Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

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.

School & District Management Opinion

How Can Education Get Beyond Zero-Sum Schooling?

Education thinker Michael Horn shares how adopting mastery-based learning and co-teaching, among other measures, may help
By Rick Hess — October 20, 2022 5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Michael Horn is an interesting guy. I first met him maybe 15 years ago, after he co-authored the intriguing Disrupting Class. Since that time, he’s become a prominent voice on educational technology and school reform. He’s the co-founder and fellow of the Clayton Christensen Institute, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and (full disclosure) a fellow editor at Education Next. This summer, Michael published a timely new book, From Reopen to Reinvent, and I thought the new school year was a good time to chat with him about where we are and what’s ahead.

—Rick

Rick: So, what prompted you to write From Reopen to Reinvent?

Michael: I wrote it because of the COVID pandemic and the response I was seeing from schools on the ground. Many educators were crying out for a playbook that would help them transform schools, not just reopen them and fall back into the traditional routines and processes that weren’t working for the overwhelming majority of people in and connected to schools. The book came out of a podcast I started during the pandemic with Diane Tavenner, the founder of Summit Public Schools, called Class Disrupted. The podcast was designed to help answer the big questions that parents and educators had on their minds about why our schooling system is the way it is. Our view was that the pandemic lifted the lid on education in America and opened many to the idea that school can work differently than it has for decades. We wanted to seize that opportunity for reinvention to benefit all students.

Rick: How can schools and communities make the pivot you talk about, from reopening to reinvention?

Michael: The book takes readers through a design agenda where we start by asking how educators can find the time and space to reinvent schools given all that is on their plates. Then, we question the purpose of schooling. I give my six-part answer in the book, but I also detail my perspective that each community should go through this exercise to come up with the right answer for them.

Rick: For readers familiar with your podcast or some of your earlier work, what might they find surprising?

Michael: First, this isn’t a book about disruptive innovation, nor is it really a book about technology, although that figures in. Second, I think people may be surprised that although I have some bold ideas in the book and am more prescriptive than I perhaps have been in past writing, my ultimate conclusion is that school leaders shouldn’t attempt to overthrow the system in one fell swoop. Incrementalism as they innovate will be a far better path forward than dramatic, radical strokes.

Rick: In your book, you mention “zero-sum schooling.” Can you say a bit about what you think might be a solution to this problem?

Michael: Our current zero-sum schooling system, in which for every winner there essentially has to be a loser, doesn’t work. To move beyond this, we’ll need to adopt things like mastery-based learning and co-teaching so students and teachers have a more robust web of support behind them—ceasing the practice of teachers grading their own students and implementing a more flexible and supportive system that helps parents make progress as well. This last item is important because parents send their children to schools for different reasons, and as we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic, more parents are asserting their right to choose their child’s school. I left my research feeling like this all means we need to see schools make far more aggressive use of things like schools within schools, microschools, and learning pods to create a set of more robust choices for students and parents. Without that, schools will be left trying to be all things to all people. That thinking won’t carry the day. Any change we make is going to have to work for every single student, not just some. I left the writing of the book believing we can craft a positive-sum system in which the pie gets larger for everyone.

Rick: When it comes to reinvention, what are some of the big mistakes you’ve seen?

Michael: There are a few, but I’ll focus on just two. First, far too many people think that the answer to improving education lies in privileging one group that has been historically disadvantaged over others. No matter how well-intentioned a policy is, parents who see their students as being on the losing end of the change use their power to fight back and shuttle the reform. If you want change, you have to pitch and shape things in terms of the progress that each parent and student desires. That bleeds into a second big mistake: one-size-fits-all thinking. Too often, we assume that “best practices” mean they should apply to everyone or that every individual needs the same set of supports and experiences or sits in the same circumstances, when it’s just plainly not true. Having this mindset, however, creates a rigid response that isn’t responsive to the progress individuals need—and it provokes pushback.

Rick: What are some of the more promising developments during and after the pandemic?

Michael: The book has a lot of case studies of schools and districts getting it right. Whether it’s the Iron County school district in Utah creating the Launch High School, Kettle Moraine’s use of microschools (Wisconsin), or Lindsay Unified (California) using mastery-based learning, I think there are promising pockets of reinvention upon which schools can build. Those schools also had a clear curriculum which empowered students to keep learning and moving through the lessons, and it also allowed teachers to collaborate around that shared curriculum to ensure students were making progress.

Rick: What’s one piece of advice you have for educators as they try to pivot from reopening to reinvention?

Michael: Don’t force innovation on anyone. Don’t stop doing what you’ve always done on a dime—even when someone like Michael Horn tells you that it’s not working! Instead, hive off some educators from your core operations and give them the autonomy to create something innovative—something that improves student progress—that allows some subset of your families to opt in. And then if those educators succeed, build on that success by allowing more families to join the innovation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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.

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion I Invited My Students to Be the Principal for a Day. Here’s What I Learned
When I felt myself slipping into a springtime slump, this simple activity reminded me of my “why” as an educator.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
4 min read
052024 OPINION Khoshaba PRINCIPAL end the year with positivity
E+/Getty + Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks
Missouri lawmakers want to encourage large districts to maintain five-day weeks—even as four-day weeks grow more popular.
7 min read
Concept image of one hundred American dollar banknote and a fishing hook dragging across 4-day week calendar.
Liz Yap/Education Week and iStock/Getty/E+.
School & District Management From Our Research Center Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center Here's What Superintendents Think They Should Be Paid
A new survey asks school district leaders whether they're paid fairly.
3 min read
Illustration of a ladder on a blue background reaching the shape of a puzzle piece peeled back and revealing a Benjamin Franklin bank note behind it.
iStock/Getty