Federal Opinion

A ‘Split Screen’ Strategy for Innovation

By Ted Kolderie — November 08, 2011 6 min read
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The key question of education innovation is whether schools and teachers will be free to adapt to the needs, aptitudes, interests, and motivations of their students.

But that’s hardly the way the question is framed today. In fact, innovation is not central in the consensus strategy for improvement, and, to the extent the idea of innovation appears, few suggest it could be entrusted to schools.

Progress usually comes as inventions move directly to users, but all the current pressure in K-12 is to separate inventor and user with a layer of bureaucracy and special interests dedicated to the principle that schools and teachers may do things differently only with permission. Probably this is because education is seen as something adults do to young people. Students learn in school. The state decides what students are to learn. Experts say how teachers are to teach. If students are not learning well, research shows what to do, so replicating “what works” passes for innovation.

Teachers then are not seen as the people to be in charge of innovation, and despite the talk about “student centered” learning, there is little support for truly individualizing learning.

The consensus theory about improvement is not finely tuned to differences among students, nor is it greatly interested in motivation; some would go so far as to say it is quite wrong to begin with what interests students. This consensus attitude seems confident (surely a breathtaking assertion) that simply ensuring that states have high standards will ensure that students learn well. Because so many minds are fixed on improving traditional schooling, people talk of classrooms, where teachers deliver education, and describe teachers as effective or ineffective (as if teacher performance were that simple to sum up). There seems little sense that school is “old media” or that digital technology will change teaching profoundly.

Neither the conventional approach to learning nor the conventional approach to system change has been conspicuously successful, and real concern remains about the financial sustainability of the current K-12 system.

So perhaps there is a case for innovation.

Assessment today is an assay looking for the presence of particular skills and knowledge. It should be an analysis identifying all the skills and knowledge present."

Pushed now from the national level, the conventional effort might succeed. But no one can be sure of that. It is a risk—and not a necessary or acceptable one, since this nation could at the same time be trying other, unconventional approaches.

Given this risk, education should be hedging its bets and innovating with learning while continuing to improve existing schools. These two different approaches would provide a split-screen approach to system change that could accommodate different visions and comfort levels for innovation while moving learning forward.

Successful systems change through innovation in a context of choice. They are open to new models, which early adopters pick up quickly; those who prefer the traditional need not change—but may not suppress the innovative. Often low in quality at first, the new models usually improve quickly. As they do, they spread: Computers replace typewriters; cellphones replace land-line phones.

If education is to be a successful system, a self-improving system, it should follow that formula. Run the consensus strategy with existing schools, but be open also to new schools testing the idea of teachers choosing what they think will work for their students.

Chartering was to be a platform for innovation and, to a significant degree, it has been. Recently, though, it has come to be dominated by an effort hostile to innovation that tries to scale up conventional “quality schools” as defined by high test scores.

So it falls to states to try again to create zones in which autonomous (chartered, alternative, and district) schools are free to try new things.

Schools in this demonstration zone would innovate on several fronts. First, surely with digital software. Electronic technology can individualize, varying the pace of learning so students move faster if they can and more slowly if they need to. Personalization is the next dimension of choice. It frees teachers from a rigid course-and-class model and motivates students. This latter piece matters tremendously: Students are workers, along with teachers, on the job of learning. Whatever extra effort comes from students comes for free.

Second, with the definition of achievement. Improving achievement should be a horizontal concept (broader, across more fields), as well as a vertical concept (higher scores in English and math). We do want students to read and compute. But education is more than that; the country needs more than that. Innovation is constrained today by the narrow vertical concept of achievement.

There is an equity issue here. Assessment currently is an assay looking for the presence of particular skills and knowledge. It should be an analysis identifying all the skills and knowledge present. Among those young people not doing well with English and math, there probably are skills and knowledge that deserve to be recognized and respected.

Third, teachers’ roles. These roles can shift, since personalization requires knowing students, and this is a teacher’s domain. So digital implies shifting decisions to teachers—collegially. Teachers can become less deliverers of instruction and more managers of learning. As professionals, they can organize in partnerships, around a department or a school. There are schools today like this, and they work.

Where teachers control what matters for school success, teachers accept responsibility for school success. This professional role matters, as we will not attract and retain top-quality people unless we make teaching a better job and career.

The governors and legislators creating innovation-demonstration zones should allow schools and educators to choose to join: We do not normally assign people to innovate. The schools involved should also be small so failures will be small, and they must be autonomous so they can fix their problems quickly.

Conventional thinking will be uncomfortable with this. So will state departments of education, used to saying “you can’t” and “you’ll have to.” So will all those who see improvement as something done centrally and fail to see the virtues of a decentralized system.

This country could be getting far more than it is from its teachers and young people, but only if it broadens beyond the effort to do incremental innovation everywhere and opens itself to radical innovation in a limited sector. Split-screen reform will take our national education policy discussion away from its unproductive debates about which idea is The Right Idea. And, because such a strategy is unlikely to emerge from conventional policy discussions, we depend on governors and legislators to bring the split-screen strategy into state and national policy.

It is time to be practical. The idea of the split screen, with schools and teachers free to try things, is a good idea and a doable one. A state, or several states, can create a modest set of autonomous schools and make it possible for them and their teachers to innovate as freely as they find necessary to serve the students they have and know. To innovate in a context of choice is our future and our responsibility. Let’s launch the split screen soon.

A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as A ‘Split Screen’ Strategy for Innovation


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