Moving to a ‘Split Screen’ Strategy for K-12

By Ted Kolderie, Founding Partner at Education|Evolving
Education|Evolving – a long a source of challenging analysis and new ideas for public education — is circulating a proposal for a fundamental change in the way America goes about redesigning K-12 education. Tom Vander Ark has cited it. Here is a summary. You can read the full text at
The key thing for everyone to understand is the “one bet” strategy.
The “consensus reform” strategy accepts teaching and learning, system and school in their traditional form; tries to get teachers and students to do-better within those givens.
Time is a given: day, week and year. Learning happens in school; school is a place. Students are grouped by age. The technology is teacher-instruction, in classes; ‘batch processing’. Adults ‘deliver education’. Teachers work for administrators.
The strategy assumes ‘accountability’ will work; that higher standards and tougher assessments and real consequences will “ensure” students learn. It is a one-bet strategy.
That a serious, and an unacceptable, risk.
But no one can be sure it will work. It is essentially the strategy the country these past 30 years. Doubling-down on accountability, now, will not necessarily succeed.
A one-bet strategy is a risk. It is not a necessary risk: The country could at the same time be hedging its bet with a second, different, strategy. And if it is not a necessary risk it is not an acceptable risk to be taking, with the nation’s future and with other people’s children. And when no one is offering to be accountable should it fail again.
We could and should also be testing different approaches to learning.
Successful systems combine “improvement” and “innovation”; working to make the existing model better while even as new and different models appear. Early-adopters pick up the new-and-different, imperfect as the new models often are. No one has to do so: Those who prefer the traditional may stay with that. But they may not suppress the innovative. Over time, as the innovations improve, the system changes.
So: Most automobiles rely on petroleum but we see also now hybrids and electrics. We still have bookstores but e-readers are spreading. Most retailing is still in ‘real stores’ but online retailing is growing. Land-line telephones remain but many people have switched to cellphones. The last typewriter factory has closed. Analog television has been phased out. Incandescent bulbs are to be replaced by fluorescent and LEDs.
This process could be running in education. Innovators could be challenging all the givens of conventional school. Profound changes in the economy make new and different skills necessary. And as John Liehhard writes in How Invention Begins: “Each major change in the availability of information required the methods of education to be reinvented.” Digital electronics might be history’s most dramatic “change in the availability of information.”
If K-12 does not open to this potential the changes will bypass school.
Chartering was meant to do that, but didn’t.
Innovation was a central element in the charter idea. The state laws during the ’90s left it open for people to organize the sort of school they wished. Pedagogically a “charter school” is not a kind of school.
Too many of those creating new schools wanted to create traditional school outside the district framework. They adopted models designed to produce high scores. As this became the standard-enlightened concept of ‘reform’, chartering lost its focus on innovation.
So the task now is to open K-12 to innovation.
The job now is create a sector in K-12 in which both chartered and district schools, existing and new, can depart from almost any of the givens of traditional school.
Think of K-12 like the screen on your television set; two games playing simultaneously; traditional school improving and new models appearing.
The important innovation will be school-based, practitioner-based. Given the authority, teachers will almost certainly move to individualize learning: They understand the central importance of motivating students. And only the teachers know the students as individuals. Having this professional role will also motivate teachers.
Motivation matters. It is madness to be running a ‘strategy’ for K-12 that does not focus on maximizing the motivation of the workers on the job — the teachers and the students.
There are political and intellectual challenges. But it can happen.
It might seem obvious to redesign K-12 to work the way successful systems work. Let change occur gradually; voluntarily. Stop trying to change everything at once. Give up on trying to legislate a “one best way.”
“Too obvious”, perhaps. Yet this strategy has potentially powerful support: state policymakers, teachers, students, all those involved with new technology have an interest in the ‘split screen’ strategy.
The redesign of K-12, and of the process for changing K-12, is necessary. Things that are necessary tend to happen.

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