Pittsburgh’s Big Bet

How much risk are we willing to take to help our children thrive in the future that's ahead of them?

“As a country, our biggest bet on the future is our public schools.”

—Stacey Childress and Meghan Amrofell, NewSchools Venture Fund

In many ways, starting a new year is like walking into a casino: There’s an air of excitement and uncertainty, of celebration and anxiety. There’s a lot to gain and plenty to lose. We put our chips down in the form of resolutions, placing bets on ourselves in hopes of a payoff. It’s a time for strategy, risk, and audaciousness; we bring our goals, fears, doubts, and dreams to the table and we sit down to play the game.

But imagine, for a moment, that there’s a problem here. Some casino tables are sure-fire winners — those lucky enough to sit at one are nearly guaranteed a jackpot. Those at the others, though, aren’t so lucky. Their gains are smaller. Some fall behind; others barely break even. Some get frustrated and give up the game altogether. Some fight to find a better table, only to be funneled into a lottery and made to wait. And if they do hit it big, we talk about how they “beat the odds” and how the cards were stacked against them.

Sound familiar?

It’s the scenario faced by millions of learners every year.

“Most of our current K-12 schools were designed for a different time and purpose: teaching basic knowledge and skills to the vast majority of students destined for work in the early-to-mid-20th century economy, with an elite few moving on to higher education,” write Stacey Childress and Meghan Amrofell in “Reimagining Learning: A Big Bet on the Future of American Education.” Released in December by NewSchools Venture Fund, the report argues that “These familiar schools worked well enough for many Americans for several generations, but they consistently underserved others, especially Black, Latino, and low-income students.”

What’s needed, the authors say, is a fundamental rethinking of our hypothetical casino — a learning revolution akin to the vision articulated by groups like Education Reimagined and New Profit. “Educators all over the country are reimagining learning to better meet this generation’s needs, rethinking classrooms and schools so they work better for students,” write Childress and Amrofell. To support these innovations, they propose that funders pool their resources and place a $4 billion “big bet” on a common vision: a future in which learning as we know it is remade so that every high school graduate has the freedom, knowledge, and skills they need in order to pursue their dreams. Getting there, they posit, will require innovative classrooms where technology supports learning; where kids build trusting, motivating relationships with peers and adults; where students drive learning in ways that connect to their interests and passions; and where success means not only academic mastery, but also creativity, empathy, and resiliency.

In their words, “It’s an exciting time for innovation in education.”

I couldn’t agree more. And nowhere is that excitement more palpable than right here in Pittsburgh, where the 250 schools, museums, and other organizations that comprise the Remake Learning Network have transformed the region itself into a 21st-century classroom.

Their efforts, some a decade in the making, have paid off. The Labs — creative tech hubs for teens run by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — began as an experiment funded by small grants. Today, three locations help thousands of learners build robots, shoot films, and record music. The region’s many maker spaces, including the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, are training a new generation of builders and designers, leading some to declare a manufacturing renaissance. Five local school districts have now joined Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, a national network of innovative, forward-thinking education leaders who work to enhance modern learning. And last May, the Remake Learning Days kickoff event saw philanthropies, businesses, and governments commit more than $25 million to innovative learning. Over the course of the week that followed, more than 30,000 people attended hundreds of community-based events to take part in the sea change themselves, leading everyone from Forbes to the World Economic Forum to take notice.

But there’s much more to be done. Of the many compelling data points detailed in NewSchools’ report, perhaps none embody the urgency of our work more than this: “[Of] the 11.6 million jobs created since the recession ended in 2010, only 80,000 went to people with a high school diploma or less.”

Think about that: That’s less than 1 percent of all new jobs. Without a degree or modern credentials, today’s high school graduates are more likely to win big at the poker table than to find work that fuels their passions.

It’s not a bet we’re willing to take. That’s why the Remake Learning Network is broadening its efforts this year, forging new partnerships and programs to engage, inspire, and empower more lifelong learners than ever before. Working groups within the Network are collaborating to share best practices in maker education, computer science, and innovative professional development. With a core focus on equity and inclusion, member organizations such as Sisters e S.T.E.A.M and YMCA’s Lighthouse Project are bringing high-tech programming to girls and under-served communities. Remake Learning Days is expanding, too, with 12 themed days set to explore everything from art to technology to outdoor learning.

It is indeed an exciting time for innovation in education, and we invite you to join us in the joys of remaking learning.

It’s going to be an incredible year.

I’ll bet you that much.

Published January 13, 2017

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