Valley Voices

Michael W. Niehoff: Valley students must demand 21st-century teaching or nothing will change

History teacher Sue Gularte talks with new students, from left, Daniella Guerra, Hnub Lee and Katie Yang, on the first day of classes at the new Phillip J. Patino School of Entrepreneurship. Students are often seated in groups, rather than traditional long rows to encourage group cooperation.
History teacher Sue Gularte talks with new students, from left, Daniella Guerra, Hnub Lee and Katie Yang, on the first day of classes at the new Phillip J. Patino School of Entrepreneurship. Students are often seated in groups, rather than traditional long rows to encourage group cooperation. jwalker@fresnobee.com

I am writing as both an educator and community member to express concern about the lack of real educational reform and change in our secondary classrooms, especially in our local region.

I have been a high school educator for more than two dozen years and have been fortunate to work in a variety of instructional and leadership positions in several districts and schools. Throughout my career, I have worked tirelessly to provide all students with real-world and relevant experiences that would inform them both professionally and personally about their future lives. I also know that there are countless educators everywhere working nonstop to do their best for their students.

However, in recent years, our economy and other systems have undergone tremendous technological, pedagogical and social change. These changes are demanding significant transformations in our secondary classrooms. When discussing the educational goals of our high school programs, we generally use the terms college- and career-ready. Our education and professional communities have responded to these changes with new standards, assessments, accountability systems, technology, resources and more.

But with all the change and demand for reforms, most of our high school classrooms remain unchanged. While technology has been evolving dramatically in our “outside-of-school” lives, many classrooms are ignoring this. Or, if they are using technology, they are typically doing low-level work that may be digital, but not truly transformative.

Indeed, in many cases, we see the same old textbooks, lectures, notes, tests/quizzes, worksheets, essays and rows that we have seen for years. Most of our classrooms look and feel the same as they have for decades. They are not indicative of the culture, dynamic or skills for 21st-century workplace environments.

Naturally, there are exceptions. For example, hats off to Fresno Unified for the newest high school – Patino School of Entrepreneurship. And we do have others – mostly some charter schools, small schools and specialized programs such as CART, Minarets High School, Riverdale High School, career technical education or regional occupational programs and hundreds of teacher-led class programs – that are embracing the 21st-century pedagogy and mindsets.

I applaud schools like Coalinga High School, which just provided a Macbook Air for each student in the 1,100-member student body, which is called 1:1 for short. Laton High School just went 1:1 with Chromebooks. And, of course, there are others who are working to make the necessary changes, reforms and transformations.

But there are major current educational movements across our country that are almost nonexistent in our region. These include things like design thinking, project-based learning, the maker movement, #20 time projects, personalized learning, digital portfolios, new literacies such as social media – just to name a few.

Many of our high school students are being ill-prepared for the 21st-century workplace. Students may begin to opt more often for online classrooms or other alternative settings while waiting for their neighborhood schools to respond to 21st-century demands.

I do not have enough confidence that real reform will take place until one thing happens: Students must demand it. Just like all of our great social movements, nothing will happen globally until the people who are affected the most rise up and say, “No more.”

Our high school students need to be enlightened on just what they have a right to expect educationally and then approach their education from a students’ rights issue, or even a human rights issue. More than ever, we have the opportunity for real change.

We have the funding, available technology and partnerships. All of our students should have daily access to technology, real-world applications, professional mentors and 21st-century professional experiences. Students should be equipped with information related to their rights and what they need to be truly college and career ready. Our students will have to be able to articulate for themselves what they want and need related to their education. And when they do, I think we will finally see real change.

I have always believed that education is empowerment. Well, we need to empower our students to transform our schools. We have great leaders and educators in our community. Our Fresno County superintendent of schools, Jim Yovino, is championing many great things including career technical education and the arts – and rightly so. We also have strong organizations, like Fresno Building Healthy Communities, involved in advancing opportunities for all of our students. But these folks cannot do it alone. We need everyone involved to demand massive reform and transformation. We need greater collective will and commitment to give our students the relevant education they so desperately need and deserve.

And maybe most importantly, we need to hear from our students. Ultimately, the student voice will be the one powerful enough to ultimately to make a difference. Now, more than ever, I think we need to empower them and then listen to them.

Michael W. Niehoff of Friant is a systems and leadership coach in the curriculum and instruction division with the Fresno County Office of Education.

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