original article: How to Bring Innovation to Education?
June 25, 2015 by GRACY OLMSTEAD
When it comes to reforming K-12 education in America, entrepreneurs hold the key to success—or at least, this was the principal claim touted by panelists at an American Enterprise Institute panel on innovation and entrepreneurshipWednesday.
Despite the variety represented amongst the panelists, most expressed a keen desire for greater school choice and a diminishing of bureaucratic red tape. Meanwhile, there were specific things that seemed to make the panelists—as well as the parents, teachers, and entrepreneurs they work with—frustrated:
- The nationalization of educational standards (via Common Core), and a corresponding lessening of choice on the local and state level (this complaint also applies to the Common Core tests that many parents are increasingly choosing to opt out of).
- A broken educational system, insulated by bureaucracy and federal regulations, that seems to prevent any real reform or change from getting up off the ground.
- A lack of alternative schooling options for families with limited monetary resources. As Michael McShane, an AEI research fellow in education policy studies, puts it in the institute’s just-released education agenda for 2016, “School choice is about equalizing opportunity. … Wealthier families can choose where their children attend school, but poor families cannot. By allowing for the creation of open enrollment charter schools or giving families vouchers or tax credit scholarships, school choice gives low-income families this same benefit.”
While there were a lot of buzzwords floating around during Wednesday’s panels (“disruption,” “innovation,” etc.), a few interesting and thought-provoking ideas also rose to the surface—ideas that may be able to fight some of the above frustrations that Americans are experiencing.
Panelist Matt Candler started 4.0 Schools in 2010. The organization helps entrepreneurs create new educational tools for teachers, students, and parents. They also have created what Candler calls “Tiny Schools.”
Charter school startups require a massive amount of work: they must churn through charter applications, rent or renovate a large property, hire adequate staff, recruit in local neighborhoods, fundraising, procure insurance, books, and furniture—etc., etc. While such development may be lower risk than conventional district-led school improvement plans, innovators still rarely have opportunity to test their models and curricula before the students show up, Candler says.
In contrast, a Tiny School enables innovators to test their ideas and models at a very small scale, in a very personal environment, says Candler. Families and students can build strong relationships with educators, and provide extensive feedback—long before the Tiny School ever develops into a full-scale charter school.
The 1881 Institute, NOLA Micro Schools, Rooted School, and Noble Minds Institute were built through Candler’s Tiny Schools Project. As they grow, they’re each looking into different options for expansion: one is partnering with a homeschool collective and a private university to build a summer program. Another is using space in a local private school, while another is contracting with a local public charter school for a year.
Candler argues that by limiting scale and thinking small, schools can focus on building quality, accountability, and support systems. They don’t have to worry about infrastructure issues and “huge bureaucracies.” Meanwhile, students and families get personalized input and care from the school.
In a lot of ways, Candler’s program is reminiscent of the Tiny House movement: it focuses on minimizing costs in order to maximize quality. It works to cater to the needs of the homeowner/student, while also minimizing any detrimental impact on the larger community or ecosystem surrounding it.
Many of the speakers at AEI’s panels emphasized the frustrations they (and many parents) feel with our rigid yet woefully broken schooling system.We must pay our taxes: yet those tax dollars go toward an educational system that is inflexible, systemically flawed, and ailing. We must send our children to schools, of one sort or another: yet the schools we’re sending them to are often malfunctioning institutions that don’t seem to help our students as much as harm them.
The sort of entrepreneurship that these speakers seemed to be pushing for is the sort that emphasizes parental choice, providing multiple schooling options at price points that are actually feasible for a diverse body of providers.
Yet even here, there’s a degree of rigidity: as Village Capital’s Ross Baird argues, the K-12 model we’re currently working with was built for a bygone era. It worked in an industrial society, in which a bachelor’s degree was in fact a guarantor of social mobility and economic success—but in modern America, higher education is fraught with problems and the “knowledge economy” is quickly taking off. In this society, our school system often seems to be lagging behind.
What seems to be the “future,” then, would be an expansion of school choice and flexibility that enables parents to pick and choose a smorgasbord of educational opportunities, giving them the ability to orchestrate an educational program that suits their students’ needs and talents. So, for instance, a parent could choose to homeschool their child 50 percent of the time, supplementing with Khan Academy, MOOCs, or other online curricula, and then finish out with classes or extra-curriculars with a local charter school or co-op.
One of the panelists, in a private discussion between panels on Wednesday, compared this idea to iTunes and Spotify: we’re currently working with a rigid system (iTunes), in which users choices are limited to buying one full music album or another. You can’t just pick a song from the album—you have to buy the whole package. It’s all or nothing.
The future of education, he suggests, is more like Spotify: you customize and create your own playlist from a myriad of song choices. You build a user experience that fits your personal style, background, social sphere.
As a former homeschooler, the idea of building a smaller, more local, and accountable system is highly palatable and exciting—as is the idea of greater flexibility, of being able to opt in or out of educational methods at one’s own discretion. It’s exactly what my parents fought for: the ability to customize my education in such a way as to make it as rigorous, high-quality, and enjoyable as possible. They melded at-home classes, homeschool co-op literature and rhetoric classes, college language courses, private music lessons, community college orchestra, and intramural sports.
But there are also, of course, problems that can arise from such a diversified model. First, we must consider the fact that such disorganized and unquantified participation could hamper our ability to assess long-term student growth and progress nationwide—as well as impeding us from comparing our students to others in the international sphere. This is, in a sense, the opposite of Common Core, which was built around the goal of increasing our competitiveness in the global sphere.
There are also benefits to a more structured, traditional educational system that we may lose if we allow such flexibility to exist. Students could miss out on important lessons or classes they need in order to get jobs or build a portfolio. Both classical forms of education and vocational systems emphasize certain skillsets that they see as essential to building a well-rounded or well-skilled human being: the former often focusing on the development of abstract qualitative skills, the latter on the development of concrete quantitative skills.
But increased flexibility need not constitute a rejection of such systems or their schools of thought—rather, it could hopefully open up more opportunities for parents and students to tap into those systems. Most parents who don’t care particularly much about their children’s education will continue to enroll their children in one rigid program or another: programs that makes the decisions for them. And that’s completely fine.
But parents who decide to implement a more flexible and varied approach necessarily take on greater responsibility and involvement. They will be called upon to make thoughtful and principled decisions. While some may err on the side of the lackadaisical, letting flexibility devolve into anarchy, most will be able to use a greater diversity of choice to open up more opportunities for their children. Thus it seems that overall, greater flexibility would enable parents from all income backgrounds to have greater access to high-quality education options.
One final thought: an increase in flexibility and small-scale educational enterprise is very reminiscent of some changes we’re seeing in the economic sphere, as people increasingly vary their work schedules from the traditional 9 to 5, cubicle-centric career world to a work-from-home, flexible hours approach. And, just as there are going to be problems and drawbacks in the changes we see there, we should expect problems to arise as our educational system changes. The problems may in fact be similar.
But despite the drawbacks, alternative methods like homeschooling, Tiny Schools, or outside-school options like Khan Academy or Duolingo can help alleviate several of the educational problems we’re facing. The sorts of reform and innovation that AEI’s panelists suggested Wednesday could, in fact, help build a more nuanced, thoughtful, and high-quality system of education here in the U.S.
children, conservative, crisis, diversity, education, freedom, ideology, innovation, philosophy, reform