The last 24 hours has been an interesting contrast between the challenges of fixing existing schools and opportunity to design new schools.

Yesterday, I visited MLA Partner Schools.  They support two large Los Angeles high schools—six thousand students between them.  One school is double shifted.  Nearly all of the students live in or near poverty.  Lots of students are new to English.  The funding is about lowest in the country (the lowest when you consider cost of living).  It is very difficult to dismiss a low performing teacher.  A small schedule change requires a school leadership to make a recommendation to a 16 person council, where a majority vote is required to enact the change (yes, it’s all in the teacher’s contract).  The micro-politics (my job, my kid, my school) are intense.  Add LAUSD, California, and federal policies to the Gordian knot and the challenge is extraordinary

You’ll notice that I said that MLA ‘supports’ two large schools.  They have a management contract with LAUSD but they do not have the opportunity to fully manage a turnaround like Arne Duncan envisions.  MLA (where I’m a director) has access to few of the levers of change necessary to transform learning—staff, schedule, curriculum, and resource allocation.  With limited control, MLA is coaching teachers, providing guidance to students, extending the learning day, running 7am to 7pm activities, and promoting student health and wellness.

This morning I spent two hours in a global virtual chat about schools of the future.  Needless to say, it was a different conversation than the intense incremental tinkering of LA school improvement.

Most encouraging is that tools for schools are getting better fast: engaging and adaptive content, rich Facebook-like social learning, detailed Salesforce-like intervention tracking, powerful data mining and visualization tools.

Emerging design principles:

  • School of one: personalized instruction, competency-based progress
  • Playlist + projects: integrated problem- and team-based projects
  • Unbounded: 7/24/365 access, a place to go where support and activities available 240 days/year
  • Connections: access to work/community based learning, dual enrollment, and student supports

The education paradox—radically constrained and empowered with new tools.  Unwinding the problems we’ve created is unbelievably complicated.  So far the only solution is closing/replacing bad schools, but MLA may construct a better alternative.  While that difficult work is underway, open new blended schools and create options any way you can.


  1. It may be difficult to dismiss under-performing teachers, but they can be re-trained to teach more effectively. By providing a curriculum that centers around the Common Core State Standards, teachers can be trained to deliver a skills-based curriculum through a unit design process that focuses on skills and common assessments.


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