School Choice & Charters Opinion

My Design Specifications for 21st-Century LA Schools

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — September 15, 2016 4 min read
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I just met with some very bright students at Occidental College. Their professor, Steve Zimmer, who also heads the Los Angeles Unified School District board, asked me to think about an epilogue for our book Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education.

At the end of the book, we described LAUSD as an organization in “permanent crisis,” bouncing from one emergency to the next, stuck in trench warfare between interest groups. The interest group gridlock is even more pronounced now than it was when we wrote the book nearly a decade ago.

Neither the charter school expansion advocates or those pushing back against them have publicly acknowledged the need to create a fundamentally different school system than the one put in place a century ago. But pivoting away from debating more or fewer charters and toward designing a truly modern school system provides a window for a political breakthrough if someone had the moxie and political clout to take advantage of it.

What would I do? At the end of Learning from L.A. we suggest some policy levers that might move the huge school system toward reinvention. Given a decade’s hindsight, I’d amend those ideas with the following design principles:

First, Create a Big Umbrella

Los Angeles needs an organization that makes all its publicly financed schools work together.

Experience in New Orleans, Newark, Washington, DC, and other cities indicates that there needs to be systemic coherence.

Increasingly, charter-friendly writers and activists, such as Andy Smarick, are coming to the conclusion that simply adding more charters doesn’t fix a city’s education system.

Second, Design With Extreme Empathy

When I interviewed Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm IDEO, about the process of rethinking systems he said, “The first step is building empathy for the stakeholders in the system.” In a school system, that means starting with the students and working out. Any idea that does not successfully motivate a student will ultimately fail.

Third, Favor Networks Over a Hierarchy

When my coauthors and I wrote Learning from L.A., we advocated systematically designing a school district around autonomous schools and networks as a way for LAUSD to rationalize charters, make them accountable, and at the same time import some of their organizing nimbleness. Some aspects of this have been incorporated in innovations such as the Belmont Zone of Choice and Pilot Schools.

Fourth, Build to Last

LEARN’s design weakness was building itself as a campaign or movement that handed off implementation to the school district. People tired, grew discouraged when LAUSD couldn’t or wouldn’t rapidly turn itself around.

It’s important to realize that the process of institutional transformation will take a while, decades not semesters.

My colleague, Carl Cohn, now head of the California Collaborative for Education Excellence, reminds his audiences that Long Beach Unified only started to get markedly better during the second five years of his superintendency.

I think if I had a billion dollars, I would take the L.A. Compact idea and give it a heavyweight permanent presence, both of supporting institutions and a skilled staff.

Fifth, Solve Structural Problems

Part of building to last involves solving big structural fiscal problems that endanger any reform or transformation problem at LAUSD.

It’s important that political and legal attention be directed toward solving the pension problem, funding special education, and making the Local Control Financing System work: this, rather than hiring big name attorneys with the idea that we can “fire our way to Finland” creating a school system on a bedrock of fear.

Sixth, Build A New Learning Infrastructure

Some years ago, I started looking at new forms of learning. The harder I looked, the more I realized that the way out of permanent crisis was a new version of education: make investments in it and build political support around those ideas and investments.

The good news is that we have it within our reach to break down the batch processing system that the Progressive Reformers brought to us from industrial manufacturing a century ago. Public education is now in an unusual situation in which relatively small investments in learning infrastructure can have substantial impact in terms of capacity building and systems changing.

What I call Learning 2.0 is partly about technology, but mostly about how humans do their work. It recognizes that students are the real workers in this system. It’s about personalization, adaptation, and continuous improvement. It’s about rapid prototyping of new ideas rather than waiting for a textbook publisher to run the gauntlet of state approvals. It’s about empowering teachers as intellectuals.

It’s about building a learning infrastructure that is available to every student, public or private, charter or district, extending the schoolhouse into the community and into the home.

Going Deeper

For a historical treatment of institutional change, see Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education. See [the book] and [a summary].

Many of the ideas about reformation of public education in Los Angeles have been the subjects of ‘On California’ columns, particularly:

The idea of a new learning system, which I call Learning 2.0.

The charter school expansion plan:

Breaking Up LAUSD, Or Not:

The opinions expressed in On California 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.