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From Common Core to Common Sense: The Next American Educational Revolution

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When we talk about the critical need to restore America's bridges and roads it usually involves asphalt and concrete. But another massive revitalization project under way centers upon improving two bridges - between education to employment and high school to college.

Working with educators and workforce leaders every day, I am seeing the emergence of an exciting new model replacing America's dated industrial-era factory-schools. Three areas giving me hope are the:

  • Rise of competency-based education
  • Shift from abstract learning to practical application (moving from what you know to what you can do)
  • Drive to measure employment outcomes in education

When I was earning my master's at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the early 90's there was a raging war between competency-based education and standardized testing. Standardized testing won with the unintended consequence of teaching to the test. Consequently, young graduates entered the workforce with "know what" instead of "know how" and employers discovered they lacked experiential skills. Today, I'm seeing schools stepping up to address and address these gaps. The State of Florida provides high school students access to IT certifications for Microsoft, Adobe, AutoDesk, Apple, Cisco, CIW and Oracle. Think about that for a moment. Students leave high school with a credential that is not only industry-recognized, but industry-valued.

In 2012, SNHU was named the 12th most innovative company - not college, company - in the world. Their approach to revolutionizing education provides the necessary change to advance the American educational system. I visited SNHU's Innovation Lab recently and was impressed by their mission to reduce educational costs while increasing access and improving student success. Their competency-model for college education directly addresses the needs of employers.

Congressional debate on reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act of 1988 has shown a rare area of agreement between both sides of the aisle; the next workforce investment act must drive more employer-centric activity and outcomes. The Gainful Employment Act of 2011 holds educational institutions receiving federal financial aid accountable for "gainful employment in a recognized occupation." For nearly all of us, college has become too expensive to gamble on sustainable employment outcomes.

High schools are integrating college courses into their schedules to better prepare students for the bridge to college. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reports that 60% of college freshmen require remedial classes in English or mathematics. Here's one idea: what if we eliminated senior year of high school and replaced it with freshman year of college? According to the U.S. Census, we spend $10,560 a year per student, ranging from a high of $19,076 in New York, to a low of $6,212 in Utah. What if we redirected this into college education? Berea College in Kentucky costs $1,070 for the 2013-14 school year and ranks 76th in the U.S. News and World Report for National Liberal Arts Colleges.

These transformations will also certainly produce unintended consequences -- just as standardized testing has. Having lunch with two teachers at the Education Innovation Conference in Napa, California earlier this year, one shared how excited she was to be equipping all first year teachers with iPads. In the same breath, she shared how often this technology exceeded what the school's IT teams and infrastructure could support. I asked her how that really improved teaching and learning. She looked puzzled, as if technology, in and of itself, was sufficient. It's not.

The other teacher came from a Waldorf school and was there to critically consider the appropriate role technology should play in their curriculum. On one side I witnessed a teacher driving change for the digital classroom faster than could be assimilated. On the other side I encountered a critical observer watching, listening and learning who was asking, "What really matters?"

I am concerned about the risks technology brings to the classroom that may result in the dehumanization and depersonalization of education. I remain concerned about the risks of corporations entering the classroom. And, I remain concerned about our lack of progress in addressing inequity in opportunity and access to technology.

It's important to reflect on where we are, and where we choose to go. We need to continue to question what we want the purpose of education to be. I think few believe that schools should be reduced exclusively to a pathway to work, but, let me ask you, are we producing better workers, better citizens, better critical thinkers, better community builders and better human beings as a result of all our efforts? How might we do better to transform education?

I say the same thing to the people on my teams as I say to almost every workforce, economic, education and business leader I meet with: "I believe we can do better. Now let's do better."

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the "Close It" Summit, in conjunction with the upcoming "Close It" Summit (Nov. 5-7, 2013, in Washington, D.C.). The summit will address the U.S. job-market skills gap. For more information on the conference, please visit www.closeit.org.