The High School Challenge: Improvement vs. Innovation

How to help more students graduate ready for college and careers?  We’re exploring the perennial question at the A+ Urban High School Summit in Denver.
The track record for high school improvement efforts isn’t good–the disconnected string of courses is a bad model to start with.  Best case scenario, some percentage of compliant well-supported kids play the game and go to selective colleges.
Compared to improvement efforts, new school development is more consistent in terms of results but it’s not easy to start over. Most new schools still follow the traditional time-bound model but there are a few innovative student-centered networks–like Big Picture and Edvisions–that are competency-based flex models.
Improvement. Let’s back up and define a couple terms. Improvement is doing things better. Innovation is doing things differently to dramatically improve outcomes. Nearly all high school reform efforts fall into the first category.
There are a set of best practices that have been around for 30 years that are still not widely implemented: high expectations across a college prep core curriculum with strong supports–as the Big Picture guys said, rigor, relevance, and relationships.
Improvement efforts usually leave the basic time-bound cohort-based structure in place and attempt to improve course offerings and course taking patterns; guidance services, academic supports and the quality of instruction. While not easy, these improvements can result in big system wide advancements in achievement and completion rates as seen in Cincinnati, New York City, and Kansas City, Kansas.
Innovation. Beyond these improvement efforts, the maturation of online learning and the mobile computing revolution are expanding the opportunity for innovation. Several philanthropic efforts have combined lessons and factors into new design principles:

  • Carnegie recently released 10 design principles in Opportunity by Design, the backbone of a new grantmaking initiative.
  • Providing guidance for the new round of Race to the Top, KnowledgeWorks released 10 Essential Elements of High School Reform & College and Career Readiness.
  • Next Generation Learning Challenges released a white paper last week outlining design principles and lessons learned in the first three waves of grants.

“The school and system level implications are pretty profound,” said Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, about implementing Carnegie principles. All three of these design principles imply more innovation than improvement; they encourage us to
rethink the entire framework for high school, reconceptualize delivery, and reconsider connections to work, community, and higher education.  There are at least 10 dimensions of innovation in these categories:

  1. Goals: Reconceptualizing the finish line may change mindsets and spark innovations. For example, the NYC 9-14 early college partnership with IBM results in an AA degree and a job. Why not a 9-14 code school with an app fund–students could graduate with $50k in cash rather than debt? How about using Big History as an Organizing Principle for a Compelling Block or School?
  2. Time: Mobile learning devices extend the day and learning options to anywhere, anytime learning. With online learning, a school can travel with a team or band. (See 10 reasons every district should open a flex school.)
  3. Path: Digital learning can power multiple pathways for individual learners, including games/simulations, video explanations, projects and demonstrations. Knowledge map (like the math maps on Khan Academy) help students see where they are and where they are headed.
  4. Progress: Leaving behind courses and credits, innovative schools ask students to show what they know. Join the mastery-based learning community at CompetencyWorks. Imagine DIY High where accumulating 200 merit badges gets you a diploma–and a heck of a portfolio!


  1. Personalization: Adaptive learning systems can diagnose learning levels and challenges and should be part of every K-8 week. Every secondary student should benefit from a blended guidance system that promotes college and career awareness. Every secondary student should receive personalized writing feedback every week (and that could include an automated scoring system).
  2. Pacing: Online learning allows the student to set the pace. What if we said, “Forget the 180 day window, failure is not an option, we’re going to find a path and pace that works for you.”
  3. Providers: As recommended by Digital Learning Now!, every student should have access to multiple full and part time providers–and that should include every AP course, any foreign language, and expertly taught high level STEM courses.


  1. Interests: Big Picture schools construct internships around student interests. There’s a big group of students (at least 20%) that need and want an interest-based rather than content-based approach to learning. Online and competency-based learning make it possible to backfill around and support interest-based learning in new and interesting ways (see The Learning Design Opportunity of Our Time).
  2. Connections: From K to 12, students should spend an increasing amount of time in work and community based learning as they demonstrate preparation and responsibility.
  3. Pull: As noted in #1, reframing the deal may provide the hook for some students. The promise of scholarships, early admissions, or accelerated completion may boost achievement and completion.

Because I think boredom is a central problem in American high schools, at least half of these innovation domains deal with the issue of student motivation. They also imply a personalized set of supports, a comprehensive learner profile, and a much better achievement recognition system.
Like, all school networks will soon be platform-centric–they will share a set of tools that power a common framework, delivery strategy, and set of connections.
Powerful sustained adult relationships are central to both improvement and innovation agenda. The starting point has to be at least one person at school that cares if they attend, knows how they’re doing, and cares about where they are headed.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Marsha M. Myles, Co-Founder, Obeekaybee

So many great ideas! So many excellent models! Now we need to make sure that Innovation scales so that the Frames, Deliveries, and Connections are scaled and accessible to all students. We now have the ability to individualize and customize learning while simultaneously engaging the learner as we've never been able to do before. Let's do it!

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