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Sam Chaltain


Rethink Learning, Now

Posted: 09/17/09 03:22 PM ET

This fall, as young people across the country settle back into the rhythms and requirements of a new school year, the rest of us might want to heed the words of a former U.S. president and ask ourselves an old question:

“Is our children learning?”

The answer, of course, is that we can’t know for sure, since our education system isn’t even being asked to measure whether or not young people are learning – only whether they are demonstrating progress on basic-skills standardized tests in 3rd and 8th grade reading and math.

As everyone knows, learning involves more than basic skills and regurgitating information. It requires higher-order skills and the capacity to digest, make sense of, and apply what we’ve been taught.

We can do better. We can have schools in every neighborhood that teach children both basic- and higher-order skills, that allow creativity and innovation to flourish, and that lead all children to discover how to fully and effectively participate in our economy and democracy.

Before that can happen, however, we need to start having a different conversation. We need to restore the focus of public education reform to its rightful place – on learning, and on the core conditions that best support it. 

To bring about this subtle shift of thinking, a growing coalition of organizations is asking the nation to help rethink learning now ( by sparking a national conversation about schooling – and how best to improve it so that all children can finally receive, 55 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a high-quality public education.

Aside from releasing three provocative, conversation-starting PSAs (watch them here), the campaign’s first step is to invite people to recount powerful learning experiences and identify the attributes that made those experiences so successful.

Already, the campaign has collected a diverse set of stories – from citizens to Senators to the Secretary of Education himself – and begun outlining a core set of essential conditions for schools to cultivate.

  • Dwayne B. from Maryland wrote about an unlikely spark for his learning experience – a prison cell. “The nonsense that I'd spent hours talking about on street corners was no longer as important and I found myself with a real need to communicate, to understand what was written in the books I'd been reading for years.”
  • Al F. from Minnesota wrote instead about his 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Molin, and the impact she had on her students. “We need to make sure today's students are able to learn in that kind of creative, nurturing environment, so they can find their own passions and become strong, well-rounded adults.”
  • And Arne D. from Chicago talked about spending time in his mother’s after school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago. “Everyone was challenged to do his or her best, every single day,” he wrote. “It was the ultimate in high expectations, both for individuals and the group as a whole.”

In the weeks and months ahead, as the number of stories grows over time, the campaign is representing visually, via a tag cloud, the attributes that appear most often across people’s experiences. The purpose is to identify the core conditions that best support powerful learning so that all of us can be more prepared to ask our lawmakers to institute reforms based more clearly on what young people need in order to thrive – and stay – in school.

Of course, if the campaign’s only plan was to gather stories and assume that by their sheer weight and beauty mountains would move, we’d all be wasting our time. So Rethink Learning Now is following two strategic paths simultaneously - one grassroots, one grasstops - and intending for them to converge as Congress eventually turns its attention to ESEA.

This fall, while people around the country reflect on their personal learning experiences, leaders of the campaign’s supporting organizations will be meeting with each other and with key offices on Capitol Hill, gathering information, refining policy proposals, and establishing the campaign as a way to link the needs of policymakers with the insights of the general public.

The campaign will also sponsor three policy briefings this fall - one for each of the campaign's core pillars: learning, teaching, and fairness. Along the way, campaign supporters will provide feedback on all proposals – and ensure that all recommendations are aligned with the collective insights of the campaign’s participants. Additionally, up to 14 different regional meetings will occur across the country (a calendar will be added to the campaign web site later this fall). And there is early talk of hosting a national convening of all of the campaign's participants sometime next year.

In that sense, the Rethink Learning Now campaign is best understood as a coordinated one-two punch: first, establish clarity around the core objectives of effective school reform: powerful learning, highly-effective teaching, and a system committed to ensuring fairness; and second, take that coordinated energy and apply it toward specific proposals that result in a better, more attuned ESEA that empowers educators to create healthy, high-functioning learning environments.

Join the chorus – and share your voice – at


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