“Foundations” is an occasional series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Christopher Shearer is an officer with the Foundation’s Education Program, which makes grants to improve K-12 and higher education. Along with its work on improving California education and extending the reach of open educational resources, the Program expanded its focus in 2010 to support the spread of “deeper learning”—a combination of the fundamental knowledge and skills all students will need to succeed in work and life.

Before joining the Foundation last summer, Shearer was the associate executive director of the National Geographic Society’s Education Foundation, which promotes geographic literacy in the United States and Canada. Previously, he was on the staff of the Institute for Educational Leadership’s National Health and Education Consortium and served as executive assistant to the president of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Why should the United States be concerned by the poor showing of its high school students on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the most recent international exam of reading, math, and science literacy?

When you look at the essentials of what our Education Program calls “deeper learning”—mastery of core academic content, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, communication, and learning to learn—students in the United States are doing demonstrably worse than the top-performing students in the world. That’s a problem—and the reason I think the nation is reacting so strongly to these new test results.

If you dig into the data, you realize that U.S. students do well in memorization compared with peers in other countries. But when they’re asked to apply that knowledge to new situations, they don’t just drop in the rankings: they fall off the charts. It’s not as though we’re hanging on to our competitiveness. We’re bad at these things. In some cases, the United States is not just out of the top ten; we’re below the sixty-five-nation global average. These standings matter, and this is not where the United States is used to being. And then there’s a new political urgency to the results now that mainland China’s students are taking PISA and not just doing OK, not just beating us: they’re number one.

Economic researchers tell us that a country’s GDP is closely linked to its PISA scores. A twenty-five-point gain in PISA scores—on a scale where 500 is always the international average—would translate into $45 trillion in economic growth for the United States over the next generation. So, that puts an exclamation point on our poor showing: if we want to improve our standing in today’s competitive global economy, the nation must raise its scores.

How is the Education Program working with PISA to help turn things around?

The Foundation is making grants to advance reforms that will build precisely the kinds of skills that PISA tests. We’re also funding analyses of how U.S education policies impede innovation in deeper learning or could be improved to provide incentives for better achievement.

When the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which runs PISA, approached the Foundation with the idea of creating what it calls “PISA for Schools,” it was awarded one of the first deeper learning grants last year. The idea is to measure how students compare internationally at the school level.

“PISA for Schools” will also allow school-to-school comparisons. As a voluntary test, it should be a very effective way for local reformers to look closely at deeper learning goals and measure their schools’ progress against known benchmarks. The test is still in development.

What is the Education Program’s grantmaking strategy to help accomplish its deeper learning goals?

Our three-part strategy is to make grants in the areas of policy improvement, instructional practice, and proof points for deeper learning. The Foundation intends to support research, analysis, and advocacy to identify both the policy barriers to deeper learning instruction and the incentives that might encourage it to take root. In addition, we plan to invest in the innovative classroom materials, assessments, teacher training, and technology needed for the practice of teaching deeper learning.

At the same time, we’re funding a network of exemplary campuses to show how deeper learning works in real schools—schools that we’re calling “proof points.” At the High Tech High charter schools in San Diego, California, for example, students follow personalized learning plans and build digital portfolios of their work to demonstrate academic, workplace, and citizenship skills.

For the Foundation, it’s a virtuous circle. Policy improvements can make room for more innovative practice, which makes room for more schools to act as models, which then helps show the way to continuously improve the system. It’s all mutually reinforcing.

A number of the Education Program’s grants this year are aimed at developing new assessments at all levels. What role do assessments play in the Deeper Learning strategy?

Testing in the United States signals what counts in the classroom: what gets tested is what gets taught. Right now, the country is not signaling that the mix of knowledge and skills matters—only rote memorization and basic knowledge. So, as a first order, improved efforts at testing what really matters will pressure the education system to reform not just measures of student performance but also measures of teacher and school accountability.

In addition to OECD’s “PISA for Schools” project, the Foundation is funding state testing partnerships that are developing rich, timely assessments based on the Common Core standards—the new nationwide guidelines for what students should be taught in math and English/language arts. They’ve already been adopted by forty-three states. Some very smart researchers have analyzed these standards for the Foundation and determined that they serve as a great grounding for deeper learning knowledge and skills. These new multi-state tests will be used to influence the way students are taught as well as to make schools accountable for teaching what students need to learn to be successful in careers, college, and life after school.

Working on testing is like setting a new goal—a more realistic, rigorous goal—so it will be quite clear what improvements are needed. At first, we don’t think all students will do as well as they should on new tests because they simply haven’t been prepared very well yet. But these results should provide the impetus to look back and see what we need to change.

Testing is also an equity issue for the Foundation. At one time, only a small group of people were taught to analyze, solve problems, and communicate well in order to succeed as managers, professionals, and executives. Now, the country needs many, many more people applying those skills in all types of jobs. Today, testing results at the proof points schools we support show that kids from all sorts of difficult situations can master high-level skills. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Envision Schools, where two out of every three kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, students rank much higher overall on state exams than do peers with similar backgrounds. Eighty-four percent of Envision graduates were accepted to four-year colleges in 2009.

What will U.S. schools look like if deeper learning takes root?

I think that schools will be much more engaging, much more collaborative. The student will truly be the center of learning efforts. There will be less of the teacher as the sage on the stage and more of the teacher as the facilitator, the challenger, and the enabler.

If you visit some of the schools the Foundation is supporting now, you’ll see kids really talking to each other in class about tough tasks. They’re not sitting in rows at desks; they’re sitting in groups. If they don’t agree with something, they’re speaking out, challenging each other. They’re using computers and new technology whenever they like. They’re very animated.

When I was in school, you’d go to the principal’s office for this kind of behavior. In these schools, it’s normal. And, you know, it should be normal. Every kid deserves to be engaged in deeper learning. And we know they’ll need this ability to succeed when they graduate, and our country will need them to have it if we’re all to succeed.

Click here to read Christopher Shearer’s bio.


March/April 2011 Newsletter