New schools and old

Energy, enterprise, and ardor overflowed the hotel at the annual hootenanny of the New Schools Venture Fund, held last week near Silicon Valley. Hundreds of education innovators (and some profiteers and hangers-on) thronged this invitational "meet market," gossiping, exchanging business cards, exploring deals, commiserating about political and bureaucratic obstacles, and talking about curriculum, teachers, technology, and test scores.

One cannot help but contrast that scene with standard-issue education conferences, where real innovativeness is in short supply, resentment of change is the norm, and the best-loved speakers are those who rationalize the current performance of U.S. schools and decry the scoundrels who aver that the nation is in jeopardy.

New Schools attendees are younger and leaner, too, less fixated on the next cocktail hour or exhibitor break.

Twenty years ago, America had practically no "new schools," except for old-school replicas built to handle burgeoning enrollments in sun-belt communities and metropolitan exurbs. Schools were permanent institutions of brick and mortar. They didn't start from scratch; they didn't get "reconstituted"; they were not subject to redesigning; and they almost never closed, save in rare circumstances where demographics forced reluctant boards to risk community ire by mothballing buildings for which there were too few pupils (or tax dollars) to go around.

Now and then a private school might spring up, and Catholic parishes occasionally shuttered schools with too few paying customers. But public schools, like libraries, parks or churches, were assumed to be eternal. It was not uncommon for kids to attend the same school their parents had. (This happened to me in Ohio, in the 1950s.) A school might get a new building or (more likely) an addition to the old one, but the school itself was forever.

That static picture began to change in the 1960s as activists, technocrats, and judges devised "magnet" schools and special programs to serve particular populations of kids or attract youngsters to schools far from their neighborhoods. And the pace of change accelerated in the 1980s and '90s as state standards and results-based accountability intersected with the school choice movement, the idea of "school wide" Title I programs, the invention of charter schools, a handful of pedagogical visionaries (e.g. Sizer, Comer, Deborah Meier) who sought to "reinvent" schools, and a cadre of entrepreneurs who imagined themselves sewing entire new school designs from whole cloth. In the for-profit sector there was Chris Whittle and the Edison Project. In the nonprofit world arose the "New American Schools Development Corporation," brainchild of Lamar Alexander and David Kearns, and the dozen "design teams" that it spawned (e.g. Modern Red Schoolhouse), which in time morphed into the hundreds of school blueprints that Uncle Sam underwrote via the "comprehensive school reform" program.

Those immortal old schools, we finally realized, were often working badly, not teaching their students enough, and failing to keep pace with technological innovations, organizational breakthroughs, and fast-changing delivery systems.

But it was mighty damn hard to change them. For a host of reasons, they were profoundly set in their ways and resistant to well-intended efforts to cajole or nudge them into doing things differently. Sure, the odd "new program" might be grafted onto them, to the point that some schools were tugged in myriad directions by competing rules, loyalties, and "categorical" funding streams. But the underlying school was practically immune to change and the new programs usually lasted only so long as their outside funders were willing to write checks.

If changing an old school was as arduous (Admiral Rickover once remarked) as moving a graveyard, and yet the nation was at risk due to the weak performance of thousands of such schools, perhaps creating new schools was the way to go. Importantly, though, that didn't necessarily mean a new brick and mortar edifice. We came to see that the school-as-educational-institution could be distinguished from school-as-physical-structure. Indeed, the advent of "virtual" schools and programs serving "home schoolers" showed that education, even high-quality education, could occur almost anywhere, not just in buildings called schools.

As for those buildings where most youngsters still go during the day to be taught, we came to regard them more like the shells of hermit crabs, temporary homes for education programs that could and sometimes should be replaced. New schools could inhabit old buildings (and storefronts, church basements, and warehouses). Indeed, multiple schools could cohabit in the same building. And far from being permanent institutions, they existed only so long as they delivered the goods. If not, they might (if they were charter schools) be closed by their sponsors or lose their customers. They might, like a host of Philadelphia schools, be "outsourced" to diverse private operators. Or they might, under state "accountability" plans or the federal No Child Left Behind law, be "reconstituted": their principal, teaching team, and curriculum all replaced by different and (one hoped) more effective alternatives.

Sometimes there was a whiff of profit to be made or the lure of foundation grants. Often it was just the thrill of fleeing a failed regimen and "starting my own school," the excitement of inventing something afresh or taking a success "to scale," or the compulsion to change the educational lives of desperately needy children. Multiple and overlapping motives abound in the blooming, buzzing world of new schools.

Nobody says a new school is inherently a good school any more than an old one is automatically a failure. There are plenty of false starts and failed ventures. There are some hucksters. There are well-meaning people in the grip of daffy education notions. There are start-ups that cannot make it and expansion efforts that falter.

New schools, we now know, aren't easy, either, though I sense that they enjoy better odds than efforts to change old ones. (Some "reconstitution" schemes contain elements of both.) But it is not to be denied that they're drawing some terrific folks into this field; keeping some who would otherwise throw up their hands and head for the exit; and liberating others to range wider and do more than the old system allows. They're bringing in money, too, not least from the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who support the New Schools Venture Fund and its ilk.

Hence the excitement at the recent Redwood City summit - the buzz, the impressive talent, the imagination, the networking, the note-comparing, the hustling and the headhunting. At minimum, new schools are a vital tonic for the old ones. But I sense that more is happening here, that we're seeing a profound shift in basic assumptions about what a school is and the ground rules by which it does or does not continue. Education is a permanent fixture of every society but that doesn't mean schools should be immortal. Why were we so slow to figure this out?

More By Author