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Trusting the People Who Do the Work

By Jal Mehta — June 03, 2011 2 min read

By Jal Mehta

On Monday I’m going to offer the final post of the futures blog, trying to link together some of what we’ve discussed over the past few months, and lay out some of the choices that are before us. But since this is Friday, I thought I’d just share a couple of things in the school world that might give us a sense of what we might be aiming towards.

At the school level, I spent a week at High Tech High earlier this spring. It’s a socio-economically mixed school which is striking for the way that it is teacher and student driven; you can’t teach there if you can’t come up with projects and curriculum that will arouse the kids passions; you won’t thrive as a student there if you don’t invest in your learning. Here’s a snippet:

At the district level, last year I went to Mapleton, Colorado, which flies under the radar but is a very intentionally created portfolio district. Mapleton has project-based schools, more traditional schools, an IB school, arts schools, a school for young adults who haven’t succeeded in conventional schools, all linked by a common set of expectations for all students. During the 2008 campaign, Obama visited the MESA school, an arts infused school in Mapleton that sends 100% of its high school graduates to college. (MESA used to be headed by now state senator Mike Johnston.) While there is still work to be done (the school I saw was somewhat uneven from classroom to classroom), the district shows the huge advantages of allowing parents, teachers, and students to select into an environment that fits their goals and passions.

And at the federal level, Mike Smith has a proposal for a zero-based reauthorization of ESEA. Zero-based is fancy policy language for “starting over.” He suggests that our accumulated layers of titles and programs should be scrapped, and that we should focus on a few basic things, of which the ones that are most appealing to me are incentivizing more equal state funding, and trying to move from compliance type structures to adaptive systems that change, learn and evolve. In this model, rather than assuming we can specify outcomes through programs and rules, we accept the fact that in complex adaptive systems, the world is too complex to be managed from afar, and that what we need is local problem-solving informed by external expertise.

Finally, I had a chance to work on an OECD report where we profiled leading nations on the PISA, and one of the things we discovered was that several of the leaders had opted for a model with strong training upfront followed by a high level of decentralization in how teachers and schools develop the schooling. Here’s Finland, in moving pictures:

What ties these together is the sense that we need to trust, empower and enable the people doing the work (principals, teachers and students). HTH shows this in action. Mapleton avoids the one size fits all district mentality and allows for the creation of different kinds of schools. While Mike has always believed in the value of standards, his proposal shows how standards doesn’t have to mean standardization, and can be used to guide and enable the kind of on the ground problem-solving that we see at HTH and in Mapleton. And the Finnish system provides a proof point (yes, in a very different, more homogenous, much smaller country) for what it might look like to organize a whole system this way.

Jal Mehta is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform 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.

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