Brian Troop

Brian Troop

Change in K-12 public education is inherently difficult and painfully complex. Schools are an extension of our government and, as such, are subject to legislative oversight, rule-making and accountability structures, many of which were not developed by educators or were put in place decades ago. The needs of society in the rapidly changing world of today require more than standardized test performance by students.

Preparing young people to be life-ready in 2022 requires a different tool kit than it did in years past. During simpler times, a school’s mission was to instill each graduate with specific content knowledge. In contrast, today’s world is content-rich. Most of us carry phones that can provide access to all the information in the world within a few seconds. In the “information age,” the market value of content has taken a nosedive. This certainly doesn’t mean schools don’t need to deliver appropriate and rigorous content, but it does suggest that the emphasis has shifted from what individuals know to how well they can apply it.

Additionally, the dispositions that have always been valued within schools, communities and workplaces have proven to be invaluable over the last two years. After all, we have all been asked to demonstrate flexibility, adaptability, resilience and grit on numerous occasions throughout the pandemic.

The application of skills is valued in the real world, beyond school. I suspect most employers rank skills such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration over SAT scores and a high school GPA when it comes to what they look for in their future employees. In a world where everyone has the right answer, how someone can apply that answer to solve a problem or contribute to a team are the differentiators in the 21st-century workplace.

Unfortunately, public education has been held captive by high-stakes testing designed to value knowledge acquisition over knowledge application.

Since 2016, the Ephrata Area School District has made a conscious decision to focus beyond standardized tests and invest in the knowledge, skills and dispositions all students will need for success in life. After thoughtful review of research, we collaborated with local and county chambers of commerce members, business leaders, alumni, Rotary participants and others to create the EASD Life Ready Graduate profile, which sets new targets for our students. While this is an important first step, identification alone won’t get us where we need to go.

It is a growing priority of district leaders across the country to support instructional design that promotes authentic application and higher levels of engagement from students. Supporting teachers as they explore new instructional strategies, the creative use of technology, and the incorporation of authentic projects and design challenges is a necessary step for districts serious about making this change.

In recent years, school districts like Ephrata have worked hard to develop and strengthen partnerships with local businesses and community organizations. Bringing employers into the classroom and sending students into the workplace is a win-win proposition. Authentic exposure to the real-life application of content improves engagement while helping to inform future career decisions. Additionally, school and business partnerships allow businesses to demonstrate their shared investment in a strong community and the future workforce.

Recently, our work on the changes described above has earned Ephrata Area School District recognition by The School Superintendents Association as one of 13 districts nationally designated “Lighthouse” systems offering models of positive change in public education. While Ephrata may have earned this designation, we recognize how fortunate we are to be a part of the broader Lancaster-Lebanon educational community, full of districts and educators who are committed to moving in this direction.

One example is provided by Career Ready Lancaster! That partnership has championed additional graduate traits with its “High Five,” a collection of five critical skills that lead to school and work success: communication, resilience, integrity, problem-solving and teamwork. It is our collective hope that this common language among school districts and the common goal of skill development through authentic application will help continue to fuel efforts across the region.

Leading change in our public education system is a daunting task, but maybe the time is right for a realignment to the needs of our students and the demands of our workforce. Taking steps to prioritize skills and dispositions over knowledge acquisition may lead to a more engaged student body and a better prepared set of graduates. Granted, efforts in this direction may pull resources away from preparing for annual standardized testing. However, we believe this is exactly the direction our communities and students need us to go.

Brian Troop, Ed.D., is superintendent of Ephrata Area School District

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