Wed. Sep 27th, 2023

Restructuring our education system can’t be about patching the cracks in the foundation, but about … [+] building a new foundation altogether.
K-12 students returned to school this year amid what Education Week called “a perfect storm of bad news.” Reading and math scores declined sharply during the pandemic, particularly among students who were already struggling. In my home state, we learned from the state’s annual report card, and Advance Illinois’ latest report that in addition to significant gaps in academic achievement, our schools have seen significant declines in student enrollment and widespread teacher burnout; and our students have faced mounting inequities and diminished wellbeing all amid chronic absenteeism and rising truancy rates.
As these examples show, we must undertake a seismic restructuring of our education system if we’re to overcome these challenges. It can’t be about patching the cracks in the foundation, but about building a new foundation altogether.
Michael B. Horn, author and cofounder of the Clayton Christensen Institute
In his new book, From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)creating School for Every Child, noted author and cofounder of the Clayton Christensen Institute Michael B. Horn provides a clear-eyed blueprint for what that foundation should look like. I recently spoke with Horn during a convening of the Yass Prize community about the need to completely reinvent our system of K-12 education and how we might want to approach that work.
Phyllis Lockett: What has the pandemic taught us about education moving forward? What has it shown us about opportunities beyond the four walls of the classroom?

Michael Horn: “Zoom school,” in both the way it failed to provide meaningful connections and the way it exempted students from work, showed how unserious we are about schools being a place where every learner can master knowledge. The schools that did well during the pandemic were the ones where students had already developed agency and the ones with a philosophy that learning doesn’t have to be delivered to you in a school building between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Students at these schools weren’t constrained when there was no teacher standing in front of them providing step-by-step instructions. They had a sense of where to find their own learning opportunities and how to find the answers to their questions independently. Those schools did far better during the pandemic because they engaged their students.
Lockett: You’ve talked about the need to “overthrow” the current K-12 system. What do you have in mind?
Horn: The structures that underpin our education system weren’t built to optimize each and every child’s learning. In fact, the way they’re built guarantees the failure of many children. School is designed around this antiquated notion that equates learning with seat time rather than mastery of the material. For all the plans in the past to “reinvent” K-12 education, none have questioned the fundamentals of time-based instruction. It’s no surprise then that the system produces the outcomes it does. Not every child needs exactly 180 days to master the knowledge and skills required for a third grader. Conversely, some kids need more time. It’s an arbitrary system that cuts off learning for children based on a calendar, yet doesn’t provide a different pathway forward for them that’s productive. In our current system, time is fixed and learning is variable, then students are labeled and sorted accordingly.
If we’re serious about reaching each and every student—from all backgrounds—and allowing them to realize their potential, then we need to overthrow those underpinning structures.
Lockett: How would you redesign some of the support systems in place for students?
Horn: In the book, I devote quite a bit of time to the importance of team teaching and creating a web of support for students. Our schools require every teacher to be a superhero—delivering all of the content to a classroom filled with kids. That’s just not a winning recipe. If you take a team approach, then one adult works with students on their social-emotional learning and how they connect to their learning. And another leverages data to create small group opportunities based on the learning objective. And another connects learning to real world projects and helps students build social capital in the community, which also creates a more permeable classroom that’s open to the outside world. Or there could be other ways the teams are structured to best support the student.
Lockett: I was on a panel earlier this year (SXSW Edu) where we discussed an apparent paradox between crisis and innovation: we need to innovate to address the challenges presented by the pandemic, but some of those challenges (like teacher burnout) create significant barriers to innovation. How can schools ensure that evolution and innovation take place and don’t get sidelined?
Horn: This is the paradox in my book: I’m advocating for overthrowing the current education system incrementally. But this needs to be done thoughtfully if it is to be successful. Not only are teachers, principals and support and professional staff exhausted from three years of disrupted schooling, it’s impossible to shield them from the day to day pressures of “school” long enough for them to dismantle the old structure and invent a new one. The answer is for district leaders to create independent teams of educators in which they are shielded from traditional day to day pressures and have the explicit license to do things differently. They can give these new “schools within schools” the resources they need without encumbering them by the old ways of doing things.
From Reopen to Reinvent, the new book by Michael Horn
From Reopen to Reinvent challenges us to expand opportunities for K-12 students by taking a more expansive view of what “counts” as learning. In that regard, Michael Horn’s work is a compelling new development in the competency-based education movement, which advocates for a focus on mastery rather than how many hours students sit in a classroom. In my state, this philosophy is gaining some traction: the Illinois State Board of Education has agreed to extend its pilot program on competency-based education—but only for another three years while the board gathers more data.

Overhauling a century-old structure is no small feat, but the pandemic showed us—in real time—how it no longer fits the needs of our tech-driven society. Competency-based education is an important first step to aligning our education system with how life operates today—unbound by space and time and supported by people in and outside of the school community. Even amid staffing shortages and a growing list of student needs—indeed, because of these challenges—those opportunities are something we can’t afford to overlook.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity


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