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High Schools Should Follow Higher Ed’s Learner-Centered Leadership

I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, ‘the only way high schools will make substantive changes from the industrial age model is if colleges and universities drive the change.’ The common wisdom is that it’s just too hard to buck the status quo of coursework as content silos, single grade cohorts, and traditional grading. As a Co-Founder of Pathways High, a regional charter high school with a learner-centered vs. school-centered focus and mastery assessment instead of traditional grades, I often encounter skepticism and nay-saying from others. Being on the leading edge of change is never easy. Many days I feel like a salmon swimming upstream, pushing against a strong current of policies, guidelines, and measurement systems designed for traditional schools. It can be both daunting and exhausting.

The term “learner-centered” refers to institutions that prioritize learners’ needs over that of the institution – its systems and hierarchies. As Education Reimagined articulates, this change in priority is truly a paradigm shift and not just new phrasing to re-package the traditional model as more user-friendly. It’s important to note that the words and phrases currently in vogue in education, like personalized and project-based learning, can have different meanings depending on the paradigm in which one is operating. Because the status quo provides such a strong pull, it’s necessary to look beyond the words to the evidence of learner-centered environments. Also, no matter how much one might like to have their cake and eat it too, an educational institution cannot be both learner-centered and school-centered. A conscious choice must be made.

For those K-12 schools transitioning to learner-centered organizations, perseverance, stamina, and a thick skin is required to sustain the long swim upstream against the current. However, there are some bright spots of inspiration from others on the journey and many rewarding moments from all learners -- students and teachers, alike -- to keep you going. One of these recent bright spots occurred when I heard both a Rice University admissions officer and a Director in the Wiess School of Natural Sciences describe their learner-centered university and school and support it with key metrics. The statistics Rice University utilizes to measure its success demonstrates what they value. The exciting part for me is that their values closely aligned with the core values of Pathways High - Trust, Interconnectedness, Diverse by Design, and Excellence through Purpose.

Specifically, Rice University is Diverse by Design. They’re ranked number one by Princeton Review for both race/class interaction and student quality of life. Their pride in their student enrollment diversity is evident and dates back to the school’s inaugural class in 1912 that included 29 women. Rice’s residential college system reminded me of Pathways High’s multi-age advisory program as it promotes interconnectedness with students and the resident faculty advisor. Interconnectedness extends to the community outside the university, as well. For example, all students in the Weiss School of Natural Sciences are encouraged to participate in independent research, both within and outside the university, as early as their freshman year. The result: 85% of students participate in independent research for credit.

According to one materials science and nanoengineering recent graduate, Brandi Ransom, “Two weeks into school, I was already in a lab contributing to 2D synthesis mechanism growth even though I hadn’t taken a freshman physics class yet. Diving in early led me to some really cool opportunities, including conducting research in Japan and Germany.” This real world student research reminded me of Pathways High’s focus on providing IMPACT experiences where students are engaging with business and community leaders to deepen their 21st Century or EMPOWER skills, like problem solving and collaboration. It is validating when I encounter highly regarded and successful post-secondary institutions that are further down the path of learner-centered leadership, paving the way for others to follow.

After my visit to Rice University, I read the article, “The Right Way to Choose a College” by Denise Pope in the March 22nd issue of the Wall Street Journal. I immediately recognized the learner-centered tenets represented in the recent Gallup-Purdue study results as they aligned closely with the Pathways High Real World Learning Model.

According to the Gallup-Purdue studies, they found six key college experiences that correlated with how fulfilled employees feel at work and whether they thrive in life after college:

  • Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting

  • Working with professors who care about students personally

  • Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals

  • Working on a project across several semesters

  • Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning

  • Being active in extracurricular activities

Learner-centered high schools, like Pathways High, have found that the elements contributing to one thriving in life during and after college also contribute to one thriving during and after high school. Strong relationships, rich diversity of learner backgrounds, and putting the individual learner’s needs, interests, and goals at the center of the work fosters thriving adults. So to those who are building a learner-centered organization or contemplating this path, be encouraged that others, including postsecondary institutions, are leading the way with success. It’s worth the upstream swim! Before you know it, you’ll be moving with the current.

Will you join us?


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