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Paul Reville on Redesigning Education in America

July 2019. GrowthPolicy’s Devjani Roy interviewed Paul Reville, the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education and former Secretary of Education for Massachusetts, on redesigning education in America. | Click here for more interviews like this one.

Links: Paul Reville’s faculty page | Education Redesign Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education (Professor Reville is the Founder and Director) | Twitter | Wikipedia

GrowthPolicy.org. How should we promote economic growth? 

Paul Reville: By developing human capital.  Specifically, we are under-educating large proportions of the population.  These people then become not only unable to participate in driving the growth of the economy, but they become part of a large and growing underclass which must be supported by those who are employed.

GrowthPolicy.org. What should we do about income inequality?

Paul Reville: We should begin widespread experimentation with some form of universal basic income.  With the advent of artificial intelligence and its impact on the jobs market and a growing proportion of the population not sufficiently skilled or educated to earn a middle-class living, we will have to devise better ways and means to support those who have limited or no options to support themselves.  The results of such guaranteed-income experiments, as is happening in Stockton, CA, must be evaluated and closely studied.  Then, income policy and practice should be refined and expanded accordingly.

GrowthPolicy.org. What does the recent college admissions scandal tell us about systemic income inequality within the higher educational system in the U.S.? You have had a distinguished career as a policy maker. What policy reforms do you believe are necessary to correct these inequities?

Paul Reville: The recently exposed criminal behavior of highly privileged families willing to do anything to get their children into elite institutions represents the tip of an iceberg of perfectly legal privilege and opportunity that enables those with ready access to social and financial capital to have unfair advantages in the competition for college admissions. In order to level the playing field, we must guarantee a reasonable floor of family income, strengthen our systems of child development and education to provide all children with ready access to the kinds of support and opportunities now only available to affluent families while at the same time dramatically improving our schools so that they fully prepare all children for college admission, persistence, and completion. This means access to all for high-quality early education and care, health and mental health services, after-school and summer-learning and enrichment, adequate nutrition, stable housing, safe neighborhoods, etc.  In other words, we need systems of support and opportunity that wrap around children, their families, and their high-quality school systems so that every child has the maximum-possible chance to succeed.  We need to build a cradle-to-career, insulated pipeline that ensures every child comes to school every day genuinely ready to learn.

GrowthPolicy.org. In 2015, you founded the Education Redesign Lab with the goal to implement a new learning “engine” based on three core components: expanded, differentiated, and personalized schooling; comprehensive health and well-being support systems; and high-quality and accessible out-of-school learning opportunities. What are some of the Redesign Lab’s recent achievements you are particularly proud of? A follow-up question: At the time of its founding, was there any particular cause(s) or specific impetus that convinced you an initiative to redesign education was necessary?

Paul Reville: I founded the Education Redesign Lab because, notwithstanding two plus decades of expensive, energetic school reform in this country, we have been unable, even in our highest performing states such as Massachusetts, to prepare anything close to all of our students for success in a twenty-first century, high-skill, high-knowledge economy.  I believe that our school-reform strategies from standards-to-choice were necessary but nowhere near sufficient to achieving the appropriate policy goal of “leaving no child behind.” I wanted to change the school-reform conversation to a broader, bolder conception of what it takes, inside and outside of school, to prepare a young person to be successful in twenty-first century America, as a worker, citizen, leader, family head, and lifelong learner.  I was convinced that good schools were a central part of the formula for success but only one part of the equation.  Schools alone, as currently constituted, are insufficient to do the job of “all means all.”  I wanted to press the point that whole communities would need to become engaged in building new systems of opportunity and support to guarantee all children had the same chance to prosper as those who are born into affluence.  I believe that a twenty-first century system must address the challenges and disadvantages posed by poverty.  We need to build a child development and education system that will meet children where they are and give them what they need, inside and outside of school, in order to be successful. This is a moral quest as well as an economic necessity for our economy and society to prosper.

We have worked with a variety of communities across the country, communities in which mayors have made a commitment to dedicate political and financial capital to building such a comprehensive, holistic system for children.  These communities, our laboratories, have all made progress in creating children’s cabinets, gathering data to understand the challenges, identifying resources, building public demand, selecting strategies and implementing elements of new comprehensive systems that meet children where they are and give them what they need.

GrowthPolicy.org. The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in its 2015 cycle tested around 540,000 15-year-old students in 72 countries and economies on science, reading, math, and collaborative problem-solving. Worldwide, the U.S. now ranks 37th in math, 15th in literacy, and 19th in science. What reforms would you suggest to prepare the future U.S. labor force to become more competitive in a world of automation and offshoring?

Paul Reville: To be sure, there are significant achievement gaps which can and should be remedied by improved strategies for teaching and learning.  More importantly, there are huge opportunity gaps which are the cause of achievement gaps—many students do not have access to high-quality learning opportunities inside and outside of school.  The playing field must be leveled.  Building systems of opportunity and support is a prerequisite for all students to learn at high levels.  Families and, especially, communities must be engaged in building these systems.

GrowthPolicy.org. In an opinion piece titled “The Elusive Quest for Equity and Excellence in U.S. School Reform,” you observe, “Those for whom we’ve most conspicuously failed over many decades—students of color and students from low-income backgrounds—have now become the new majority in U.S. public schools.” Where does our education system stand six decades after Brown v. Board of Education? Is the K-12 education system failing economically vulnerable citizens or are you feeling optimistic about the future? 

Paul Reville: The education system as currently constituted is wholly inadequate to the goal imposed on it by policy-makers from the days of Horace Mann, i.e., schools should be the great equalizer in society, the social “balance wheel.”  Schooling, as we know it, is too weak an intervention to achieve this noble aspiration.  We need a more comprehensive, integrated community-based set of strategies, strategies that put students and their families at the center, strategies that customize education and move us away from our “one size fits all” factory model of education.  So, it’s not that schools have failed, but society has failed to provide the authority, scope, resources, and capacity for schools or other entities to be successful in readying students for success.

Schools consume only 20% of a child’s waking hours between kindergarten and high school graduation.  The rest of their waking hours, 80%, (to say nothing of the rest of their lives) is spent in family and community.  Until we improve that ecosystem which has a controlling effect on whether and how a child shows up for school, we have no hope of seeing schools achieve equitable student outcomes.