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Education Opinion

This Is What ‘Greenfield’ Education Looks Like

By Rick Hess — June 18, 2015 3 min read
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For all the promising developments in K-12 today, it can feel like all the oxygen is getting sucked out of the room by the officious, mass production stuff—like test-based teacher evaluation, the Common Core, or ten-hour state tests. And a careful new study out of the University of Arkansas shows that charters are funded at substantially lower levels than are district schools; that this is true even after factoring in philanthropy; and, oh yeah, that the sliver of philanthropy that does go to charters is mostly lavished upon a handful of favorites. This is a reminder that even K-12 “reform” can feel bureaucratic. Yet, in just the past week or two, there have been some really promising greenfield developments. (“Greenfield” is an art term that speaks to the virtues of building on fresh ground. For a primer, see chapter 1 of my book Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling.)

Take the pathbreaking statewide Education Savings Account legislation that just passed in Nevada. As I noted last week, this massively expands school choice to help provide families with an array of customizable “educational choices.” In other words, it can create a whole lot of greenfield space. This is the kind of world for which I penned Education Unbound five years ago and that Bruno Manno and I were trying to help bring into being when we edited Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform. The thinking provoked by the Nevada ESA has been especially promising. For instance, this week the Fordham Institute has had a number of folks contributing to a blog series on the program. I’d been prepared for a lot of bureaucratic talk about how we have to ensure there are “only” quality offerings (as if we a] know how to do that and b] we can all easily agree on what “quality” entails). Instead, most of the contributors asked what it will take to promote an influx of great providers, healthy transparency, useful information on quality, and a vibrant ecosystem. This focus on what it takes for choice systems to work has too often been buried under vacuous cheerleading or bureaucratic proposals for test-based quality control when it comes to vouchers and charters, and I find it a really promising sign.

Just today, Purdue president Mitch Daniels announced that his institutions will be launching Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School in 2017. The STEM-focused charter school is designed to provide a bridge for inner-city students to a rigorous STEM education and to prepare them for universities like Purdue or for STEM careers. The aim is to eventually expand the school throughout Indiana. Rather than work to “reform” an existing school, Purdue is taking a greenfield approach. Purdue faculty (especially from the technical fields) will develop the curriculum and teaching methods for the school, drawing on K-12 and post-secondary ed and tapping industry know-how. In grades 11 and 12, students will select specific pathways, in which they will earn college credit and industry credentials, and complete an internship. This is a promising twist on the old notion of a university lab school. It draws upon university expertise, but not simply to serve faculty kids and not to serve as a playpen for ed school faculty. The aim is to leverage the Purdue faculty’s expertise in STEM fields in order to create a rigorous high school that will help Purdue better recruit and educate underserved students. This is the kind of imaginative, practical problem-solving that’s marked Daniels’ tenure—and here’s hoping that other universities will follow Purdue’s lead.

Another promising development is the announcement by former Columbia Teachers College president Arthur Levine that his Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is partnering with MIT (through its Office of Digital Learning) to launch a new teacher preparation program. This is a case of two powerful brands combining to pursue a greenfield approach rather than wrestling to change existing programs with deep-seated routines. It’s also a case of MIT building on what it does well, with an emphasis on STEM subjects and on helping equip teachers to excel in “technology-enhanced learning environments.” As MIT describes the effort, “Candidates will engage in blended learning modules, simulations, and intensive clinical experiences grounded in program competencies and curriculum.”

Is it a sure bet that any of this will work as intended? Of course not. But it’s promising stuff. It involves efforts to create room for problem-solving. It features hugely successful organizations tapping their strengths to build focused new solutions. This is what reinvention looks like.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.