An elder statesman speaks

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

Being an education reformer is often frustrating. No matter how zealously we push an idea or how smart we think it is, sometimes nothing changes. Or—the Common Core is a recent example—we make fast, bold gains at the outset, only to see our efforts watered down, neutered, or repudiated outright. Sure, we take solace in education’s slow, steady improvement. But this, too, frustrates us because kids grow up fast and shouldn’t have to wait for the upgrades they needed yesterday.

The respected education innovator (and inaugural Charter School Hall of Famer) Ted Kolderie sums it up well in his provocative new book:

Trying endlessly to push change into an inert system makes no basic sense. A concept of education policy built on this theory of action does not work; is not practical…Nor does the effort to transform the system radically through political action succeed. It, too, is not practical. A political majority for radical change is almost a contradiction in terms.

Kolderie knows the reform struggles of the last thirty years as well as anybody, and The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation does a fantastic job of showing the limitations of these faulty assumptions and naïve dreams.

Take charter schools, which have underperformed and proven unnecessarily contentious. Part of the problem is that their advocates early on lost sight of chartering’s original purpose: giving educators the freedom to do things differently.

This vision led even the AFT’s Al Shanker to back chartering at its debut. Today, however, proponents are lost in the orthodoxy of “closing achievement gaps” and pushing for replication and “scaling.” Success is now defined as outperforming district schools on standardized state tests. That strategy has led to some great results by high-flyers like KIPP—but it isn’t enough. Along the way, chartering has become irrelevant to rural and suburban America. And its narrow criteria for success stifle technological innovation and impede broader ideas of student achievement.

The solution, Kolderie argues, is a “split screen strategy” that supports worthy current reform efforts (like those of successful CMOs and open-minded school districts), but also makes room for open-source innovation. He calls for giving people across the K–12 sector, especially those at the school level, freedom to try new things. Specifically, Kolderie wants a number of charters and district schools to function as testing grounds, pilot sites, and R&D generators—a return to the original idea of chartering, but applied to “a modest sector” of K–12 schools.

These schools would serve as “skunk works” for America’s wider school-improvement efforts. They would experiment with pedagogy and alternate definitions of success, free from current accountability requirements. Teachers would “call the shots” and be treated as true professionals who own their schools. They would control the budget, design accountability systems, make employment decisions, shape curricula, handle school calendars, and manage technology.

In return, states and districts will hold them accountable for the results they promise. If they deliver, they’ll be encouraged to continue—and maybe even to expand—their efforts. If they fail, they’ll lose their innovator status and return to a more traditional model.

Can this actually work? Kolderie and his organization, Education/Evolving, studied current schools where the teachers run the show, like New Country in Minnesota and the IDEAL schools in Milwaukee, which are largely free from union rules, district constraints, and traditional accountability requirements. Early evidence from these teacher-operated schools suggests that they can work for students.

Is it fanciful? Something that can only work in the northern Midwest? Kolderie’s reform agenda is ambitious, maybe a tad wishful, but also rigorously reasoned and stimulating. Politically, it surely faces obstacles, including the reformers themselves. But, in the end, his proposal could lead to more gains and less frustration. At the very least—considering the costs, controversies, and marginal successes of so many of today’s top-down reforms—his vision is certainly worth serious consideration.


Terry Ryan is the president of the Idaho Charter School Network and was the vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for twelve years.

 

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