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Introducing a Special Report on Education

How are schools adapting to the new demands of the 21st century?

smithsonian.com

You might not know it from the news reports, but there's never been a more exciting time to be going to school in America. Innovations abound, from the way we teach math to the way we teach teachers, from how kids get to school to the actual design of the buildings. The global economic climate has sparked an intense desire to focus on traditionally second-string subjects, like science, technology and engineering. And structural experimentation in blended learning, charter schools and virtual classrooms are evolving the very idea of what public education should look like.

Perhaps most importantly, we are in the midst of a cultural shift around the way Americans think and talk about our children's educations. Decades of stagnant performance and declining economic mobility have given rise to discussions about how to give all students in the U.S. the opportunities they need to be successful, a mission that has attracted thousands of ambitious and creative educators, entrepreneurs and policymakers. If this all sounds very blue sky, well, that's the point—as with all periods of intense change and innovation, American public education today is a chaotic, emotional place, and we're still learning about what true global competitiveness will mean for our schools and students.

Already, we can see bright spots coloring the education landscape, places where dynamic ideas, fascinating people and hard work are aligning to transform education for American kids. For this special report, “Educating Americans for the 21st Century,” Smithsonian.com has gathered a diverse collection of articles, interviews and interactive features exploring the world of American education today—and where it's heading tomorrow.

We visited the Denver Schools of Science and Technology, a charter school where students study biotechnology, but also make music videos. We interviewed Joel Klein, the former New York City Public Schools chief who wants to put digital tablets into the hands of kids across the country. And we created a slideshow of the latest advances in classroom design, including roofs that capture both sunlight (to improve learning) and rainwater (to irrigate educational gardens).

And while we keep an eye to the future, it’s also important to recognize what has and hasn’t changed in American education. In many ways, the “21st century skills” that today’s policymakers call for students to learn—things like experiential learning, inquiry and real-world content—closely resemble the methods that lawmakers and educators promoted in the early 20th century. While current national debates question the use of corporate dollars in public schools and the value of college for work, we traced the long history of business’ influence on education. And in our Document Deep Dive, readers can quiz themselves on subjects such as “artificial languages” from the original SAT—first administered in 1926.

Over the next three months Smithsonian.com will be sharing these stories, and more, told by some of America’s best reporters and education experts, including Peg Tyre, Kevin Carey, Dana Goldstein and Lisa Guernsey. Along the way, we look forward to hearing from others—parents, students and teachers—about how the changes in schools are impacting their own lives and futures.

Rachael Brown works in Thought Leadership with Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit dedicated to improving educational outcomes for low-income students. She is a former journalist and high school teacher.

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