School’s Out: How This Learner-Centered Society Would Liberate Parents

Voices from the Field   25 September 2018
By Scott Van Beck


To be sure, there is no single institution that bears the entire responsibility of transforming our education system.

Scott Van Beck
35-Year Education Professional

On October 8th, five educators published School’s Out—an invitation for communities “to explore how profoundly we need to alter our perspective on the meaning, feel, and delivery of learning.” To amplify the voices of these learner-centered leaders, we have invited each to author articles that express the context from which they approached the question: What if school did not exist?

The third article in this series comes from former Executive Director of Houston A+ Challenge, Scott Van Beck, who explores how parents would benefit from a School’s Out society.

Author’s Note: Throughout this article, when you see the word “parent,” I invite you to associate it with any guardian who is the primary caretaker of a child.

Most parents who send their children to traditional schools get cheated, especially those who come from low socio-economic backgrounds. If your children attend, or attended, a traditional American school, think for a minute what type of access you received to better understand your child’s academic, social, and emotional progress.

Were you able to participate in your child’s learning experience as much as you would like? When interacting with your child’s teachers, principal, and other school staff, were you made to feel like a “pleasant distraction,” rather than a key stakeholder in your child’s growth and development? Have you ever tried to observe your child’s learning inside a classroom? Can you even imagine trying to do that with 25 other parents in the room seeking to do the same thing?

If your answer to these questions is a negative one, you aren’t alone. Traditional schools aren’t built, literally and figuratively, to meet the needs of their children’s parents. As a middle school and high school principal, and then a regional superintendent in Houston, I saw first-hand, and back then enthusiastically endorsed, how traditional districts and their schools negotiated parent involvement on educator terms. In my experience, parents were asked to participate in their child’s activities at school when it was convenient and advantageous to and for the school, not the other way around.

However, over time, I became much more present to the systemic inequities brought upon by this battle for control. Education should not be a turf war between parent, child, and educator. Each actor plays an equally important role in the development of our youth, including the youth themselves. With this in mind, let’s explore the possibilities of a system where parents are revered, rather than revolted against, and how learner-centered principles can be applied to young learners and parents alike.

What if Learning Wasn’t All About “School”?

What if there was a way for children and their parents to experience learning in a way that included school—but in which schools were not the only destination where learning counted?

This question, and many others like it, became the focal point of the “School’s Out” publication—an invitation for entire communities to reimagine what learning could be for our young people. The authors, myself included, first came together at an Education Reimagined convening of learner-centered practitioners. As we explored what a parents role would be in a society without school, we wanted to discover how parents could see themselves as key stakeholders in the education of their children, rather than being forced to take a backseat as the traditional system blocks them out.

This transformative learning design depends on the five overarching and intertwined elements found in “A Transformational Vision for Education in the US”—learner agency; socially embedded; personalized, relevant, and contextualized; open-walled; and competency-based. If we think for a minute, why would we reserve these elements only for the young learners? Why wouldn’t we apply these elements to parents and how they can best support their children with their learning? I want you to keep this question present as we explore other big picture inquiries that put parents at center stage.

What if Learning was About Resource Expansion Rather than Consolidation?

As newborns, almost all children start their learning in a personalized fashion with an adult alongside as their support. When the child is four or five, they are sent to a place called “school” where other adults, called “teachers,” begin to replace the parent or guardian as the adult who is responsible for the child’s learning. Why do we replace one adult with another, rather than include more adult resources?

Most will look at this question and lean on the professionalization of teaching as a necessity for youth development. Where did that belief come from? What if that adult who offered the child their first learning support is the most important variable to that young person’s academic, social, and emotional future? Why would we push that adult, or those adults, away?

Wouldn’t it be neat if the personalized, relevant, and contextualized structure children experience before entering the traditional education system was further enhanced, rather than diminished? To stretch things even further, what if the parent had a similar learning structure that was relevant to their career pursuits?

Imagine learning centers where parents, children, and even other family members came and received counseling to design a learning plan specific to their short-term and long-term interests—multiple generations learning side-by-side. The community, not just the school, would be the classroom for all learning. The result would be families learning together and feeling better about contributing to their community’s success.

What if Learning Matched the Evolution of the Modern Workplace?

Imagine a world where people were judged by their knowledge, skills, and dispositions rather than the number of hours they sat in a classroom seat. What would need to change about our traditions of standardization and one-size-fits-all learning?

This is where competency-based education comes on the scene. Competency-based progression is already finding its way into the adult workplace, but such a system has yet to breach the walls of traditional schooling. What could we do to better integrate the innovations of the modern working world so our claim of “college, career, and life ready” is more than a passive cliche?

How great would it be if parents and other adults, who might even already work in a competency-based workplace, were able to help young people identify the competencies they were seeking and create their individual work plans to meet those competencies? Young and adult learners could support each other as they pursue their own individual competency-based goals.

Moreover, every learner should have a big say about what they are learning, when they are learning, and how they are learning. In the adult world, this looks like pursuing paths of interest that reach beyond the original job description, often showing up as a combination of what needs to be done and what will help the adult grow as a professional. Sadly, this type of exploration beyond the fixed curriculum is absent in most traditional schools. Instead, traditional schools and their districts command curriculum and demand testing for their learners thinking this method is in the American public’s best interest. But, who really represents the American public? A group of state legislators? A school board?

When it comes to American education, I invite all of us to think about the public as a group of families. And, I want us to consider families as the most qualified to represent the education of our young people. In this society, imagine a meeting where a learning coach meets with a family to design a learning plan for every single family member that establishes what is meant for that individual in terms of their short- and long-term success.

The traditional school, community college, or university might play a role in that learning plan, but they would cease to be the end-all-be-all when it came to determining the appropriate pathway for authentic learning. And, with the inclusion of learning plans for all ages, we can begin to see how a parent’s plan might be strongly correlated to their child’s plan. For example, if the young learner is interested in exploring astronomy, the parent’s plan might include a short-term goal of identifying community and online resources to support their child’s exposure to that subject of interest.

What if Learning was a Community Responsibility?

Traditional schools are often seen as the one-stop shop for all things related to the growth and development for our youth; yet, they are unable to access all of the community resources that could provide tremendous support in that arena. Traditionally, schools seek relatively small ways to bring in the outside world—hosting a career day, creating a science lab, or organizing a three-hour field trip for their kids to visit a nearby community destination. But, those efforts are minor deviations from the day-to-day schedule—often seen as luxuries, rather than as necessities to the learning process. Do we truly believe experiencing and interacting with the world happening outside of traditional school is a nice-to-have, rather than a core element to the growth and development of our children?

What is the role of parents when we try to offer great learning beyond the walls of traditional school? Often, skeptics point to the fact that most parents do not have time to engage deeply in their child’s learning. But, the world of work is changing, and work is becoming more flexible every day. More importantly, parents are demanding a more flexible work experience and an improved balance between work and parenting responsibilities.

According to a Flexjobs 2017 study, 81% of parents said family and work-life balance were the top reasons they sought out flexible work. In fact, the same study found that these same parents said work-life balance and flexible work schedules were more important to them than salary. 88% of these parents indicated that flexible work arrangements would increase their volunteerism at their children’s schools or organized activities.

It seems parents are looking for a more flexible world, a world in which they can get their adult work done and play a bigger role in their child’s learning. So, let’s stop expecting parents to only drop their kid off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. As their work becomes open-walled in its own right, how will our educational system take advantage of this increase in extra support? And, for parents who retain jobs with more rigid schedules, what structures must we create to ensure a new inequitable divide doesn’t emerge?

What Does Your Community Think?

There are many more questions to explore in the context of the reimagined role of parents in a “School’s Out” society. What questions show up for you? If you invited parents in your community to explore the possibilities, what might they say? If you are a parent yourself, does this make you think differently about your own role in your child’s learning?

Once children reach “school” age, their parents can play a much bigger and more important role in their children’s learning than they are currently given access to today. To be sure, there is no single institution that bears the entire responsibility of transforming our education system. Just as we are calling for a learner-centered transformation within traditional schooling, we are also calling for more businesses and community institutions to embrace their new and changing roles and responsibilities in supporting learning.

As Amy Anderson showed in her article about ReSchool Colorado’s work, businesses have the capacity and desire to participate in this new society. Other out-of-school learning initiatives have started, and more are sure to follow. But, we must call to attention the need for these isolated efforts to find a common direction in transforming our communities. When it comes to parents, consider asking questions like—Why is a parent’s influence on their child’s learning often limited to chauffeuring them to and from a place called school? Why don’t they play a bigger and more important role? Isn’t this the time to make a commitment to lead this change with parents? The time is now to make the change and be the difference.

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