith, why should Mr. Smith give the lecture?” says Dana Goldstein, an education fellow at the New America Foundation.) Two, teachers can spend class time on collaborative work and feedback for students. At Clintondale High School near Detroit, where 70 percent of students come from low-income families, flipped classrooms have helped reduce failure rates by up to 33 percent in all subjects. Still, it’s important to consider carefully how the practice is used. “For classes like math, where teachers have to spend so much time explaining concepts through lectures, it can be really useful,” says Jennifer Woollven, an English teacher at Westlake High School in Austin. “For less lecture-based classes—say, ones involving more writing—not so much.” Another challenge: getting students to actually watch the lectures on their own time, which Woollven says can be addressed by making class projects more meaningful. “Then you’ve created a situation where the student thinks, ‘I need to learn this,’ ”she says.
5. Say “Yes!” to Recess
In recent decades, as the focus on testing has meant emphasizing core subjects, recess has often fallen by the wayside. Today, only nine states require recess in elementary schools. But that’s starting to change. Last year, many Chicago public schools began offering recess for the first time in 30 years. At the city’s Daniel Boone Elementary, any student who shows up before the morning bell can shoot baskets and generally run around and get the wiggles out. Later, during 20- minute recess sessions, the program’s coach sets up games for each grade level—including Foursquare, basketball, and hybrid sports of his own invention. “Studies show that daily physical activity allows students to perform at their optimum,” says Robert Murray, M.D., a pediatrician and a fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s counterproductive to push for more academic time without also allowing regular breaks to process what they’ve learned. That’s exactly what recess represents.” Even Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign is targeting schools (letsmove schools.org), asking administrators to build at least 60 minutes of physical activity into each day.
6. Get Creative!
Another way for kids to get those much-needed breaks is to reincorporate creative subjects like art, music, theater, or dance, says Murray. “Sometimes educators see these periods as ‘nonproductive’ compared to math or English, but they can actually enhance kids’ performance in core subjects.” Creative pursuits and those that utilize tactile learning, such as wood shop or cooking, engage different parts of students’ brains. “Figuring out how to, say, get a stuck screw out of a piece of wood is useful to learn, but it also teaches you how to approach and solve problems in unique ways,” says Tough. “Using different tools and materials to develop an idea or create something new is a critical-thinking skill that’s valuable across all kinds of contexts—whether or not you ever need to know how to build a model car.”
7. Go Longer—and Better
In today’s society, where nearly 60 percent of families have two working parents, lengthening the school day to better align with the workday makes a certain amount of sense. Still, say experts, it’s important that longer days don’t translate into more time spent sitting in class, learning the same things. “You need to build in different kinds of experiences,” says Tough. One school that’s pulling it off is Hilton Elementary in Baltimore, where the school day lasts nearly 10 hours but includes ample time for students to eat, exercise, and flex their creative muscles while still learning core subjects like math and English. After 3 p.m., a community group offers mentoring sessions on subjects as diverse as dance, chess, photography, gardening, and sign language. The extended schedule matches the work hours of most parents and also helps schools like Hilton tap into mentors—like local musicians, software designers with flex hours, and back-in-the-day hoops heroes—with free time for students. Supplementing the school day with more opportunities for learning—whether it’s through expanded hours or after-school and summer programs—can also help close the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students. Says Tough: “We need to provide better opportunities for those kids who aren’t spending their afternoons taking violin lessons or their summers traveling.”