May 25, 2016

Turning Tides and Changing Paradigms; Public Schools’ Chief Looks to the Future

As the 2015-16 school year winds down in Princeton Public Schools (PPS), many students and their teachers are working hard to keep their focus on the June 20 finish line, students’ last-day-of school and graduation day for Princeton High School seniors.

But Superintendent Steve Cochrane has a vision of the future that might mean dramatic changes for PPS. 

In his Superintendent’s Messages on the district website in recent months, Mr. Cochrane has called for nothing less than “turning the tide” (in transforming the college admissions process) and “shifting the paradigm” (in getting beyond debates about standardized testing to focusing instead on innovation).

In his March column, Mr. Cochrane confronted the conflict of competitive pressure for college admissions in the context of the District’s commitment to wellness and balance and emphasis on joy and purpose as essential components of education.

“Remarkably,” Mr. Cochrane writes, “the colleges answered that question themselves with a groundbreaking report on the admissions process.” Written and endorsed by many top colleges, the report, titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” was released in February by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

It states that “high school students often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities. The messages that colleges do send about concern for others are commonly drowned out by the power and frequency of messages from parents and the larger culture emphasizing individual achievement. Further, even when students and parents receive the message that contributions and service to others do count, they often seek to ‘game’ service.”

This report, according to Mr. Cochrane, says, “Enough. It is time to end the arms race among students of more and more AP courses and ever increasing extra-curricular activities. It is time to end the emphasis on individual, personal success rather than concern for others and the common good.”

Endorsing the report’s emphasis on both ethical and intellectual engagement, Mr. Cochrane mentioned its recommendations for community service, service to family, as well as — under the umbrella of intellectual engagement — “a few extra-curricular activities done well rather than a long list of superficial involvements.”

Mr. Cochrane quoted MIT admissions dean Stuart Schmill, who wrote in the report, ”we don’t want students who do things just because they think they have to in order to get into college. To the contrary: we want students who lead balanced lives, who pursue their interests with energy and enthusiasm, and who work cooperatively with others.”

The Harvard report, Mr. Cochrane also pointed out, recommended expanding students’ thinking about “good” colleges. “There are many pathways to professional and personal success,” he wrote, “and the reality is: the person you take to college — your character, intellect and creativity — is far more important than the particular college you attend.”

Seeing the report as an affirmation of recent PPS efforts, ”Mr. Cochrane urged the community and schools to “join in weaving its critical and commonsense recommendations into the fabric of our schools.”

Following up in his last month’s website message, Mr. Cochrane acknowledged “vigorous debate about the potential merits and misuses” of the relatively new and controversial PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) Tests that were administered in New Jersey public schools in April. But more importantly, he contended, the District needs to focus on a whole new paradigm for the way K-12 education takes place.

Education currently, Mr. Cochrane argued, “is based on the factory model of the 19th century, with students viewed as products on an assembly line of learning; compartmentalization by subject matter; and tests each year to ensure the quality of the product.

Since students, of course, are not products but “individuals with unique interests, abilities and hopes,” a more appropriate model, Mr. Cochrane suggested, would be the paradigm of the video game, as posited by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline, his 1990 study of learning organizations.

The video game paradigm would promote student choice, readiness levels, the value of making mistakes, the integration of many different subjects, and collaboration. This model, Mr. Cochrane concludes, is not the answer to the challenges of education in the 21st century, but it does encourage a shift of paradigm in providing “a model for learning that invites us to expand our conversation beyond a critique of standardized tests and towards a discussion of high-quality, personalized learning for every child.”