Redesigning Schools to Meet 21st Century Learning Needs


Editors' Note: The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing every child with competent, caring, qualified teachers in schools organized for success. In its latest report, "No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America's Children," NCTAF found that high teacher turnover and attrition have become a national crisis, which is undermining teaching quality in too many of our nation's schools.

The conventional wisdom has been that we cannot find enough teachers to staff America's schools. But, in fact, the conventional wisdom is wrong. The real problem is more complex: we cannot keep enough good teachers in our schools. Currently, teacher turnover and attrition are the greatest threats to teaching quality. Decades of research confirm what we know from experience: At the heart of every high-performing school, we find high-quality teaching. Good teachers are the most important factor in the quality of a child's education. Investing in high-quality teaching is the most important action America's leaders can take to put our children's dreams within reach and prepare our nation for the future.

If we know that quality teaching is important, why isn't every child in the nation taught by a qualified educator? It is not because of a teacher shortage, as many would suggest. Our inability to support high-quality teaching in our schools is driven instead by a staggering teacher attrition rate. It is particularly troubling to see how many new teachers do not stay long enough to become "seasoned" educators: after one year, 14% of new teachers leave teaching, a third have left by the end of their third year, and almost half (46%) are gone by the end of their fifth year of teaching.

Good teachers, who enter teaching full of idealism and dreams that they can make a difference in children's lives, are ground down by bad policies and poor teaching conditions in too many of our schools. Novice teachers are not given the critical help they need during their early years, and those who were not well prepared for the challenges of teaching are overwhelmed. The problem is particularly severe in low-income communities and rural areas where inexperienced teachers are concentrated in schools that are structured for failure rather than success.

Teaching quality and student achievement in these settings suffer, because conditions for the educators who remain in these classrooms decline as their schools are caught in a downward spiral. Despite their dreams and best aspirations, the remaining teachers lack the leadership and collegial opportunity they need to develop a strong professional community that might otherwise support their efforts to improve student achievement in these "beleaguered" schools.

The costs to students most in need of quality teaching are unacceptable; the cycle of school failure is continued from one generation to the next. The commission's report describes three strategies to break this cycle:

  1. We must redesign schools for teaching and learning success.
  2. We must redesign the teacher-preparation system so that it becomes closely articulated with the teaching conditions in today's schools and the learning needs of our students.
  3. We must continue to support professional development and career growth after developing high-quality teachers and placing them in schools where learning can thrive.

This article will focus on the first of these strategies: creating schools where teaching and learning succeed.

Successful Learning Environments

To help each child prepare for successful employment and productive citizenship in the 21st century, all teachers must deeply know their subject areas, understand how children learn, use modern learning technologies effectively, and work closely with their colleagues to create rich learning environments that produce high-quality learning experiences for every child.

Over the last decade, brain research and studies in cognition and the social sciences have given us a clearer picture of how people learn. This research has identified four key elements of successful learning environments - attributes equally relevant for the success of teachers as adult learners - with powerful implications for the organization of the learning environments we call school (Bransford, Brown and Cocking 1999):

Learner-centered learning environments. A learner-centered environment signifies that teachers know and attend to the knowledge, skills, beliefs and backgrounds each child brings to the classroom. It implies that the time it takes from "learning to mastery" will vary with every child, as will the style of learning that works best for each child. The current factory-model school, while seemingly efficient, is, in fact, grossly inefficient, inappropriate and ultimately inequitable, as it requires that all children adapt to the mean. Those who do not learn at the speed of the assembly line lose out and/or drop out; those who could learn more, do not. Individualizing instruction for each learner is no longer a dream - it is an educational birthright for all children.

Assessment-centered learning environments. Assessment-centered learning environments make learner-centered instruction possible by continually providing feedback on what is being learned; with revisions made as needed. They build on just-in-time, ongoing formative assessments that make thinking visible by showing what is understood and where stumbling blocks occur. They help both students and teachers monitor the learning in progress, so that extra effort or new strategies can be tried before it's too late. While both formative and end-of-course summative assessments are important pieces of an assessment-centered learning environment, it is the formative assessment that is most powerful for adapting instruction to the learner. Yet, it's the most often ignored.

Knowledge-centered learning environments. A focus on the learner d'es not mean that content is ignored. Rather, knowledge-centered teaching and learning signify that attention is given to what is taught, how it is taught, and what mastery or understanding of this content looks like. Subject-area standards serve as building blocks for increasing expertise in a field or aca-demic area. Whether it is ratios, fractions or algebra as core concepts for building mathematical understanding; ecological systems in biology; or grammar, voice and tone in writing, each field has developed a set of standards that form the basis for instruction. Knowledge-centered environments extend to "sense-making" in a domain, helping students continually build and apply their emerging "metacognitive" skills - the ability to think critically about their own thoughts.

Community-centered learning environments. Knowledge is individually processed but socially supported (Vygotsky 1978). Learning is dependent on reflection that comes from the power of "intellectual camaraderie" stemming from discussion, collaboration, sharing and building knowledge with peers, as well as with those who are more experienced or advanced in the topic or area of inquiry.

Community-centered learning also means that school should not be isolated from the student's life outside of formal education, because much of a child's learning takes place in times and places outside of school. Today's students spend 14% of their time in school and 53% at home or in the community where a third of the time, not counting sleep, is spent watching television. Increasing amounts of time also are devoted to surfing the Web and chatting with friends online (Donovan, Bransford and Pellegrino 1999). So, schools today are challenged to find ways to ensure learning that occurs during non-school time enhances what is learned in school.

Schools as Learning Communities

Today's challenge is to put this research on effective learning into practice. This article discusses three key elements: creating professional learning communities, downsizing schools to build community and using technology effectively.

Creating professional learning communities. It is time to call an end to the era of solo teaching in isolated classrooms. Quality teaching thrives in a supportive environment created by teams of teachers and school leaders working together to improve learning. Teachers must have opportunities to work with their colleagues to critically examine student performance in order to revise and improve instructional practice. A school's best instructors should be encouraged to become lead teachers who can mentor novices during their entry into education.

Working as a team, teachers should ensure that their school's professional development strategy is focused on the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the specific learning needs of the students they work with in a timely fashion. Teachers should also have the opportunity to collaborate with their colleagues in higher education to link the academic knowledge and resources of the university with the practical expertise they have developed in the schools. In addition, online networks of peers indicate that "community" is no longer defined by geography.

Downsizing schools to enhance community. Often, the first step to restructuring is reducing the size of schools. While size alone d'es not make a school good, size d'es appear to be an important factor in creating more effective schools by facilitating practices conducive to learning. For instance:

  • Relationships between students and adults are more personalized, caring and continuous;
  • Relationships with parents are strong and ongoing;
  • The school's organization is flat, with broadly distributed leadership;
  • Most small schools do not attempt to be comprehensive, instead focusing on key educational targets; and
  • Professional development is ongoing, embedded and site-specific.

A growing body of research, including large-scale studies involving thousands of students and hundreds of schools, confirms that small schools lead to improved student achievement and enable educators to realize many of the other goals of school reform (e.g., increased attendance and higher grades). Evidence of student social development and parent and teacher satisfaction are equally compelling (Raywid 1997/98; Wasley and Lear 2001).

Adopting learning technologies. Technology has an important role to play in all areas of school redesigns. For example, technology is essential for bringing the positive attributes of large schools - diversity of courses, teaching expertise, students and extensive resources - to small schools. But the impact of technology g'es even deeper. Modern information technologies allow us to cross a threshold that will profoundly transform teaching. Technology is already making an impact in the following areas:

Presenting content in powerful ways. Technology can help students better understand and apply complex concepts or move beyond what have been intellectual stumbling blocks that hinder understanding. "Simulation and visualization tools can help students recognize patterns, reason qualitatively about physical processes, translate among frames of reference and envision dynamic models. These curricular approaches improve success for all types of learners and may differentially enhance the performance of at-risk students" (Dede 1996). Multiple forms of media can address the learning styles that work best for a particular student. The motivating aspects of interactivity can support student interest and effort.

Supporting just-in-time assessment, as well as personalized learning spaces and tools. Technology helps support learner-centered and assessment-centered learning environments by making it possible to collect and analyze multiple pieces of data about student progress in real time, on a continual basis. While observing students at work has long been a part of a teacher's day, the limits of paper and pencil make it cumbersome and time-consuming to conduct and record multiple observations of every student. Today's handheld tools and Web-based instructional managers enable teachers to track progress on a daily basis. They also let teachers collect work samples and compare these to what the student has done before. Teachers can then contrast the work against norms and goals set for the student, which are linked to state or national standards. Also, data can be assembled to review progress on an entire class. Internet-based instructional managers allow teachers to find instructional support that can help them adapt instruction to the needs of all students.

Building community among teachers, as well as opportunities for their growth and continual learning. Online communities extend the range of collegial support and mentoring available to teachers. These virtual communities provide a new means for sharing and building expertise, breaking down the barriers of time and location that otherwise keep teachers isolated from each other. Networked learning communities can provide options for timely, flexible and targeted professional development, whether they are formal courses or informal links with experts and knowledgeable peers within a school or across a continent. These online communities provide an important benefit to new teachers who find it difficult to achieve the support they need in local schools, as illustrated in projects like Illinois' Novice Teacher Support Project and The University of Texas at Austin's online mentoring program, WINGS Online.

Providing opportunities for broader replication of successful practices. Researchers, teachers, policymakers and parents can all share knowledge through online communities, video exemplars, and other means of communicating and sharing best practices, as well as by discussing common concerns. Online communities of practice are making it possible for redesigned schools to learn from each other's successes and challenges. Less time is spent reinventing the wheel or experiencing the same missteps of those who first pioneered many of these break-the-mold school designs and practices. In breaking down the walls of time and space, we are also breaking down walls that closed out innovation and creativity.

Copies of NCTAF's reports, including "No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America's Children," are available online at


Bransford, J.D., A. Brown and R. Cocking, eds. 1999. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press (NAP).

Dede, C. 1996 "Emerging Tech-nologies and Distributed Learning." The American Journal of Distance Education 10 (2).

Donovan, S., J. Bransford and J. Pellegrino, eds. 1999. How People Learn: Bringing Research and Practice. Washington, D.C.: NAP.

Lemke, C. "EnGauge: 21st Century Skills." 2001. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Online: [July 2002].

Raywid, M.A. 1997/98. "Small Schools: A Reform That Works." Educational Leadership. Dec./Jan.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wasley, P.A. and R.J. Lear. 2001 "Small Schools, Real Gains." Educational Leadership. March.

Changing Schools Into 'Learning Communities'

In NCTAF's 1996 report, "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future," we called for "schools organized for success." Now in our most recent report, "No Dream Denied," we call these schools "learning communities." To transform all schools into learning communities, we recommend the following action steps:

1. Operate schools according to what research tells us about how children learn.

2. Reallocate and appropriate funds to provide teachers and other school leaders with the time, flexibility and resources they need to create and sustain small, well-focused professional learning communities.

3. Reallocate the resources of large low-performing schools to support the creation of small learning communities, breaking down teacher isolation and student anonymity.

4. Select, prepare, retain and reward superintendents, principals, teachers and other school leaders who demonstrate the vision and skill to build schools that can meet 21st century needs.

5. Adopt modern technologies and make use of research findings that enable teachers to diagnose student learning needs and deploy appropriate teaching strategies that customize instruction appropriately.

6. Use Internet-based networked learning communities that allow teachers and students to participate in high-quality learning anytime, anywhere.

7. Use multiple assessments and accountability indicators that give a clear and continuing picture of progress toward student learning goals.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.