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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

To Improve Education, Small Solutions Are a Big Deal

By Guest Blogger — May 06, 2016 4 min read
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Note: This week’s guest-blogger is Mike McShane, director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri.

When I was in high school, I worked at a party supply store. After I got out of school, I would head to the store to take over for a retired dentist named Russ, who had worked the day shift making balloon assortments and pointing people toward color-coordinated plates and cups. Every day, as he walked out of the store, he would leave me with some chestnut like, “Alright Mike, don’t go sellin’ the tamale wagon,” or “Don’t go takin’ any wooden nickels!”

Rick, thanks for turning the blog over to me this week. I hope I didn’t sell the tamale wagon or take any wooden nickels.

This week I’ve been offering my thoughts on the virtues of a decentralized and localized trajectory for education reform. To sum it up, slow and steady wins the race. Grand projects sound great but often fail to deliver, and they can burn out the people who are actually tasked with making them happen. While it feels unsatisfying in the moment and looks chaotic from afar, focusing on sprouting many small solutions is ultimately the most prudent way forward.

Later this month, Harvard Education Press is releasing my new book with Rick, Educational Entrepreneurship Today. Throughout my research for that volume, it struck me over and over again that successful entrepreneurs try to do small things really well. There are some great examples from education. Clever is a Silicon Valley tech startup that unifies passwords to make it easier for students to log into multiple programs. The idea is so simple. Panorama is a company that makes it much easier for schools to design surveys to get information from parents and students. It was started by two Yale students in their dorm room. Again, not complicated, but super helpful.

These efforts started small. They got a lot bigger. Clever is now in more than 50,000 schools. Panorama is in 6,500. The hours of time and the grey hairs of frustration that they have saved are hard to quantify, but as more and more schools and districts adopt their products, it is clear that these companies are doing something right.

So how do we get more of the entrepreneurial impulse into schools?

First, we have to help schools get out from under the mountain of regulation that restricts what they can do. When I go around Missouri talking about why I like charter schools, traditional public school principals and teachers tell me, “If we got waivers from XYZ regulations like charter schools do, we could be every bit as innovative and good as they are.” Awesome—let’s do it. Every state should put together a blue-ribbon commission of rock star principals, teachers of the year, and other outstanding educators to comb through the state’s education code and identify regulations that have accumulated over time but have nothing to do with providing a better education for kids. Those regulations should be struck, clearing the way for educators to try new things.

Second, we have to prevent the creep of the leviathan into schools of choice. As Rick wrote years ago, school choice programs provide an opportunity to create “greenfield” for educators to create new schools and new projects that can help better educate students. Unfortunately, some school choice supporters are pushing for more and more of the regulatory apparatus of traditional public schools (the very thing that public school educators want to get rid of!) to be imposed upon charter schools and private schools that accept vouchers, tax credits, or money from education savings accounts. Central planners gotta central plan, I guess. But those of us who appreciate the entrepreneurial impulse and understand the threat that regulation poses to it, must resist.

Finally, we have to appreciate and incubate a lot of small efforts. In his chapter in our book, Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools presents a fascinating approach to fostering entrepreneurship. As he says, his initial investment in an education startup or a teacher who wants to start a school is $5—it’s a couple of beers at a “beerstorming” happy hour event. Folks are able to give a quick pitch of their idea, get some feedback, refine, and try again. If their idea passes muster, it advances along a funnel-shaped path where fewer and fewer ideas clear higher and higher bars and get more and more support until eventually, out of the end of the process, a small number of really high quality ideas emerge. It is a drastically different approach to much of the philanthropic investment in education that often waits until a school can demonstrate that its model works before it gets funding. Without the funding, many efforts can’t get off the ground in the first place! 4.0’s approach casts a much wider net and applies a more organic process in order to distinguish good ideas from those that need to go back to the drawing board.

I hope I’ve sparked some thinking this week about the big-picture attitude towards educational improvement. I’d love to continue the conversation. There is so much more I have to learn. Feel free to hit me up @MQ_McShane on Twitter or follow my musings on the Show-Me Institute’s blog www.showmeinstitute.org/blog.

--Mike McShane

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.