Rethinking American Schools

The world looks very different today than it did when our current school system was designed. Ours is no longer an agricultural economy; we rely on skills over content knowledge; we carry computers in our pockets. And, as times have changed, our school systems’ shortcomings are showing. In order to serve all students in the 21st century, the very concept of school must change.

The time has come to reimagine school. The good news is that there is a growing community of talented people working to do just that: President Obama recently called for a transformation of the high school experience; the Emerson Collective launched XQ: The Super School Project; and at CityBridge Foundation, we are tackling this challenge for students across the District of Columbia.

In 2013, in partnership with Next Generation Learning Challenges, CityBridge launched Breakthrough Schools: D.C., a Washington, D.C.-based grant competition for educators and school leaders to completely redesign and launch schools for the next generation. Two years into this initiative, we have begun to see what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to redesigning our education system for a modern society.

We have identified four guiding principles for this work:

The Inspiration: Seeing personalized learning models in action has been, without exception, a transformational experience for the teachers and school leaders with whom we work. Showing, rather than telling, is more powerful for educators than we ever imagined.

The Mental Model: The backbone of Breakthrough Schools: D.C. and our other signature initiatives, the Education Innovation Fellowship and School Retool, is the Stanford d.School’s model for design thinking. Designed to reward iteration and action, this model gives educators and school leaders a path for moving from the present to the future.

The Safe Space: We believe failure is a necessary part of the path to success, and we’ve learned that educators and school leaders need a safe space to innovate — without the high stakes of a school environment. As a third party, CityBridge can provide a safe space for teachers to “fail fast” in service of greater success down the line.

The Expertise: We have found it essential to support our teacher and school partners with a network of experts who can serve as resources during the design thinking — and execution — process. In our programs, these partners range from experts in specific design elements (such as competency-based learning), to “connectors” with access to a broad talent network, to school leaders who have already designed or redesigned a school.

It is clear that our education system is long overdue for a change. Total transformation needs to be part of the recipe of reform — and now, it is more important than ever that we share our differing journeys to reaching this goal.

Mieka Wick
Executive Director, CityBridge Foundation