Stop Doing Experiments in Education Because Some do Not Work

Scientists should quite doing experiments because some do not work. At least that is the argument being made by some about charter schools. Some of them are bad, so we should get rid of charter schools. Historically, I do not see this same viewpoint applied to traditional schools, which suggests to me that there is more to this line of thinking. If I were talking to a critic of charter schools (and I sort of am since I am both an advocate and critic of charter schools), the critic might point out that charter schools do not have the same accountability as other schools, and that is true in many situations.

That is why it would seem to me that the argument should not be to close charter schools but to hold them accountable. That is where the majority of people end up when we have this conversation. When we start an experiment, we learn something. Based upon that, we change things and try the experiment again. We do this in iterations, improving or refining the outcome a bit more each time. It seems to me that this is how we should approach all schools.

The opposite is to defend a certain type of school because we like it or prefer it. Then we come up with measures to show that it is superior, demanding that other schools be judged by the same measures. The only problem is that those measures are not necessarily what matter most to many people.

An original purpose of charter schools was to have them serve as incubators of innovation, free from some of the policies and practices enough to try something new, monitor the results, and learn from them. If something is promising enough, then we can apply that idea to other schools as well.

We are seeing that happen. Project-based learning did not gain traction until full project-based learning charter schools started demonstrating the possibilities. We can say this for many other engaging approaches to teaching and learning. There are pockets of magnet schools and independent schools that helped demonstrate promising practices, but charters schools have been a huge means of helping to broaden our sense of what is possible. Montessori charter schools expanded awareness. Project-based learning schools helped people see the benefits and limitations of this method. The same is true for charter schools focused upon classical education, core knowledge, experiential education, inquiry-based learning, game-based learning and more.

In fact, many of these have taken off so much that leading voices in many of these areas are not longer connected with charter schools. They are in independent schools and traditional public community schools. The excitement and interest is growing and spreading.

I do not mean to claim that charter schools are the instigator of all of these innovations. There are associations, grassroots groups, education startups, and connected teachers in traditional schools who have paved the way for new ideas. This is especially true when it comes to one-to-one programs, blended learning, some game-based learning practices, maker spaces, the genius hour, and more. There is a spirit of innovation and experimentation at work in many schools.

This is all promising, but I also find myself taking an unusual position, namely I am often joining the voice of the charter school critics, not the few extremists who want to shut down the entire model, but those who call for accountability and evidence. I would add to that good, old-fashioned and candid critiques of these practices. My matra is “affordances and limitations”, and I continue to call for more of that line of thinking when it comes to any and all approaches to teaching and learning. We must come to a place where, like scientists with experiments, we strive to bracket our agendas and biases, and ask the tough questions about what we are doing, what is working, and what is not.

Not all biases can be set aside because we differ on the purpose of education, core beliefs about people and learning, and what sort of goals or outcomes we should have in education (if any). Yet, even with those differences, we can analyze the benefits and limitations. What one person calls a limitation, another will call a benefit. That is okay. Just keep unpacking these items and trust the people around to make sense of what we share. We can lobby for what we believe and value, but it is still important to ultimately leave room for people to make different decisions based upon what we find.

In the case of charters and innovations in non-charter schools, the fact is that some things are working, and some things are not. I keep saying that we need to expand what we measure if we are going to make progress. I find too many critics of charters, for example lamenting the test-driven focus in modern education, and then they turn around and critique charter schools almost solely on the basis of their test scores. That is a double standard that we has to go. Test scores as we are using them today do not tell many of us what we want to know. We need to do the hard work of studying more and diverse factors.

Put any group of teachers, parents, and school leaders in a room. Have them come up with a a list of things that they think are most important for young people to thrive after school. Then we can go back and start coming up with authentic ways to measure those things, because I can guarantee you that it goes well beyond performance on language arts and math tests.

When I use the word “experiment,” people are right to respond with a warning that we should not treat our students as experiments. They are too valuable. That is a point well-taken, and there is much from that position that can inform how we go about our efforts. However, there is a limitation to that critique. Parenting is an experiment as well. We are all learning as we go. We tend to agree that some things are important, but there is ample room for difference and experimentation also. We can say the same thing about many aspects of life, and school is one of them. That is why we continue to experiment, but we create carefully considered parameters to protect ourselves and others. We are in constant review. We are not just waiting for quarterly assessments. We are constantly monitoring what is working and not working, and we are adjusting. We are learning from and applying the best knowledge available to us.

Getting rid of our experiments in education is not the solution. Neither is politicizing the findings from these experiments.

The Power of Choice is Differentiation, Not Competition

I’ve written about this more than once before, but the context about which I’m writing is always a little different each time. This time I’m focusing on choice and charter schools. While some advocates for school choice do so based on the theory of competition, I am an advocate for them, but for an entirely different reasons. As I explain in the title, the power of school choice is differentiation, not competition.

One argument for the benefit of choice programs goes like this. If we give families and students choice on which schools to attend, then schools will experience competition for the students and be driven to improvements that make people choose them over other options. Competition is touted as the secret sauce in this alleged recipe for educational reform and success.

There is at least one major flaw with this link of thinking. Competition doesn’t necessarily create improvements, especially not improvements valued equally by all the key stakeholders – most importantly parents and students. We have evidence that there is competition conjured by choice programs, as indicated in “Every Kid is Money”: Market-Like Competition and School Leader Strategies (Jabbar, Huriya, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, December 2015). According to this study, administrators in New Orleans choice schools did “experience market pressures”, but that did not necessarily translate into school improvements. Besides, we do not all agree upon what we mean by a school improvement. As long as we are thinking about competition among largely similar school models, we are missing the true point and power of choice, charters and many other K-12 education reform experiments.

When charter schools first launched, many people thought of them as incubators for promising innovations in education. The charter would test a practice or model and, if it succeeded, people hoped that it could be transferred back into the more traditional schools. Yet, the problem with this line of thinking is the same as with the competition conjured by choice programs. We are not all keeping score the same way. What is a success to one is not a success to another. Besides, I’m not convinced that we should have a detailed and universal standard for keeping score when it comes to school success.

Parents and students have different needs and goals. Communities have different needs and goals. Yes, there are some factors upon which we can all agree. We all agree that schools should be safe and that student learning should take place. Yet, what we mean by safety and student learning continues to vary as it should. That is because, as much as we aspire to quantify performance in school, schooling is a cultural expression and an art as much or more than it is a science. Science is part of the culture, but it is not the same thing.

What makes choice and charter schools special and valuable is that they are opportunities to celebrate differentiation in philosophies and approaches to schooling that play by often wildly different rules. This commitment to creating space for a diversity of schooling models is not only the secret sauce in the education reform recipe, it is a secret sauce to many fundamental American ideals.

When will we stop judging elephants by how well they can climb trees?

You’ve probably seen the 2012 cartoon where there is a long line of animals: a monkey, penguin, seal, fish, elephant, bird, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” Welcome to the common mindset behind some of the most dominant educational policy discussions.

This cartoon relates to a conversation I once had with a school district superintendent. I was talking with her about the possibility of launching one or more magnet or charter schools within the district she serves and she was initially interested in exploring the possibility. We had trouble finding a time to meet, but a few months later I reached out to see if we could grab lunch and revisit the conversation. Her reply was something like this. “I’d love to have lunch, but I’m not sure about this charter or magnet school thing. It seems to me that if it is good for one kid, it is good for all of them. Do we really believe that? Do we believe that a uniform educational experience is the key to equity, access, and opportunity? Does that mean we think the same education or training is required for every role in family, society, and the workplace? Is this the path to helping each student discover and develop her unique gifts, talents, abilities, and passions? Is the “what is good for one is good for all” philosophy of education the best way to help people make their unique contribution to the world?

I do not question the value of a common body of knowledge to some extent, but that is different from arguing for the same type of education for every child driven by the same tests. True equity, access and opportunity will come from educational choice and a diversity of educational options. This is why I continue to argue that a great strength of the United States educational landscape is the rich diversity. On the K-12 level I’m referring to legacy public, public magnet, public charter, independent, parochial, homeschooling, unschooling, world schooling, project-based learning schools, game-based learning schools, STEM academies, bilingual schools, democratic schools, Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, and a myriad of others. On the University level I’m referring to everything from small liberal arts colleges to state Universities, blended and online options to technical and community colleges, public to private and faith-based, elite schools to a wonderfully interesting collection of alternative schools, even (maybe especially) the self-directed and uncollege options available today.

Have you noticed the recent articles and blog posts critiquing Arne Duncan for sending his children to the University of Chicago Lab Schools. Part of the critique is that he is sending his kids to a school that does not align with many of his educational reform efforts as US Secretary of Education. I appreciate that critique, but from another perspective, I commend him for selecting a school that he thinks is the best fit for his kids. Now all we need to do is to pursue more national and state policies that make such choice more widely available to the rest of the families in the country. Duncan knows that you don’t test an elephant by how well it can climb a tree, and he knows that the same thing is true when it comes to finding the right fit between a student and a school.

What does this have to do with testing and the cartoon? Standardized testing is a powerful educational technology, so powerful that it can reshape an entire school or district. It can drive schools and leaders to redesign their curriculum, schedule and priorities to make sure that students perform adequately on a given test or set of tests. That means prioritizing certain core competencies over others. It means celebrating the strengths and passions of some students while paying little attention to the gifts and interests of others. It means that some will believe that they are “good at school” while others don’t think so. It means having some students who strive to simply tolerate or survive the school day. That is a waste of a person’s gifts, talents, abilities, passions and potential; especially given that there are so many schools today that would be a great fit for these students.

Some might argue, “Haven’t you seen how poorly many charter and choice schools are performing?” Yes, there are problem schools, but there is also a problem with measuring the performance of these schools using those same tests that make elephants try to climb trees. I respect how this is a tidy want to compare schools, but it is a bit like doctors using standards for dentists. Both are healthcare workers, but they have enough differences that they probably call for a different measure of effectiveness. If we are going to measure across wildly different schools, maybe we should use measures about student engagement, holistic and personalized student growth and development, and the discovery and development of their gifts, talents, abilities, and passions.

Isn’t this just another sign of our increasingly self-absorbed culture? Students want everything their way instead of sucking it up and doing the work? I’ve talked to more than a few people who think as much, but I look at it differently. Yes, this is about a more personalized and customized approach to education. It is a recognition that people are different and we can best celebrate and maximize those differences by matching the student with the best fit school. This isn’t about catering to every whim and preference of a person. It is instead a perspective that doesn’t want to see a single student go to waste, one that aspires for learners to discover their unique contributions to the world. This is ultimately not about self-service, but it is about best positioning students to discover how they can live a rich and fulfilling life that benefits themselves and the people around them. And while some argue that focusing on STEM in our schools is the key to winning some international economic competition, I continue to defend the position that a nation and world will be better off if we invest in maximizing the potential of each person instead of sifting out those who don’t fit the STEM mold. In fact, by choosing a more personalized approach, we may find that we gain more traction than ever on everything from crime reduction to workforce and economic development.

What Innovative Education Startups & Schools Can Learn from the Rise of Craft Beer

I follow the news feeds on topics like entrepreneurship and startups, but I focus on news related to the education sector. Recently, a different type of headline caught my attention, What Your Company Can Learn from the Rise of Craft Beer. I don’t even drink beer, but something caught my attention in the title. The writer explained that craft beer sales increased by 17.2 percent while “overall beer sales” dropped by 1.9 percent. These craft beer makers are not just imitating the practices of the big name beer companies. They show a spirit of cooperation with other craft beer makers,  experiment with beer in new and creative ways, are driven by founders with a true passion for the product, and they are (collectively) looking ahead. As I read these suggested lessons in the article, I couldn’t help but notice how they also apply to those breaking new ground in the education sector, whether it is a new education startup or an innovative school model.

Do More than Imitate the Big Names

Education is full of imitation. In the higher education sector, we have a history of organizations striving to be like Harvard, Stanford or one of the élite schools. In the K-12 sector, we have private schools that often do little more than imitate the practices of the public schools but with a varying levels of exclusivity. Also in the K-12 sector, we see schools constantly striving to do and be what is trendy at the time, sometimes aided by the force of mandates. I’ve also seen University schools of education that talk more about state policies and mandates than any of the current research or cutting edge developments in the field. Among education startups I see some of the most innovative work, but even there we see people wanting to be the next [fill in the blank]. There is nothing wrong with learning from other organizations (I certainly do that all the time), but there is so much need and opportunity in taking the road less traveled in the education sector. The largest organizations are not always the best to imitate, and some truly compelling and promising innovations in the education sector are difficult or unlikely to scale. That isn’t going to captivate venture capitalists, but there are plenty of other workable funding models. This is about more than finding a blue ocean strategy. It is about breaking new ground, exploring new possibilities, and creating new opportunities. As stated by Todd Henry in the Accidental Creative, “Cover Bands Don’t Change the World.” If we are going to nurture a craft beer equivalent in the education sector (both with startups and schools), that calls for original work, or at least existing work with some creative twists.

Embrace a Spirit of Cooperation with Others Education Startups and Innovative School Startups

Years ago, when I conducted a study of the ten traits of leaders in innovative schools, this is something that stood out instantly. It didn’t take a formal study to see that these people loved to share and collaborate. They were often quick to help others who wanted to do something similar. They embraced a spirit of openness, recognizing that they were in this for something more important than patent and financial profit. This doesn’t mean that they ignored the importance of financial or competitive realities, but it does mean that they were driven by a vision that, regardless of the finances and competition, led them to lend a helping hand, share, cooperate and nurture a broader community around their work. We see this in innovative charters, magnet schools, private schools, amid certain groups like democratic and PBL schools, and elsewhere. I’d love to see this expand.

Experimenting with Education in New and Creative Ways

The article pointed out the interesting experiments coming from craft beer makers. You can find chocolate beer, hot pepper beer, oyster, key lime, peanut butter, banana and a hundred other flavors. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a widespread market for an oyster stout, maybe not for any oyster beverage. Yet, amid these experiments are some truly promising discoveries. That same thing is true in the “craft education” marketplace. As I’ve written before, I do not advocate thoughtless experimentation on children. Yet, given that the product, service or environment meets some of the basics (although even that is debatable), there is ample room to experiment, especially when we invite the learner(s) into the experimentation, making it part of the learning experience.

Passion-Driven Work

I don’t want to confuse emotion with passion. While some definitions of the word focus on emotion, I think of it more in terms of the conviction and drive. What I’m thinking of here goes far beyond a specific personality type. This is about the extent to which people truly care about what they are doing and why it matters.  They are “true believers” and while there are many challenges, they find joy in their work, and they are driven to be a difference-maker. In the education sector, I contend that work must be driven, in some way, by a desire to do something of significance, that ultimately and genuinely benefits learners. I sometimes call this the “Mr. Rogers Mindset” and it consider it a non-negotiable educational innovators.

Looking Ahead

Tradition has its benefits, but as traditions become more established, there can be a resistance to ongoing exploration of how to respond or adapt to what is new. The author of the article on craft beer explains that this looking ahead and openness to embracing the new is more welcome and open  among craft beer makers than the broader beer industry. It is the same for educational innovators. This means working through or moving behind cliché statements about new developments. I still find people who assume that using technology is somehow less personal. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There are others who resist any number of developments because they have an opinion about it, but they have not truly investigated the affordances and limitations. Looking ahead is not about adopting every new development or buzz word, but it is about keeping our eyes open, being really curious, and allowing ourselves to explore them without having our minds made up before we begin.

The “craft beer” equal in education is alive and well. We see it in new education startups, open source projects, new school starts and restarts, even in those areas with long traditions like publishing and higher education. These are movements not trying to become the next [fill in the blank], driven by leaders with a passion for their product or service, cooperative, forward thinking, and experimenting in interesting and sometimes unusual ways. Many of these are unlikely to ever become mainstream in education, but that is not always the point. They meet needs of a niche audience and they support of vision of education that is not fixed, one that realizes variety of options is a far better direction to universal standardization.