10 Ways Independent Schools Could Lead on Innovation

Photo Courtesy of OnlineUniversities.com

Independent schools have the benefit of independence but most don’t use the degrees of freedom to innovate. The lack of innovation is due, in part, to weak demand–most parents want school to be better not necessarily different.
Like new technology, we often can’t express what we want until we experience it. Ten years ago many of us would not have suggested that our phones should also facilitate social connectivity, manage navigation, serve up movies, and provide access to a giant music library. Consumer expectations changed quickly with the app explosion five years ago–and the same thing, albeit more slowly, is happening in education.
New learning tools and schools are beginning to emerge.  Many teachers have flipped their instruction and students are blending their own learning by making use of open online resources. Expanded access to full and part time tuition-free online learning and the growth of innovative charter school networks are emerging competitive forces for independent schools (New Orleans and Denver are useful case studies in this regard)
Despite these new influences, many independent schools have a job to do: get kids into a selective college. The traditional enrollment practices of selective higher education are a significant barrier to innovation in the independent school sector.
The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) hosted Blended Learning and Education Technology Summit today (#NAISdeepdive) to explore the role that private schools can and should play in innovation.
There are (at least) 10 ways independent schools could move the education sector forward. In most cases, these suggestions require innovation partnerships and a level of collaboration that may be new to many independent schools.
1. Set real college & career readiness goals. Running a test-score factory results in low level and uninspired learning. Many top charter networks have discovered lower than anticipated college completion is likely do to low level learning and a lack of resilience developed by struggling with big questions. Ask former graduates what skills they didn’t learn in high school but wish they had and they’ll talk about communication, collaboration, and creativity.  When you survey CEOs, they want hard-working decision-making team players. These inputs suggest a missing core of K-12, one focused on developing character, courage & college readiness. Faith based schools have an advantage of a common worldview but many aren’t as explicit about shared values or disciplined about providing structured feedback as Denver charter networks DSST.  Summit Public Schools has a well developed outcome frame that includes habits of success as well as cognitive skills and work experiences (similar to David Conley’s Think, Know, Act, Go framework).
Independent schools have the opportunity to lead the conversation about what kids should know and be able to do.  Working in networks, they could develop new approaches to assessing and providing feedback non-cognitive factors. They could focus more on developing an entrepreneurial mindset.  They could help every student assemble a digital portfolio of personal bests. (For more, see Deeper Learning For Every Student Every Day.)
2. Pilot instructional innovation. The most important innovations in learning combine organization design and technology development (OD+IT)–using new tools to leverage great teaching and improve the learning (and teaching) experience. Blended learning models can reduce cost structure of an independent school and extend the reach of great teachers but they require a higher level of collaboration within (and often between) schools.  Exemplary public school examples (Summit and EAA) suggest that next-gen schools and platforms are best addressed by partnerships between high capacity networks, donors, and capable developers.
Independent schools could help chart the course, as Scott McLeod points out, through shifts from low to high complexity, low to high agency and low to high technology access.  Scott describes high inspiration/high perspiration environments where kids take responsibility for their own learning (my take: What If Kids Co-Created Customized Learning Pathways).  In some communities parents will be clamoring for this; in others they will oppose anything that doesn’t look like the college prep experience they expect. An accurate read on parent perception will drive the level and structure of innovation.  Schools could pilot an “expeditions week” or a school-within-a-school model to measure interest.
3. Pilot support innovation. If independent schools attempt to extend their reach to broader populations, they’ll need strong guidance and support systems to promote college & career readiness. Independent schools can differentiate themselves with a strong learner experience (e.g., a great mobile interface for the individual learner plan).  A group of schools could create enough aggregate demand to warrant investment in new support systems.
4. Form a project network. Like the Literacy Design Collaborative, there is benefit to sharing well developed performance tasks and modules. The schools in the New Tech Network share well structured projects and a learning management system.  Independent schools could create a network for sharing tasks and project–a more modular approach to sharing than courseware.  A lightweight version could involve independent schools plugging into professional learning communities.
5. Expand course choice. Private schools are known for really small class sizes but that doesn’t do much to ensure quality and it dramatically limits student options. Independent schools to expand student options and reduce costs.  Online learning can expand college credit, world language and elective opportunities and create lower cost pathways (see #9).
6. Create competency-based student progressions. The shift from cohorts to competency may be challenging for independent schools trying to produce traditional transcripts and test scores. Even traditional private schools may be able to innovate around the edges in subjects like world languages and career readiness skills.
7. Create competency-based teacher development. Independent schools can create competency-based progressions where teacher advance to higher pay and responsibility based on demonstrate mastery.  A new paper recommends using the same sort of micro-credentialing strategy for preparing new teachers.
Working with a platform partner like Bloomboard, a group of independent schools could create learning modules focused on ‘What you need to know and be able to do before your first day teaching at an independent school.” They could follow that with a competency-based teacher development system linked to an online marketplace of learning opportunities.
8. Become an incubator. Like 4.0 Schools, networks ofindependent schools could incubate new tools and school models.  A couple charter networks have spawned new EdTech ventures (e.g.: Aspire spun off SchoolZilla; E.L Haynes spun off LearnZillion and SchoolForce).  A group of independent schools could serve as a test bed for short cycle EdTech trials (e.g., see Short Cycle Efficacy Trials Key to Personalized Learning).
Creating a fab lab and hosting a Maker Faire (both likely to be popular items at the charity auction) can be a good place to start to gauge student and parent interest. Elementary students will enjoy make ideas on DIY and high school kids can learn to code at CodeHS.
9. Lower cost & boost agency. Blended learning and extended reach strategies can be used to change staffing patterns and student learning progressions–to lower costs and boost agency.  Whole school models that stretch staffing ratios and introduce more online learning can be phased in over three years.
Flex academies (i.e., school within a school with digital backbone and individual progress) can be implemented by subject (English or math) or by theme (e.g., two themed academies in Kettle Moraine High School).  A fully competency-based academy (e.g., DIY High) could be offered at a lower price point with a variety of learning options.  Flex blends can lower costs and tuition and can be used school wide or in academies of choice.
From grades 6 to 12 students should be expected to work more independently.  This should include taking a few online courses particularly in grades 11-12.  Upper division course choice should exclude a range of AP and college credit opportunities, world languages, and electives. Online classes can cost less than half as much as onsite classes.
Families with eighth graders could be introduced to different high school pathways: a packed four year schedule aiming at selective universities or a three year path including a year of college credit aiming attending a state university–path A costs $400k over 8 years, path B costs $200k over 6 years.
10. Extend impact. The most important learning opportunity in the world may be the expansion of low cost private schools in developing economies.  Networks like Bridge International Academy are extending access to quality primary in some of the world’s poorest neighborhoods. Low cost (~$200-400/yr) high schools that leverage low cost tablets, open content, and blended formats hold the potential to extend quality secondary to hundreds of millions of young people that are locked out of the idea economy.
Prestigious private schools could extend their impact by opening a network of blended satellite locations (imagine Harvard-Westlake meets Charter School of San Diego). Like Oak Christian, private schools could extend impact with full and part time online learning with differential pricing.
Lowering costs and extending impact will often require independent schools to work collaboratively in networks on common platforms using aggregated procurement strategies.
Independent schools face barriers of parent and higher ed expectations but they have greater degrees of freedom to innovate than public schools. They could advance the sector by leading on an innovation where they have opportunity.
BloomBoard, Bridge, CodeHS, LearnZillion, and DIY are Learn Capital portfolio companies.  LDC is an advocacy partner.

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

Tom Vander Ark

To #6, John Bailey suggested starting with credentialing skills learned outside e.g. coding.
To #8, Bailey added a suggestion for hosting a Startup Weekend Edu

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