“The good news is that our schools are doing a better job of doing exactly what we are designed to do than we ever have before,” he said.
The bad news was exactly the same.
“Schools are not designed to do what needs to be done today,” he continued. “We can’t solve tomorrow’s challenges with yesterday’s answers.”
Having delivered the bad news, Harrison was quick to assure the audience of community leaders and educators that the school system was aware that it could not continue to do things the way they have always been done.
“We need to start doing some things differently,” he said.
With the Cumberland County Schools taking the lead in innovation across the state, Harrison’s words carry some weight. He noted that in the past, schools were designed to sort and select students into two categories: the few bosses and the many workers. He explained that the grade “C” stands for compliant, meaning that students who showed up, didn’t rock the boat and put up a minimum effort could succeed. That has changed. He said today’s work force is required to be engaged and to be able to think. It’s comprised of boat rockers.
“So our schools have had to shift from compliance to a model of engagement,” he said. “We don’t worry about the amount of time they are in school, but what they are doing during that time.”
He said that schools can either engage students or enrage them.
Talking about proposed legislation to up the dropout age to 18, Harrison said, “Forcing students who don’t want to be in school is not the answer. We need to reach the point where no student drops out. Raising the dropout age places the emphasis on the wrong place. Rather than forcing them to come longer, we need to find out why they are dropping out.”
He said the Cumberland County Schools went to the students themselves to find the answers, which has resulted in the county having one of the lowest dropout rates in the state.
Harrison said they found that there are three reasons why students drop out: they are not connected; they are not performing academically; they have discipline issues.
“The students who drop out are not connected to a person or program,” he explained. “Students who participate come to school and perform at a higher rate.”
He noted that a simple connection between a student and a teacher can greatly alter a child’s performance.
He said that many students who are not performing do not find the work meaningful or engaging. He referred to his own youth, noting that his parents made sure he learned what the teacher thought was important, adding that today many students do not have that type of support system.
“They have had to assume the responsibility for their own learning at a much younger age,” he said.
Harrison said the schools are working to make the curriculum more engaging by making it more hands-on. He called today’s students digital natives, in that they cannot learn by listening to lectures — they learn by doing. They need immediate feedback. They need to be challenged.
Finally, he noted that a student will either be engaged in something positive or negative. If a student is not performing, he is going to have discipline problems. “We realize we need to do things differently,” he said, giving a nod to some Cumberland County initiatives that have made a huge difference in engaging the students.
He touted the work of the Fuller Academy, the Spanish Immersion Program and the Virtual Public School. He also talked about partnerships with local colleges and initiatives that give students college credit while they are still in high school.
He noted that while the schools are progressing and are changing to meet the needs of the changing society, one thing will not change — the schools will remain a place where students can achieve their dreams.