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What Does a Transformational 21st-Century School Look Like?

Many schools held up as shining examples of reform are transitional, not transformational, according to a prominent education activist.


Washington D.C.-based writer and education activist Sam Chaltain took to his Twitter feed and blog this week to pose a timely question: “Out of all the outstanding and forward-thinking schools in the world,” he wrote, "which ones are truly the most transformational when it comes to imagining a new way to think about teaching and learning in the 21st century?"

By "transformational," Chaltain refers to schools that "are demonstrating by policy and practice" the indicators from the Q.E.D. Foundation's Transformational Change Model. Q.E.D. is a nonprofit that works to “create and sustain student-centered learning communities" and has identified 22 characteristics that high-quality schools should exemplify. The foundation illustrates a model that classifies schools as "traditional," "transitional," or "transformational."


Chaltain says traditional schools "assume the student bears the primary responsibility for learning," while transitionals school put the responsibility on the teacher—the direction of "just about every recently proposed accountability policy in the U.S.,"he says. A transformational school shares the responsibility "via a learning team that includes, and extends beyond, teacher and student." In terms of student achievement, a traditional school emphasizes test results, a transitional school works toward broader curriculum goals, and a transformational school focuses on students' aspirations and life options. Student investment at a traditional school is based on fulfilling requirements, while at a transitional school it’s centered on engagement. Transformational schools take investment to the next level, working to build passion for learning in all students.

Chaltain wants people to send him examples of transformational schools, but because it's difficult to find schools that meet all 22 characteristics, he's willing to settle for those that fulfill 10. (He's already nominated two campuses—one in India and one in Philadelphia.) Often, the models education reformers hold up as highly successful schools are "at best, examples of transitional progress, not transformational change," he says. And in the age of high-stakes testing, scripted curricula, and evaluating teachers and students according to test scores, it's nearly impossible for many public schools to meet the transformational bar.

Sure, transitional schools represent a step up from traditional methods, but they're not enough to develop the “skills and know-how to co-create their public world, to participate in their community and help shape the local and global decisions that will impact their lives," as Q.E.D. puts it. Modern education reformers should take note, take a step back, and redirect their efforts toward some truly transformational change.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Corey Leopold

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