What does a modern school look like?

Traditional schools were designed in the industrial age to provide a basic education and then rank and sort students to determine who gets to go to college. Modern schools are designed for different purposes: to support each student to be successful. This is captured by the phrase ‘all students college and career ready’. It means students are lifelong learners, have academic knowledge, and the ability to apply it in different contexts.

Redesigning schools to meet these very different aims means revisiting schools’ culture, structure, and pedagogy. At first, this seems like a lot to take on! But it doesn’t have to happen all at once. There are countless examples around the country of teams who have dramatically and successfully changed how they “do school.” The first step in this process is having a vision for what a modern school could actually look like. While there’s no single model (each school has to respond to the needs of its community), there are common features that can lead to improvements in quality and equity. Just like for classrooms, it’s helpful to think about these features in the categories of culture, structure, and pedagogy. (Hint: read the section on “what does a modern classroom look like?” first.)

Culture Shared vision School communities develop a shared vision for the future. Visions emphasize expanded definitions of student success, educational equity, and supporting all students to thrive.
Distributed leadership Schools share leadership amongst educators, students and the community. Leaders delegate responsibility and decision-making, recognize and support good ideas, provide leadership development and offer opportunities for advancement.
Community connection Schools create sustainable structures for collaboration with communities. Teachers work alongside community to connect learning with students’ realities. Schools engage community as partners in planning, in learning, and in ongoing improvement.
Structure Collaboration and professional learning Teachers are no longer isolated and responsible for trying to meet the needs of all the students in their classrooms by themselves. Schools carve out dedicated time for collaboration and schoolwide strategies to respond to students. Professional learning is personalized for teachers to help them improve their practice. Like students, teachers own and direct their learning.
Transparent learning systems Schools have a transparent continuum of learning. A continuum of learning shows the progression of standards or competencies leading to student outcomes, and defines what students will know and be able to do at every performance level.
Flexible resources Schools are able to allocate resources – people, time, space, money, and technology – to ensure students make progress on personal learning paths. Resources flex to meet student needs.
Continuous improvement Schools have systems and structures in place to “fine tune” teaching and learning. This includes ensuring all teachers have the same definition of proficiency, having processes to study data (including observation) on student learning, and having protocols to continually improve teaching and learning.
Pedagogy Shared instructional framework Schools have a common instructional framework describing expectations for teaching and learning. Schools have robust curriculum that promotes rigor, relevance, and personalization.
System of assessments Schools use multiple types of assessments: formative, performance, and summative. Schools provide timely transparent feedback about student learning and communicate progress to multiple stakeholders.


Questions to Consider

  • In what ways does your school or schools in your district reflect these features? How did you get here? How can you build on these strengths?
  • In what ways does your school or schools in your district differ from these features? Why might differences exist? What might it look like to change?
  • How do culture, structure, and pedagogy fit together? What connections do you see between the individual features of a modern school?
  • Select a feature from each category. Think about the identities, assets, and needs of your students. What might these features look like in practice in your school or district?
  • What new knowledge and skill will teachers and leaders need to begin making these shifts? What new skills will students need? Families?