Sparking Greater Innovation in K-12 Education

Veteran education analyst Ted Kolderie took questions from our readers.

March 26, 2008

Sparking Greater Innovation in K-12 Education

  • Ted Kolderie is a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies, in St. Paul Minn., and the co-founder of the Minnesota-based think tank, Education Evolving.

Erik Robelen (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s online chat about sparking greater innovation in K-12 education. Our featured guest is Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies, in St. Paul, Minn., and co-founder of the think tank Education Evolving. He recently wrote a commentary, “Beyond System Reform,” for Education Week. Also, for more information related to today’s chat topic, check out the Education Evolving Web site and this recent paper by Mr. Kolderie.

We’ve got plenty of questions, so let’s dive in.

Question from Susan R. Stengel, Founding Director, Foundation for Excellence in Education:

Exactly what innovations are you proposing?

Ted Kolderie:

We’re trying hard not to propose particular innovations. This isn’t easy: People always want to hear ‘for-examples’ and mostly do hear folks who are proposing (or selling) particular innovations. We’re not. We want simply to open K-12 to a process of innovation; are proposing just to increase the system capacity for change with forms of school and schooling.

Question from Dina Hasiotis, Policy Advocate:

Is there a particular innovation in k-12 education today that you can point to as an example, where a district or state is going beyond the status quo of reforms and is having success motivating students to achieve at high levels?

Ted Kolderie:

Start at the level of “district or state” and I fear you find less, or less-significant, innovation. To find the more-significant I suspect it’d be better to look at the school level. You can see the problem this presents. It’s hard for researchers to search the school (or classroom!) level. So as John Witte at Wisconsin/Madison nicely puts it: Research wants to generalize; tends to look for ‘most’ and ‘overall’ and ‘on the whole’. It isn’t much interested in single cases -- even though they could be significant. The morning after the Wright brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk research would still have said, accurately: Most heavier-than-air craft cannot fly. Yet Wilbur and Orville had finally got it right: That wingle case was important.

Question from Jeffrey L. Peyton, Inventor of Puppetools:

Mr. Kolderie, They say that great minds think alike. But in the realm of education, there are many small minds competing for position. It’s important to think inside the box as well as outside. Is there a great, transforming solution out there? And if there was, what, in your view, would it be? And what would its impact be? Would the change it brings be incremental or sweeping? And how do you deal with the gate-keepers? (Extra Credit)

Ted Kolderie:

I suppose we don’t know if there is, or is not, a great transforming solution out there . . . so couldn’t know, either, what it is. The point of a strategy of “Innovating ...” is to find out. Both incremental and sweeping -- what Christensen calls ‘sustaining’ and ‘disruptive’ -- changes are useful. There’s a cycling, isn’t there: a breakthrough idea, which isn’t initially high-quality; then gradually modifications that improve its quality. Until there’s another breakthrough. Re the ‘gatekeepers’ (with whom I imagine you content regularly): E|E argues for not trying to force anything in. Let innovative models develop in new schools; let people comes to these as they decide they’re ready.

Question from Bob Frangione, Educator, Lewisburg Area:

Most educators would agree that standards and accountability are only half of the solution. What, in your estimation is the other half?

Ted Kolderie:

Innovating with school and schooling. As the paper says: Kids learn from what they read, see, hear and do; not from accountability and standards. The two things need to go together, don’t they?

Question from Jamin Carson, Assistant Professor, East Carolina University:

The claim that innovation is the solution to education’s problems is flawed on two counts. One, innovation as such does not necessarily equate to improved education. There have been plenty of innovations in education that never resulted in any significant benefits. Additionally, “innovation” in education is often just a euphemism for snake oil-like theories and practices that are adopted more for their creativity and popularity than for any measurable improvement in education. Second, we’ve had plenty of legitimate innovations in the past that did result in significant improvements to education, but very few people adopted them. So are new innovations really the answer to our problems or is it that we need to apply the existing innovations?

Ted Kolderie:

You have several questions here. First: Not every new idea is a good idea: agreed. There is error in the world. I had a liberal education: Let truth and error struggle. Trial-and-error is OK. Second: The system does need to better at replicating the new ideas that prove to be useful (recognizing that any single idea might not work for every student). I’d suggest: The higher the level at which the decision is made the lower the likelihood that dramatic innovations will be adopted. Leave things loose; let it be a school decision, made in terms of the enrollment the particular school has. Make sense?

Question from Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom, Associate Director of Network Development, The Henry Ford Learning Institute:

If we aren’t able to assess student growth in terms of skills and knowledge related to innovation, we’ll be left trumpeting innovation publicly, but continuing to teach to the standards that ARE assessed. What models have you come across (in schools or elsewhere) that lay out frameworks by which to evaluate growth and progress as it relates to innovation?

Ted Kolderie:

This is one of the absolutely most important questions. The innovation with school and schooling does, yes, needed to be matched by innovation in assessment. Mike Cohen at Achieve told us last summer he didn’t think the folks working on “21st Century Skills” were doing much either to define goals or to create assessments. More recently people at ETS have told us this work is beginning to come, now. I just personally don’t know -- except that it has to get done.

Question from Joseph Buckley Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Liaison Worcester Public Schools Worcester MA:

In a time where the growth of technology and the ability to process information and young prople are aquiring more than 50% of their knowledge fro visual and auditory sources and the ability to process this information into texual sources is growing geometrically how much time should we press to engage our students in traditional language arts curriculum?

Ted Kolderie:

The question this question (and others like it) raises for me is whether it’s good to talk in terms of “our students” . . . “all students”. There is sort-of an assumption in much of the education-policy discussion that ‘we’ have to change all schools this-way or that-way. E|E is arguing, I think, for a diversity of schooling, to match the diversity in students. This’d lead me to say it’s probably OK for students fascinated by math and science to do more of that and less in, say, language arts. I do think sometimes how different our policy would be if we’d approached ‘standards’ in terms of what’s required to get IN to wherever a given student wants to go next . . . rather than in terms of what’s required to get OUT of high school. The ‘exit’ approach to standards tends to give equal weight, politically, to each department/subject. And creates arguments; conflict. Have you thought about this?

Question from Michelle Roper, Director, Learning Technolgies Program, Federation of American Scientists:

FAS has been working for a number of years on researching and developing innovative games and game technologies to improve motivation and learning. Do you have recommendations on how to apply technology to address and overcome needed system reforms?

Ted Kolderie:

Michelle, our group just says: create some new schools and allow them to innovate . . . which will mean, allow them to use the kind of games FAS is developing. Our basic argument is against thinking in terms of reforming-the-whole-system (at least through comprehensive policy action). Most change is gradual. Some people will try innovations immediately. Most won’t. Over time more will. Let it run like that in education too.

Question from Joleen M. Minear, Ph.D Retired HS Sch. Principal:

It comes down to we must attract the best college graduates by paying more money in salaries. Next we must have money in the budget for more technolgy. Why are students writing with a pencil in the 21st century. I am for a paperless school system with up to date computers,CD,DVD, Video, Power Pt. We can to other changes but unless we have the trained, smart, well paid, teachers and the technology we will not make the gain we should. Can you comment on this proposal?

Ted Kolderie:

All of this sounds cost-increasing. Often, perhaps usually (except in medical care) when technology comes in the effect is cost-reducing. Aren’t you adapting the technology to traditional school? What if you turned it around; adapted ‘school’ to the characteristics of the technology? What might happen then?

Question from Cristina C. Alvarez, Intervention Administrator, Office of Accountability, School District of Philadelphia:

Could you speak about the potential for school reform and innovation inherent in the use of open source web-based technology tools? Can you speak about School 2.0?

Ted Kolderie:

Not specifically about 2.0. But how can there not be huge potential in the web-based technology? The Federation of American Scientists is testing games; Randy Hinrichs, late of Microsoft, is into virtual environments, Judy Brown in Wisconsin looks at ‘mobile learning’ with handsets. With access to the web individual students can do research themselves; education can be customized . . . no? I went up to a young woman with a laptop recently. What are you doing? research? On what? I’m trying to understand how people learn, she said.

Question from Kirsten Olson, educational consultant, Old Sow Consulting:

Do you think that the public is coming to understand that the large, comprehensive high school is a dysfunctional educational model for 21st century adolescents? I find great conservatism and change-adversity around reforming high schools, even among those who know it didn’t work for them.

Ted Kolderie:

A key question. At the moment, probably not. People, influentials especially, do remember their high school days with affection. This is why the E|E paper urges leaving them the school they like. Simply let those who do want something different have that. We agree: Conventional high school probably is dysfunctional for many adolescents -- except for “seeing their friends”. Wouldn’t you agree with what the paper says about the problem with the ‘batch processing’ model?

Question from Dave Nealon, Director of Education Programs, Shellbook Publishing Systems:

I’ve seen many innovative approaches work on a small scale--a single, smallish school, for example. But how can large school systems encourage and manage innovation?

Ted Kolderie:

I suppose they should (a) allow it and (b) encourage it. I have some trouble with the concept of their ‘managing’ it, if that means central control of the process. Maybe innovation is inherently small-scale at the start. Replication of the innovation: That’s different.

Question from Jim Kilkenny, teacher:

Mr. K., when I read your commentary in edevolving, I was struck with a déjà vu experience. Isn’t this the idea behind early alternative schools? The standard was simple, give us students who could read, and we can move them through innovative practice to higher levels of citizenship and transition. They could be what they wanted to be. We saw great expanses in New York City during the 70s and across the country especially in Minnesota. People voted out innovation here, and a bipartisan panel created the failed and flawed elementary and secondary education act we call NCLB. What are you asking for now?

Ted Kolderie:

I’ve heard people involved in that effort in the ‘70s say: We blew it then -- by having no way to demonstrate that kids were learning, as well as just liking-school-better. No we have one more chance. The focus on motivation, on customization, probably will succeed only if there’s a way to show the students really are developing impressive skills. This doesn’t have to mean passing conventional tests. Just something that’s tangible and, as I say, impressive.

Question from Dr. Linda Jungwirth, Educational Consultant, Pepperdine University:

The Federal government and the Gates Foundation have directed significant resources towards creating “small learning environments” in our high schools, even though some of these schools have not made the extreme paradigm shift needed to engage and motivate students to direct their own learning. How do you see the viability of these “small learning environment” reform efforts, in light of the work you and the Center for Policy Studies are currently doing?

Ted Kolderie:

We’ve watched some of these. For us, I think, the connection is through motivation. Relationships are important for motivation. I took Hank Levin from Teachers College into Avalon School in Saint Paul last fall. The lead teacher said: Here (with about 120 students, six grades) every adult knows every kid. With 20 more students we couldn’t do that. Size alone surely isn’t everything. But it may be an essential element.

Question from Keith Johnson, Business Manager, Nerstrand Elementary School:

There is currently a proposal to allow for something called “Charter-lite” schools in Minnesota. Is this an example of “inside the box” change? Do you think it would support authentic innovation?

Ted Kolderie:

I think so, yes. It was an impulse from districts to do what would look like chartering . . . but with the district more in control; the money running to and through the district rather than to the school. The bill failed on a tie vote the other day, by the way, and probably is dead for the session.

Question from Susan Buckley, Trustee, Battle Creek (Mich) Public Schools Board of Education:

What are your thoughts about small learning communities that are being used in high schools as part of their attempts for reforming secondary education?

Ted Kolderie:

I said to someone earlier that we believe smaller schools permit student/teacher relationships that improve motivation -- and as you can see, we value motivation. But beyond size there’s a question about what goes on; the school-ing. A few years back a big foundation gave Minneapolis a lot of money to create small learning communities. What came back were plans for mini-traditional high schools. The response was essentially: OK; you can make us smaller. You can’t make us different. Schooling needs to change, too. Hence our proposal for “Innovating ...”

Question from Brenda Flowers, K-5 Lead Teacher, Colin Powell Academy:

Why are so many teachers instructing in a “box” which stifles motivation for learning in the classroom?

Ted Kolderie:

For most, I suppose, there’s no choice: that’s what conventional school is. Look at the pictures of school, everywhere. I’ll bet you had a choice: I think Colin Powell Academy is a chartered school, right? Do you find you have more flexibility there than you had before . . . if you taught in a district before?

Question from Ken Anderson, 2nd grade classroom, Eugene (OR) Dist 4j:

This nation already has millions of innovative regular ed, special ed, and educational support personnel who work for the public school systems across this nation. Why can’t we dissolve the double standard of permitting charter and for-profit schools to circumvent the accountability standards and associated punishments that public schools are legislated to follow? Why can’t so-called “education innovators” utilize the highly educated, extraordinarily dedicated teachers who would welcome the opportunity to free themselves of the “traditional approaches” to schooling?

Ted Kolderie:

The whole thrust of the Education|Evolving paper, and of much of its work generally, is to do exactly what you suggest -- to give interested teachers the opportunity to try non-traditional approaches. We do, though, think of this more in terms of teachers collegially than in terms of the individual teacher behind the classroom door. Cf the E|E website for ‘teacher professional partnerships’.

Question from Liam Goldrick, Policy Director, New Teacher Center:

Hi, Ted. Research suggests that teaching quality and school leadership are the most important school-based factors for student learning. It seems to me that no what form or structure school takes, teachers and leaders will continue to be the most important elements of the system. How would your conception of innovation incorporate a human capital strategy, something too often ignored by proponents of structural reforms?

Ted Kolderie:

Hi, Liam. We’d say it’s possible to improve the use of ‘human capital’ in the schools, and for the schools to increase the development of human capital coming out of the schools. It’s knowledge work. The kids and the teachers are, both, the workers on the job. We aren’t getting nearly as much as we could from either. If the innovation increases motivation the kids will work harder; do better. If the innovation lets the students do more work on the web, the teachers’ work can upgrade. I’m not sure about efforts to recruit better, train better. It might be that the ‘problems’ with the teacher-force grow out of what teaching is. In truth it’s probably not now a very attractive job and not a very attractive career. Rather than lose ourselves in fighting the ‘symptoms’ this arrangement produces, why don’t we make teaching a really good job and a really good career? Our strategy talks about innovating with ‘school’ -- which means, creating truly professional roles for teachers. Let them be in charge; perhaps have the administrators working for them. You should look at the schools that do operate like this.

Question from Mary Belknap Teacher Education Coordinator, Jackson Community College, Jackson MI:

Student motivation and innovation is a direct result of teacher motivation and innovation. How can we expect new teacher innovation and motivation to occur when often they are not modeled or introduced to the concepts at an early start in their career training? Do most universities truly model and support such concepts? When participating in field work, do pre-service teachers see these concepts occurring? Are new teachers truly supported by veteran teachers if they attempt innovative classroom ideas to motivate students? What should teacher training programs offer to stimulate new teachers to be innovative?

Ted Kolderie:

What comes to mind is Larry Cuban’s continued insistence that the constraint is the conditions of teachers’ work. There simply isn’t the time or the resources for computers, or for innovation. I suspect, too, that there is some inclination in schools of education to train teachers in What Works rather than to encourage them to ‘innovate’. Not everybody wants the classroom teacher to be creative. So it might be more effective to change the conditions of teachers’ work than to re-train the training institutions. We tend to like the schools where the teacher-activity is collegial rather than by-the-classroom.

Question from Frank J. Hagen, Adjunct Professor - Wilmington University, Principal - Retired:

One barrier to innovation in school is the traditional approach to preparing principals. What do you propose to prepare principals to be the “innovation leaders” and not the “innovation blockers” and keeps of the “status quo”?

Ted Kolderie:

I’d be interested to know how far, while you were a principal, you allowed and encouraged teachers to innovate with schooling. If you did, then probably the answers is: more principals like you. If that seems hard, then think about arrangements that put greater authority in the hands of the teachers . . . and I mean, put with a formally-organized group of teachers who accept, collegially, the responsibility for school/student success.

Question from Bruce Braciszewski, Executive Director, Classroom of the Future Foundation:

What can educational leaders do to create a culture that encourages innovation in educational system that often discourages risk taking and out of the box thinking?

Ted Kolderie:

Tolerate the ‘different’, I suppose. Give schools and teachers a fair amount of slack; tolerate some failure. They’ll learn from the experience. Once in a discussion about school-based decision-making I heard a superintendent say: If we let other people make decisions some of those decisions will be wrong, and how can we permit that? (You have to think about this a moment.) That’s a sure way to stifle innovation and risk-taking.

Question from Lesley Stone, Communications, Pennsylvania HIgh School Coaching Initiative:

Instructional coaching is a promising strategy to “improve student achievement"; motivated teachers are better able to motivate their students. Instructional coaching provides a scaffolding that encourages reflective practices and instruction, and while certainly requiring change for implementation, can be accomplished “while also permitting traditional approaches to continue.” Instructional coaching in Pennsylvania is making “improvement increasingly possible,” and “maximizing student and teacher motivation.” Mr. Kolderie, have you any comments/thoughts on instructional coaching as a high school reform strategy?

Ted Kolderie:

It sounds like a useful approach to improving the current model of schooling. Generally, ‘coaching’ makes sense to me. Very few successful basketball coaches, I suspect, simply tell their teams how to do it. Our group’s interest, as you perhaps can tell, is in innovating beyond the current/conventional model of school. Individualized, project-based, work would be an example. But in that model I’d guess there would also be a useful role for coaching. A teacher in a project-based school said to me once: “Pretty soon the student knows more about the subject that you do”. Handling the ‘adviser’ role requires new teaching skills.

Question from Susan R. Stengel, Founding Director, Foundation for Excellence in Education:

We already know from the research what works in the classroom. The problem seems to be getting teachers to actually implement the new strategies consistently. Do you agree with this? If so, what do you propose to get teachers on a dynamic course of continuous improvement?

Ted Kolderie:

Do we know, really? Probably we know what works better and less-well given what’s been tried so far. What about all the things not yet tried? It’s an interesting question at what point in the development of new technologies it’s possible to say: “Hold it; this is the model we want to go with”. Automobiles in 1905? Aircraft in 1920? Would we in 1975 have felt it would be good to settle on the-right model for comoputing; the ‘mini’? Would you really want to argue against innovation in schooling, given what’s recently become available through the internet, web, data-bases, search-engines, etc.?

Question from Dr. Ami Hicks, Adjunct Professor, Roosevelt University, Educational Leadership:

The research studies that I have read for many years talk about increased student engagement (Dewey) increases student performance and achievement. When students are involved in authentic assessment in performance activities (UbD. and Differentiation)they are involved with learning. Why do you feel that vocational courses are not being embraced as partners with the academic courses to increase student performance?

Ted Kolderie:

I’d guess, because this -- essentially project-based -- learning doesn’t produce the subject-matter knowledge valued by conventional assessment. There is an interest now in work-based learning; kids earning money and credit at the same time. Talk to John Gardner in Milwaukee; formerly on the Milwaukee board of education.

Question from Cathie M. Currie, Ph.D., Currie Outcomes R&D, Inc., New York, NY:

Tests, both classroom and standardized, require a large proportion of teacher and student time but often seem to suppress motivation for many students. How could test items and the testing experience be improved so that the tests create more motivation for learning?

Ted Kolderie:

I hear the same thing. I know a high school near Chicago where the students bargained with the principal: We won’t blow off the tests if we can get your help improving the parking policy around this place. Seriously: Wouldn’t you want to start the other way ‘round? That is, create the more-motivating learning and then introduce some reasonable form of test/assessment into that? I’m hearing that people experimenting with games are building into the game a reporting of how well and how fast which students win; figure the game out.

Question from Lewis Cohen, Ex. Director, Coalition of Essential Schools:

How can innovation take place in a climate where “success” is judged against standards and measures designed for what is (or has been)rather than what needs to be?

Ted Kolderie:

I worry that it can’t -- and I’ll bet you do too. Probably the only way is to develop new standards of quality. This is Clayton Christensen’s story about the Sony Walkman radio. It wasn’t better-made than the radio in the corner of the living room. It didn’t have better sound. It was better only in terms of a new quality nobody had applied to the nice walnut radio in the corner of the living room. It was portable. We need to think: What’s the equivalent of ‘portable’ when it comes to new approaches to, new concepts of, learning?

Question from Carmela Gomes, Support Provider, LAUSD District Intern Program:

Why do you call “standards, accountability, and charter schools” strategies? System reforms are not methods of delivery. Can you agree that what are commonly called strategies are usually guidelines? Scripted approaches and rigorous, unbending timelines leave little room for innovation and development of a repertoire of strategies to provide access to the curriculum by all students?

Ted Kolderie:

Whatever the words, you make exactly the distinction we make between changes in the ‘system’ and changes in school and schooling. We’d say that standards/accountability make achievement more necessary. But Mike Smith’s original notion for ‘systemic reform’ was that these would not translate into rigid guidelines imposed on schools. Too often, apparently, they have. Several of you are commenting about this. Chartering should make innovation/flexibility more possible.

Question from Jeannette Downes, Professional Developer, NYC, DOE, PS 138, UFT TC:

How can we motivate students when they know as well as we do that the one criteria that will affect successful completion of HS is passing Regents (in NY) exams? Is it possible to affect change under the current overarching system that values test scores over individuality? To what degree do you see NCLB as the culprit?

Ted Kolderie:

All I think of is to offset the test-pressures to the extent possible with other learning-activities (to the extent there’s time). I know the frustrations that exist in NYC especially about this. We’ve been interested in the ‘competitions’ -- in science, robotics, critical thinking, Odyssey of the Mind, etc. etc. I wish somebody would write these up as a form of learning. I think some schools might deliberately decide to emphasize more-motivating activities even at some sacrifice to the rankings that result on the exams. Tough choice.

Question from Rhonda Hounshell, Curriculum:

Schooling must change. The interaction between teacher and student must become the focus. How can we measure this interaction in a data driven community of learners?

Ted Kolderie:

I wonder how you’d describe the ‘interaction’. The traditional model involves what you might call the technology of teacher-instruction; what John Goodlad described in A Place Called School. Think about the ‘coaching’ relationship. Totally different relationship, isn’t it? What if we conceived of the student as the primary worker; the (adult, teacher) as adviser and guide? One way to measure something as intangible as a ‘relationship’ is by measuring satisfaction. Goodlad had a nice passage in Educational Renewal, page 209, about “the degree to which we undervalue Satisfaction as a measure”. (I had the book right within reach!)

Question from Nicholas Hobar, CLO, LearningFront:

People like Tiger Woods, Steve Jobs, and the Beetles are considered the “greatest of their time” because they dominate in a way that changes the way people do something. And millions of people follow their lead as benchmarks of quality. Who are three great innovators of today that are demonstrably changing the way teaching takes place and students learn? And how do we engage in the process with them?

Ted Kolderie:

I’m not sure it’s possible yet to see figures of this prominence in the field of educational innovation. Our sense is that at this early stage the innovation is much closer to the ground; much smaller-scale, fine-grained. Perhaps in time it will be clear who hit on the truly successful models; their stature will rise. There are of course some ‘brand names': Montessori, perhaps KIPP. But a lot of the push for ‘larger’ and more-prominent involves expanding exising models. This standardizing isn’t conducive to innovation. Somebody else answer: Am I missing something, somebody, obvious?

Question from Molly Freeman, Consultant/Researcher:

Perhaps for innovation to occur their needs to be an expanded imagination for re-thinking schooling, by whom, where, when? Can you comment?

Ted Kolderie:

There sure does. And E|E stresses: Get outside the conventional ‘givens’. Way too much of the thing about change occurs within the traditional frameworks -- of school, of teaching, or school-organization. We see lots of people trying to increase professional opportunities for teachers, for example, within the existing public-bureau, boss/worker model of school. Why not get outside that ‘fire department’ model . . . why not think in terms of the professional partnership model we all know in other occupations we call professional? There the professionals are in charge and have the administrators working for them. Probably it’s the non-experts who’re likely to think more creatively. The people not expert enough to know that it can’t be done differently. This was Hubert Humphrey’s notion of “the necessary in-competence of the politician”.

Question from Yvonne Raffini, Organizational Consultant/Trainer, Univ of North Texas:

How can we encourage and involve more collaborative efforts from the local employers and from local community service organizations? It seems to me that partnerships developed within high school transition programs do increase opportunities for work experiences, job shadowing and other employment to maximize student (SLD) potential. Would you agree?

Ted Kolderie:

I haven’t been to these meetings myself, but I’ve heard that the Annenberg Institute, Warren Simmons, has the last few years been gathering-together community organizations that help in much the ways you suggest. Ron Wolk has gone to these: ask . Or look on the Annenberg site.

Question from Tim McClung:

What are the barriers that keep the public education system from being innovative?

Ted Kolderie:

This is not simple. The problem isn’t limited to education; to school districts. Most organizations, even in the private sector, have great difficulty making more than incremental change. Read Clayton Christensen: The Innovator’s Dilemma. On our website click on Assertion #2 on the home page. That’ll take you to a really good explanation of the problem. Define ‘innovation’ as any change, no matter how small, and a different answer comes up. Most organizations then look ‘innovative’.

Question from Ray Rossomando, Sr. Policy Advisor, CT State Senate:

There is a movement to decentralize a more significant amount of decision making to the school level then had been done in previous models(see Boston Pilot Schools, Connecticut CommPACT Schools, Philly/Microsoft School of the Future, etc.), to what degree can this sort of decentralization -- “systemic reform within the system” -- counteract schools “designed almost to suppress motivation”?

Ted Kolderie:

The more points at which significant decisions about schooling can be made, the greater the potential for introducing real innovation. A more distributed/dispersed system of decision-making would be helpful . . . tho it surely would distress the centralists and standardizers. It probably matters for innovation, though, who exercises the authority at the school. Normally we say: the principal. But go on the Education|Evolving website and read about the teacher-partnership schools.

Question from Wayne Booker, Director Performance Mgt and Professional Development, Memphis City Schools:

When will we reevaluate or reassess the 180 day (9 month) school year, so that there is not such a significant loss of skills from one school year to the next for students? If not more time in the classroom for students, then we need to look at 12 month employment for teachers, with the time during the summer spent on professional development rather than attempting to do this during the SY.

Ted Kolderie:

Your question raises an important issue. The E|E paper suggests that “We” don’t reassess, change, anything for everybody. The practical approach, we suggest, is to let individual schools try things -- like a year-round school. Let others see how it works, and adopt that model if they like it. Again: this does assume greater school-level autonomy. Take a look at Minnesota New Country School; look at the way it uses time through the year.

Question from Joe Wilson, Principal, Ithaca High School:

Many argue that underserved students need a highly structured very predictable learning enviroment with, among other things, an almost robotic adherence to explicit rules for behavior. The cite the Kipp Schools as evidence. Most “innovations” and “innovative” schools are the antitheis and seem built on a foundation of skills, academic motivation, background knowledge not associated with the underserved (i.e. poor and minority group members) Are “innovative” schools for all, and how do you square a Kipp Model with the Montesoori like structure associate with innovate schools?

Ted Kolderie:

How ‘square’ the different approaches? I would say . . . by reaffirming the differences among students and the usefulness of adapting schooling to these differences. I guess I’m inferring a sense that there ought to be some single ‘best’ for all; and am resisting that. Does there have to be an ‘antithesis’, a conflict, here?

Question from Tom Welch, Education Consultant:

I don’t understand why we remain hung up on learning tied to geography (e.g. “schools”) and time (the Carnegie Unit). Why should students be deprived of opportunity just because they live in a zipcode without innovative educators, or because they can’t fit the right course into their day at 10:32 for exactly one or two semesters? Aren’t the adults the only ones who don’t know this is 2008?

Ted Kolderie:

I guess we don’t either. And education, schooling, is in the process of breaking loose from time-and-place, isn’t it? So-called ‘virtual learning’ is expanding rapidly in some states: MN, PA, elsewhere. This is true in post-secondary education, too. We have two online universities in Minneapolis: Capella and Walden. Kaplan has an online teacher-training program, run by a person who lives here; works out of Chicago. Teachers really seem to like the flexibility of the online/anytime schooling. And feel they have better relationships with their students than they do in the classroom. See if you can check Blue Sky, a chartered online school in Minnesota.

Question from Rhonda Hounshell, curriculum:

Why do you think that K-12 is so reluctant to actualize innovative reform measures?

Ted Kolderie:

This deserves a full answer. It’s not simple. I suggest you go to home page and click on Assertion #2; then on the second bullet under that. It’s all there.

Question from Natasha LaVine, esearcher, WestEd:

Have you seen any promising examples of transference of knowledge from innovative schools to more traditional schools? How and/or is this taking place and how can these programs and practices be replicated?

Ted Kolderie:

One of the most puzzling things -- visible especially re the charter field -- is that notion that it’s up to the innovative school to pass on what it learns to the traditional. In a well-structured system organizations move on their own initiative to seek out and copy better ways of doing things. If districts don’t do this then K-12 is not a well-structured system. The strategic planning director for a Bell System company said to me years ago: “We learned that innovation always moves faster between organizations than within them”. This seems to argue for maximizing the number of points at which decisions to change can be made. Seems, in other words, to argue for school-level decision-making.

Question from Emily, Student, University of Connecticut:

What are the strategies you would suggest for beginning this revolution of education? It’s a major task to ask of anyone and though I, like others I’m sure, would love to participate in it, but I’m not so certain of what I can do to make it happen.

Ted Kolderie:

You’re a student. How about writing your own paper about the need and about some of the innovative models you see there in CT. Take it to your legislators; talk about it. One good legislator can do a lot.

Question from Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom, Associate Director of Network Development, The Henry Ford Learning Institute:

As you say here, innovative instruction and projects are happening at the classroom and school level. It’s hard, though, to generate systemic movement without having solid assessment tools and practices in place. What have you come across in terms of tools that help evaluate student growth in terms of skills and knowledge around innovation?

Ted Kolderie:

By ‘systemic movement’ I take it you mean: get others to follow; to replicate. I agree: that is hard -- especially if the innovation involves new concepts of schooling and different notions of what success means; what ‘being educated’ means. In that case the traditional assessments might not work well at all. I’m afraid, really, that work on alternative assessments is only beginning . . . and that innovative models will have to do a lot of work to generate assessments appropriate for their new approach.

Question from Daniel Steinberg, Education Director, Princeton University:

What should University research centers and institutes with education/outreach programs do to help improve student motivation and learning?

Ted Kolderie:

I looked at your website . . . and I’d say the answer is: Do what Daniel Steinberg at Princeton is doing! I hope others really will do that; just search for your name on the Princeton home page. I keep saying to my education-reporter friends: You emphasize how important standards and accountability are. But you don’t write about Mrs. Jones’ chemistry lecture. Almost everything you write is about KIDS DOING THINGS. Why is this? I ask. These things don’t necessarily improve scores-on-tests. It gets them thinking about what is important. Bothers them some.

Question from John Harris Loflin, Senior Fellow, Black & Latino Policy Institute, Indianapolis:

What part, if any, does the concept of democatic classrooms and schools (where students have a voice in decisions that are made) play in spzarking the innovation Kolderie suggests?

Ted Kolderie:

Ah, let me suggest you look at In this Saint Paul chartered school (a) the teachers, organized as a cooperative, are in charge and (b) they have written a school ‘constitution’ that makes the students the Congress. The Congress sets the dress policy and the attendance policy. Perhaps Carrie Bakken there can send you something about how this works. In a nutshell: The teacher partnership is a democratic process; the student Congress is a democratic process. Ask Walter Enloe at Hamline University about this.

Question from Gregg Sinner, School Redesign Specialist, Education Alliance, Brown University:

What can you say about the power of the arts; generative learning – with students bringing their own particular genius to the table; and interconnecting what we need kids to learn with what students themselves can contribute to innovation and a radical new story of learning and schooling? The What Kids Can Do ( project comes to mind….

Ted Kolderie:

I see this as a question generally about kids being active; doing things. Could be the arts: An earlier questioner said how helpful she finds the arts. But it could be in any field, no? I went to Benson High in Omaha. I think back; realize they had us doing-things all the time: music, drama, debate, journalism, drill-squad, etc. I know a whiz in math who always taught using a problem-based approach: You have to do something; to find the answer you need to know some math. But it’s true, too: Different kids learn in different ways. Good not to fall into the one-best-way.

Question from Joe Petrosino, EdD,Career & Tech Ed.:

How can we get all of the stakeholders to trust that motivating students is one of the key challenges?

Ted Kolderie:

The E|E paper quotes Yankelovich: There’s always an extra level of effort people can give you if they want. So the importance of motivation ought to be obvious; people ought to believe it. Yet I’m astounded how little sense there is in the policy discussion that -- as Mary Metz at Wisconsin/Madison says -- “Students hold veto power over all education reforms”. Once people accept that motivation is important the trick probably is to customize schooling. We had a Teacher of the Year recently in Minnesota who went around saying, “Only individualized education can leave no child behind”.

Question from Joan Jaeckel, Founder, The GENERATION Project: Validating conscious parenting. Promoting education for the whole child.:

In my view, we now need to focus on designing a K-12 curriculum in accordance with the evolutionary developmental curve of the growing child’s mind, emotional development and physical readiness. We ought to totally stop classifying students as “fast” or “slow” and focus on each child’s strengths and challenges. That is the most important innovation. It would make the biggest difference in student enthusiasm, happiness and learning. The “Waldorf” educational approach is, to my knowledge, the most complete articulation of an evolutionary developmental K-12 curriculum and creative teaching methodology. For example, teaching two foreign languages beginning in 1st grade in order to take advantage of the brain’s linguisitic genius that lasts only until about age nine. Or following the brain-friendly listen-speak-draw-write-read sequence of language aquisition. Do you agree that the developmental state of the child’s consciousness ought to be at the center of our awareness when we design schooling? If so, why, and if not, why not?

Ted Kolderie:

I pass. I’m not a psychologist; am not qualified in learning theory and practice. I’m in policy work. Our group simply tries to expand the opportunity for people, like you, who are the experts, to do/try what they think might work better.

Question from Barbara Bowen, Sound Knowledge Strategies:

I love what you shared about the student who told you: “I’m trying to understand how people learn.” Would schools where students and teachers explore this question, develop their explanations/theories and then apply them to improve learning, be the kind of systemic innovation of the kind that you are promoting?

Ted Kolderie:

Sure. It’s the kind of at least POTENTIALLY systemic innovation. If ‘understanding how people learn’ is a learning objective for the student then we’re clearly needing some new and different kind of assessment -- true? One kind of innovation creates the need for another. Getting something this different to spread widely . . . become ‘systemic’ . . . is something else again. But the E|E paper deals with that question, too; in its proposal for a ‘split screen’ approach to system-change.

Question from Dr. Emma J. Armendariz, Director of Bilingual Education, Las Cruces Public Schools:

Would the innovations you feel need to happen include requiring that all students learn a second language, in addition to English, as one of the essential pieces for the world our students will live in as adults?

Ted Kolderie:

I’m sure in favor of young people today learning world languages: A young Education|Evolving associate is in Damascus right nows, learning Arabic on the street. But can we really ‘require’ a student to learn a second language? I was required to take a ‘foreign language’. I didn’t learn it. I sometimes ask Hispanic kids if their school teaches Spanish. Sure, they say. I ask: Do you guys speak Spanish? Sure, they say. Does the school ever ask you to help the Anglos learn Spanish? They laugh: No way. Asked about this once, a Spanish teacher in Minneapolis said: I don’t want them learning incorrect grammar.

Question from Gloria Burks,Assistant Principal, B C Rain H S, Mobile County Public School System:

Have you identified any emerging innovations or different forms of schooling that show signs of stimulating secondary students’ motivation to a scope and degree that’s worthy of the attention of would be reformers? Momentum for reform may just need a few good seed ideas to be cast.

Ted Kolderie:

Yes; we think so. We’re very interested in project-based schooling for its effect on motivation. It customizes; it relates to real-world applications. Look at the program in to see a secondary school almost entirely project-based. These folks now have even an online project-based school. I like your ‘seed’ notion. Throw out ideas; some will grow. A friend likes to say: Farmers don’t grow corn; farmers help corn grow.

Question from Nancy Doll, Principal, Dana Gray Elementary:

I’m interested in innovative tips for involving staff members to become more comfortable working with data to drive instruction; what can you offer?

Ted Kolderie:

I see you’re in elementary . . . so are probably involved with reading. Have a look on and Search for Bob Wedl’s writing about research on reading instruction. Look, too, for what he writes about the “Age3/Grade3" model. (Bob is an E|E associate; was commissioner in MN.) Bob writes a lot about formative assessment of reading skills. That 3/3 model is itself an innovation, of the ‘organizational’ sort. It’s a combination of child care and ‘early education’ and the primary grades; but in a single coherent organization with a literacy program spanning all five years. An innovative use of charterin; a way to combine the resources available for child care and those available for K-3.

Question from Robin Chait, Senior Education Policy Analyst, Center for American Progress:

What do you think is the role of federal policy in promoting innovative schools?

Ted Kolderie:

It’s got to be mixed, doesn’t it? The U.S. Department has had an Office of (Choice and) Innovation: Nina Rees; then Morgan Brown. And there’s a program of start-up aid for charters the supports new (hopefully innovative) schools. Yet most people seem to feel that in other ways the effect of the federal role is toward standardizing. The key role is probably state. K-12 exists in state law. A key strategy is to create an ‘open’ sector in K-12 in which new and innovative schools can be set up. Some day I’d like to see the President deliver his/her national program for education to the legislature of a state. Nothing in the Constitution says a President can speak only to Congress.

Erik Robelen (Moderator):

That’s all we have time for today. Thanks very much for all the great questions. And thanks again to our guest, Ted Kolderie, for an informative discussion of the issues. A transcript of the chat will be posted later today on

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