Ted Kolderie has worked since 1982 on strategies for the redesign of public education. He was involved with passing Minnesota’s pioneering school chartering legislation in 1991 and subsequently in more than 20 other states. Previous to that, he was concerned with urban policy and on the redesign of public services in the Minneapolis region and nationally.
He was the executive director of the Citizens League of Minnesota and a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He is the co-founder of Education Evolving, which champions student-centered learning through schools designed and run by teachers and policy that fosters innovation.
He is an inaugural member of the Charter Schools Hall of Fame and in 2011 won the Conant award given by the Education Commission of the States for outstanding contributions to public education. His latest book is Thinking Out the How, published in 2018.
Kolderie recently spoke with Education Week contributing writer Bess Keller to share his perspective on the charter movement, school accountability, the evolving role of teachers, among other topics. This question-and-answer has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve worked for 35 years on approaches that would change public education for the better, including charter school legislation in Minnesota and elsewhere. What has been the single greatest barrier to making progress?
There’s a failure to see the way large systems actually change, which is through innovation that gradually spreads. The effort to improve education through central master planning has just not worked in this country. There’s been a steady progression of decisions moving upward from classroom to school to district to state to national. For a strategy to work, it has to be a school-based. It has to encourage innovation.
Minnesota was your policy laboratory. What could the rest of the country learn about education from Minnesota?
Minnesota has just about got it right for strategy. Up until the late ’80s and early ’90s, we had the standard public utility model. There was effectively a series of little franchised territories in which one and only one organization offered the service—the school district.
Then Minnesota dramatically moved away from that model in a series of actions that were quite bipartisan. The legislature opened up public education, so that five or six different kinds of entities could offer public school: the nonresident district [districts that accepted students without regard to residence], postsecondary organizations, schools created under the chartering legislation, an online option, alternative schools, area learning centers.
It opened up the system, but it remains a public system. We don’t do private vouchers or for-profit organizations here. Substantial changes in enrollment patterns have resulted. Most of the students moving are using interdistrict enrollment, some are using the charter programs and the other options approved by the legislature. Now, it is quite a dynamic system with growing pressure on the districts to figure out how to adopt program changes that the parents, particularly parents in the cities and in communities of color, want.
Where, in your view, did accountability go wrong as a strategy for school improvement?
The failure has been the narrow definition of student achievement. In the media and in a lot of policy discussions, the notion is deeply implanted that success is measured—and in some respects only measured—by scores on the tests. What the public wants districts accountable for is getting the students engaged in learning. The public cares much less about what the scores show.
Most of the judgments we make are based on satisfaction. You feel something works or doesn’t work based on satisfaction. Satisfaction can be measured; it’s just that the system we’ve had doesn’t do it.
How would you describe the current state of the charter movement? To what degree have charter schools fulfilled their promise?
There’s some real conflict. A schism developed within chartering about 10 years after the first laws. There are people who mostly want to concentrate on doing traditional school better, which is fine, and there are people who want to create nontraditional schools. We have national organizations that represent both philosophies.
It’s unfortunate we’ve had so much education research focused on, “Do school charter schools score better than district schools?” Of course, the research is mixed because charter schools are so different from each other. You’d hope we’d be doing more of going inside these schools and looking to see what teachers and schools actually do with the opportunity.
But generally speaking, there’s been enough innovation to say the charter sector is performing well as the R&D sector of public education. There’s been worthwhile innovation in teaching and learning, school organization, and the role of teachers.
Since the 2016 election, after about 25 years of bipartisan support for charter schools, you have in the [Trump] administration an explicitly private-sector, voucher impulse. So that’s an invitation to political attack for the people who would like to go back to the public utility model, who don’t like chartering. But I think the states will hold with this new, more open concept of public education just because it is just so much in states’ own interests to do that.
You talk about how your view of teaching and the role of teachers has evolved. How so?
A principal once told me it was his job to motivate his teachers as much as he could for as long as he could in what essentially are dead-end jobs. That hits pretty hard.
The Minnesota charter law included an objective to open new professional opportunities for teachers. With that came the idea of organizing schools as teacher partnerships. Union folks began to get curious about this and interested in it. Now, we’ve had five years of a national effort to use this partnership model [by the Teacher-Powered Schools initiative].
What this has taught me is the substantial potential for change that results from passing professional autonomy to teachers. In addition to retaining teachers because their jobs are no longer dead-end, you will always find a broader definition of student learning operating in partnership schools than in the more conventional schools.
For another thing, any successful effort to improve student learning will begin by improving student motivation. And only the teacher knows the classroom well enough to understand the differences in motivations among students.
Do you think public education is capable of significant and needed change?
Out there beyond conventional K-12 is the software industry, which has been disrupting one industry after another. The software industry simply hasn’t decided yet whether the institution of school is going to open up or whether they need to go around it and directly market to families. If they do that, it has a potential to reduce public education to the status of public housing. The policy people in public education need to think about that.
Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Checking In With a Pioneer of Public School Redesign