Ray McNulty: We Must Let Go of Old Ideas


In my last blog post, we discussed how we could begin to fundamentally change our flawed public education model. Today, we turn to one of our nation’s most innovative leaders to help us dig a little deeper.

Raymond J. McNulty is dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University, and a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). He is a former president of ICLE, director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Commissioner of Education in Vermont, and at various times also served as a superintendent, principal and teacher.

Ray has seen it all, and knows the way forward.

Question: From your consulting and speaking engagements in the K-12 spaces, what do you see as a major concern right now?

Ray McNulty: Most people would say their greatest concern is “change” or “fear of change.” But, I don’t see change as the biggest concern. Most educators know they need to change, and most welcome new ideas. The greatest concern is not letting go of old ideas.  No one is talking about letting go of things — instead we just keep adding things to the system. I work with schools and educators to plan and evaluate their systems, and then sort them into three categories:  Things we should stop doing, things we should continue doing, and new systems and strategies we should begin doing. We seem to not let go. For example, we spend a lot of time today teaching basic skill acquisition, but we can’t seem to find the time for higher levels of rigor. Technology is much better at teaching basic skill acquisition, so using technology — while supported by our educators — provides time for them to use their skills to increase rigorous learning.

Q: Do you see the SNHU online instruction model becoming more accepted among students and even high school counselors in 2017?

RM: We see enormous acceptance for many online learning systems. There are many states that now require students to take online courses to graduate because that’s what is happening in the workforce. Most companies today train their workers using online systems. The real drivers for these new models are competency-based learning anytime, anyplace, and at any pace. Online education has been around for a long time and the systems used today are highly sophisticated. When you match a great online system with a great teacher, together they represent a powerful learning system for our students.

Q: You mentioned competency-based learning. Can you expand your thoughts?

RM: Competency-based education is attracting a lot of attention for its potential to resolve many of the challenges we face.  I can’t believe we are still using equal amounts of seat time for learning, clustering students by age, and using a grading system that lets students move on after only understanding 60% of the content! In a competency-based system, students who are the same age may learn at different rates in different subjects while progressing to more advanced work once they master the material. Mastery in a competency-based system pushes everyone to a much higher standard because you do not move on until you demonstrate proficiency (over the 80% level). Forty-two states have granted public schools the flexibility to incorporate and explore competency-based policies. Although there is no agreed-upon definition about what “competency-based” means, there is agreement on three basic core elements: Mastery, where students demonstrate their grasp of skills and content; Pacing, where students progress at different rates in different subjects or areas; Instruction, where students receive customized and personalized support so they can reach mastery.

Q: Is there a strategy that you believe schools should begin to work on as we see a push toward more personalized learning models?

RM: I don’t believe there is one strategy that will help the push toward more personalized learning. I think you just need to look around and realize that one person is not the same as the other. What works for Brian in class likely will not work for Ray or Mary. And what works for Brian in math class likely will not work for him in English class. We need to have schools and learning systems with multiple models and multiple pathways for all our students. Therefore, technology and learning management systems will be critical to the success of the systems we design in the future.


Ray will be a key presenter at the 25th annual Model Schools Conference. Spots are still available—join us!



From Buzzwords to Fundamental Change

Admit it: We love buzzwords!

“Competency-based,” “personalized learning,” “standards-based,” “21st Century,” ‘college- and career-ready,” “real world,” “student-centered,” “big data.”

That’s just for starters.

These buzzwords were rooted in important initiatives, although it’s true many of these concepts have come and gone. Don’t be fooled, the winds of change driving these initiatives are again starting to blow – and more strongly than ever.

A Crazy Model
Those of us who work in public education know the time-based model is fundamentally flawed.  At the beginning of each school year, we are expected to take a classroom of 20-30 students, all at different starting points, with different interests, learning styles, aptitudes and home lives and get each one to the same academic place on the same day—and then measure their performance with a state test.

This is lunacy, and we know it!

These above-mentioned initiatives – and their buzzwords – came into being to address this lunacy. These competency-based concepts probably would work in a vacuum, but in today’s antiquated model, they would have little impact. You should know why.

Our education system is structured on our old factory assembly line model which made sense 100 years ago. Back then, the purpose of school was to select and sort kids, not get them ready to thrive in a technology-based world. Fast forward to today, and the school year still lasts 180 days, each class typically still lasts 40-45 minutes, no matter the subject, etc, etc, etc. We still set schedules using techniques similar to the old 3x5 index cards. We still govern ourselves by rules, regulations, certification tenure and contracts developed in the 20th Century.

The model simply can’t adopt competency-based approaches.

Our Time Is Now
Advancing technologies have enabled industry after industry to break from their old 19th and 20 century models. Now it’s public education’s time.

Let’s allow technology to take root in our instructional programs. Let’s use technology to fundamentally change the system, not just make the old system marginally better. It’s time to strive for a flexible, automated education system.

Guest Blogger Shows the Way
Our next blog will feature a Q&A with Raymond. J. McNulty, dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University, and a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education. He will focus on ways we can fundamentally transform public education. Ray also will be a key presenter at this year’s 25th annual Model Schools Conference, coming up soon in Nashville. You still have time to register!