Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Revolution, Not Evolution: A Conversation with Cameron McCune

Milton Chen discusses with a former school superintendent the radical changes in education that must occur to meet the twenty-first-century needs of our society.

November 15, 2007

Milton Chen

I corresponded recently with Cameron McCune, former superintendent of the Fullerton School District, in Fullerton, California. Here's what he had to say about the direction public education needs to go.

What is your vision for school districts in the twenty-first century?

Schools must change to match the needs of the digital learner and the needs of the world in which we now live. The purpose of school needs to be reinvented, not just modified. Specifically, we need to redefine the role of the teacher, the academic year and school day, and the content and delivery of curriculum.

The ideal school of the twenty-first century will focus on small groups of learners and coaches. This model facilitates learning and creates the bond between teacher and student that keeps both engaged. Thus, the role of the teacher needs to follow the coach model more than the lecturer model. The classical student-teacher ratio of one-to-twenty or one-to-thirty does not support this model.

Cameron McCune

What changes need to occur in terms of school schedules?

The classic agrarian-based school year also does not support the needs of today’s students or society. The typical school day of 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. does not address the facts that the majority of households have two working parents and that many students, particularly those in junior high school, do not perform their best at 8 o’clock in the morning. Three-month summers were too long for me, and they are too long for my thirteen-year-old daughter.

Why are we not adjusting our academic calendars to accommodate the needs of students and families? Instead of forcing schools to account for students’ whereabouts, much like jailers, education should be an open, year-round environment. Students should be free to schedule vacations just like employees of businesses. Instead of everyone taking time off during the summer, students should be able to take advantage of family trips and other opportunities throughout the year, as long as they maintain a minimum number of days of active classroom attendance and participation.

What can we do to make learning more relevant?

Research supports the need for engaging and meaningful curriculum. Existing curriculum, therefore, should be reviewed and revised based on what we now know students need. Research and information-retrieval skills have replaced memorization. There are several areas in which all students should be proficient to be successful. Every child needs good communication and collaboration skills. Critical thinking, problem solving, and savvy decision making are also vital. Being comfortable with technology and its use are critical. Having a global perspective, particularly an understanding of the world’s cultures, is becoming increasingly important, too.

Specifically, what teaching methods do you recommend?

These skills are best acquired through project-based curriculum, which is meaningful and motivating to students and teachers because the activities have a purpose and a result that can be shared with others. Similar to what occurs in the working world today, good academic projects are undertaken by a team of learners with a coach.

Communication skills develop while working with others. Students should be able to select projects that interest them and change working groups based on common interests, regardless of the classroom or the teacher. Of course, projects should be categorized so students choose work that ensures they are being exposed to pertinent curriculum. Their work and schedule should be evaluated and modified regularly.

How can we take better advantage of technology to help manage learning?

The idea is that students would move at a challenging pace with their coach, and parents would constantly monitor and counsel kids for success. Programs such as PowerSchool can facilitate this communication by sending automatic notifications to students and parents, alerting them of progress, attendance, and upcoming opportunities. Parents and students can access a student’s progress 24/7 via the Internet and communicate with coaches via email or videoconferencing. The concept of all eighth graders or twelfth graders graduating at the same time could become obsolete.

Some learning can also take place outside of traditional classrooms via the Internet. Computer-aided instruction, with appropriate monitoring, works well for attaining basic math skills. New software such as My Access takes away the drudgery of writing for students and editing for coaches. Supervised areas for children should be developed where students can work independently but under supervision.

What role should innovative practices, such as project-based learning, cooperative learning, and technology integration, play?

Technology is a tool, and its use should be ubiquitous and transparent. We need to make the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and culture fun, engaging, and meaningful. This is best done using simulations, projects, and teams led by students and monitored by learning coaches. In traditional grade configurations, such as K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-11, and 12, students should systematically and incrementally be given more responsibility for leading projects. The groups should be fluid and change based on the project and student interests.

What policies are needed to create twenty-first-century school districts at the federal, state, and local levels?

We have developed a rigid system that promotes the status quo instead of a fluid one that adapts to the needs of students, parents, and staff. Employee organizations have become very powerful and are geared toward protecting jobs and structure instead of developing and implementing new standards. Evolutionary change will not work at this point: We need a major revolution in education.

What is an appropriate level of funding for a district such as one the size of the Fullerton School District (about 14,000 students)? What should districts spend less on in order to invest in what happens in the classroom?

When education becomes a national priority on a par with security, the whole issue of funding will be unnecessary. Clearly, there is huge disparity in funding across the United States. State and federal controls need to be withdrawn so communities have more control over funding. When students are meeting standards of achievement, state and federal oversight should be minimal. Outside review is appropriate only when students are not meeting these standards.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

The Superintendent as Mentor: A New Job Description for School District Leaders

The role of the superintendent is unrealistic and needs to change. The expectation that someone can be the ultimate teacher, principal, business manager, finance expert, facilities expert, and personnel manager for a $100 million-plus-a-year organization is unrealistic.

Boards of education, and the public, have no idea what a good superintendent does -- and, unfortunately, many superintendents don’t either. Leadership is critical to the success of an organization, yet, instead of leadership, some boards and superintendents believe the role is to simply be a good manager. In either case, unlike as in the case of most corporations, we don’t give them sufficient training.

School principals, the talent pool from which superintendents are generally chosen, have all previously worked as either instructors or specialists, such as special education teachers. They are expected to be consummate educators first, able to give advice on the practice of instruction and evaluate its results. They are expected to coach teachers, manage facilities, and support personnel. They also are expected to have excellent public relations skills for dealing with parents and the community. Yet, instead of moving them into positions that would give them additional opportunities for growth, many districts leave them in one place for years.

I believe education would be better served if it were restructured to divide personnel management and business administration, as is common in the medical industry. For example, hospital CEOs are usually not people who started out as nurses or doctors. They are trained administrators who run the facility. They do not supervise the professional staff.

Applying this model to school districts would require major changes in expectations from communities and from the education professionals, but in the long term it would be better for education. If this model was accepted, superintendents from diverse backgrounds could be successful leaders. -- Cameron McCune

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