One of the many highlights of our visit to the US was the opportunity to spend some time with Gary Plano Superintendent of Mercer Island School District and elected School Board member Lisa Strauch Eggers.
Mercer Island sits in the middle of Lake Washington – a 6 square mile suburban community 10 minutes drive from downtown Seattle. According to Gary, Mercer Island is the home of ‘the most expensive dirt in Washington State’. It would therefore not surprise you to find that in terms of attainment it is the top performing school district in the State. However, what might surprise you about MISD is that rather than being complacent and playing safe it has embraced radical change as the only way to stay at the top.
MISD is in the process of creating a shared vision for 2020 that it hopes will lead to the successful preparation of all students for the cognitive, global and digital world. The current form of words for a ‘possible new mission statement’ is:
‘Mercer Island School District, in partnership with the community, commits to creating a personalised learning environment with a flexible, dynamic curriculum that inspires students to achieve ambitious, individual academic and personal development goals in order to prepare them to thrive and lead in the new, highly interconnected cognitive, global and digital world.’
This is really great to see in a country where the high stakes testing and accountability agenda embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act has had a narrowing effect on the curriculum and acts as a disincentive to teacher creativity and professionalism.
The only other place have seen this approach in the US was in a couple of private schools I visited last year. It would seem that those who come to school already with the greatest advantage get the opportunity to have the best preparation for life in the 21st Century. While those who arrive at school already disadvantaged get an education that was barely adequate for the last 30 years of the 20th Century. The No Child Left Behind Act does not apply to the private sector in the US (just like the National Curriculum is not compulsory for independent schools in England). This means that MISD will have to introduce a 21st Century curriculum and continue to do well in the traditional attainment tests. I think this is perfectly possible. To my mind the converse cannot be true, i.e. to have a curriculum that is driven by the need to pass tests whilst at the same time to preparing our young people life, work and citizenship in the 21st Century.