05/04/2013 07:13 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

Bricks and Mortar and Radical Change

After reading but just a few of the Carnegie Corporation Reports over the last several years, it is clear that almost everything about the current educational system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

You don't need a PhD in math, for example, to know that part of the formula for giving young people skills the workplace demands, starts with a place that is cool; that is hip, that it is a place where kids want to be. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2009 infrastructure report, gave the country's school buildings a grade of 'D.' Not surprisingly, the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities found that "About one-fourth (28 percent) of all public schools were built before 1950, and 45 percent of all public schools were built between 1950 and 1969."

Almost 10 years ago in a report on school design, the Carnegie Corporation put it bluntly, "the 'obsolete 'factory model' schools of yesteryear (must be transformed) into schools that meet the individual learning needs of each student."

Sir Ken Robinson, at The Aspen Institute asked even more poitedly, "Is 'Modern' Schooling a Relic of the Industrial Age?" Yes, it probably is he said, and it worked well for that age, but things have dramatically changed in what is now a global, knowledge-based, economy.

Yet as the Carnegie report argued, it's more than just the buildings. Yes the building are old, but the very definitions of education; it's pedagogy, its curriculum are even older.

At the time, Constancia Warren, then head of the urban high school initiatives at Carnegie observed:

At the heart of schools for a new society is the concept of district reform, reflecting the understanding that in order to improve education for all students, entire school districts must change the way they deploy their resources--fiscal, organizational and political--to support high schools. Each community uses approaches tailored specifically to its students' individual and collective needs to achieve these goals.

More recently, in a report calling for New Models for School Success, Carnegie said:

School redesign is an ambitious response to the challenge of the Common Core, but nothing less will capitalize fully on this extraordinary opportunity and produce the realignment of resources needed to provide all high school students, including those who are under-prepared, with powerful, personalized learning. Single efforts--even important ones like improving the quality of teaching--will be insufficient to the needs of the mil- lions of young people whose future depends on getting a strong secondary education over the coming decade.

In Finland, where the students consistently outperform the rest of the world on math, science and reading scores, "The buildings,' according to Education Week, 'are laid out in clusters, with multiple gathering places inside and out. In part, this is necessity: While American schools are cutting recess, Finish schools set aside a 15-minute break after every 45-minute lesson, coupled with a half-hour lunch break, even though they traditionally have shorter school days overall than those in the United States."

The campus the Finns' have developed is inviting. So too is the curriculum and the approach the Finns take to educating their young. Indeed, the whole system is extremely student-centered, and presents a "radically different model of educational reform...they also mandate lots of arts and crafts, more learning by doing, rigorous standards for teacher certification, higher teacher pay, and attractive working conditions."

There are clearly some things a small country like Finland can do that we cannot. But there is still a lot we can learn in our effort at the transformation of our schools. As Carnegie makes clear:

States and districts must act now to design schools that use their most valuable resources--teaching, technology, time, and money--in new ways, so that educators have the resources to motivate, engage, and guide all young people toward graduation and further education or training.

Education issues are real and they are urgent, and fortunately, parents, politicians and educators are struggling to better define the issues and seek solutions in earnest. It's now not just a matter of success, but survival.