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"Next Generation Schools,"

by Bill Ferguson & Sarah McLean November/December 2015 issue of Poverty & Race

Our children are growing up in an increasingly diverse nation at a time when changes in technology are rapidly reshaping the workplace and our society. As parents of young children and former teachers, we know that Maryland’s education system must innovate to meet these changes. Marylanders must step outside the status quo and lead the charge to create “Next Generation” schools where students learn 21st Century skills by creatively solving real-world, community-based problems alongside peers who mirror the rich diversity of the American public.

The knowledge and skills demanded of our children by the modern workplace require them to employ integrated skills to complete complex tasks. Currently, our children are not learning these integrated skills. By the year 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the United States could face a shortage of up to 95 million high- and medium-skilled workers. Maryland seems to be following this trend. Since 1992, Maryland’s 4th grade scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test have increased only 5 points. Our 8th grade NAEP scores have increased only 8 points over the past 23 years.

A globalized economy requires that our children be able to work in a diverse environment. The United States Census Bureau is projecting the American population to be majority-minority by 2043. As of this year, the public school student population is majority-minority, where the number of black, Latino and Asian students has surpassed the number of white students. Yet schools are more segregated than ever. As of 2011, more than 85% of Maryland’s black students and 78% of Latino students are enrolled in majority-minority schools. Over 50% of Maryland’s black students attend a school that has a 90-100% minority student enrollment. We are at a crucible moment. The time for bold action on behalf of our kids is now.

Last session, legislation was introduced, and will be re-introduced this session, to create Next Generation Schools in Maryland, pushing the state to re-imagine what students learn, how they learn, and with whom they learn. If adults across racial and socioeconomic lines are going to solve problems together in an increasingly diverse and globalized society, first they must learn how to solve complex problems together in the classroom.

While the traditional public school system has worked for some children, we need a new approach to ensure all Maryland children receive a rigorous and highly effective education. In order to provide opportunities for students to learn amongst diverse peers, we need to incentivize the creation of schools that are built on an explicit commitment to diversity. Specifically, Next Generation Schools are committed to socioeconomic integration. The research is clear. Both majority and minority students benefit, academically and socially, when learning in purposefully integrated environments. Moreover, continuing the current segregated academic environment is not only morally questionable, but also completely impractical as we consider the increasing diversity of our state and the globalized workforce.

In addition to who today’s students are learning with, we also must re-imagine what content and skills students learn and how they learn them. In order to develop students with 21st Century skills, we must allow for innovation in how we design and structure schools. Next Generation Schools opens up the innovation space by increasing freedom of curriculum so that school leaders, teachers and community members can design and launch new teaching and learning practices focused on equipping all students with 21st Century skills.

A shift of this magnitude will require significant political will and resource investment. This does not simply mean more money. It means ensuring that accountability measures must be designed to serve as encouragements for staff creativity and constant investigation, not incentives to standardize. It means acknowledging what values we want to hold onto from “school” of the last 50 years, but also shedding some constructs so that we can design for the future. It means having to live in a land of gray as we figure out how to move forward, together.

In order to meet the promise of public education in Maryland, we must create a system of schools that prepare all students for a diverse and globalized world and a globalized economy. The question should not be whether or not we can afford to make a shift of this kind; instead, the question should be, can we afford not to?

Bill Ferguson , in his second term as a Maryland State Senator, was first elected in 2010 as the youngest State Senator in the state’s history. His district is entirely within the City of Baltimore.
Sarah McLean is a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership Development Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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