What’s the Right Path Forward for Public Education in the United States?

Author(s): The Bridgespan Group

Published Date: May 10, 2010

Education Specialists Debate the Merits (and Flaws) of Entrepreneurial and Traditional Approaches

Is innovation the key to reforming the United States’ education system? Should we be tapping the latest in technology and pursuing high-potential “hybrid approaches” to instruction that incorporate both online and offline learning? Or should we instead be focusing our efforts on “doing the ordinary in an extraordinary way?” Those were the essential questions asked at the outset of a debate-style panel discussion held in Boston in May, 2010, as part of the Bridgespan Group’s 10th anniversary celebration.

The debate was moderated by Don Shalvey, Deputy Director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Shalvey is also the co-founder and former CEO of Aspire Public Schools, a California-based charter organization. The four panelists were: Karla Brooks Baehr, Massachusetts deputy commissioner of education; Joel Rose, creator and CEO of School of One, a pilot education model being tested in the New York City Public School System; Jarvis Sanford, managing director of elementary schools for the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL); and Caitrin Moran Wright, Bridgespan manager and co-author of “Next Generation Learning: Can We Crack Four Problems to Unleash Quality Education for All?”

 “Today in education, the common thing isn’t being done uncommonly well,” Shalvey said, in his opening comments. “So the question is, should we do the uncommon thing messily for a while?”

For Wright, the answer was a resounding “Yes.” Describing the current state of affairs in U.S. public education, she compared the education system with the leaking roof of an apartment building. When it rains, she explained, water leaks down and discolors the walls of the apartment below. The landlord can repeatedly paint the walls, and they look nice for a while, but then it rains again and they’re once again discolored. In the U.S., Wright, said, what’s happening is that we keep “repainting” the education system—making cosmetic changes on a single approach to education—when what’s needed is a complete overhaul.

Wright called for educators to embrace innovations that utilize technology to create more personalized paths for individual students—“no longer confining the education experience within the four walls of the school the student is attending.” Citing Virginia-based AdvancePath Adacemics, Sweden’s Kunskapsskolan, New York’s Generation Schools Network and other organizations, she said “We need entrepreneurial zeal to solve the intractable problems in education.”

Baehr countered that perspective, saying that time and again, she has seen education entrepreneurs tout new technologies that quickly fall far short of their promise. Baehr recalled the “open classroom” initiative as one example, citing a high school that was designed to accommodate an open-classroom approach. Today, she said, the school uses large bookcases to form classroom space.

“There’s a long history of dreams that technology is going to transform education, and a handful of examples of pockets of innovation,” Baehr said. “There is a long history of those pockets staying as pockets.” Baehr also noted that some of the most successful “pockets” appear to rely on an endless supply of young educators who are free to work 14-hour days and don’t have the responsibilities of young children of their own or aging parents. “Those aren’t sustainable solutions,” she said. “The core thing is to focus on the quality of the interaction between teacher and kid and content in the classroom. And to create a structure of supports in which ordinary people . . . can do extraordinary work with the children they’re responsible for. The rest of it’s noise.”

Those positions framed the debate overall, with Wright and Rose advocating for a thorough overhaul of the existing educational system, and Baehr and Sanford speaking strongly in favor of honing a more traditional approach. The panelists were initially divided into those two “teams” and asked to present extreme positions; however, team members split on some issues, and also found some surprising common ground with their “opponents.” Ultimately, the discussion included members of the audience, and covered topics ranging from school committee input and responsibility, to the need for clear goals and timely data to inform teachers, schools, and union negotiations, to how teacher-performance data (along with the rise of alternative means of educating and supporting teachers) might influence the transformation of schools of education.

One highlight of the debate was Rose’s commentary on the importance of teachers’ individual roles. He asked: “Are we putting [teachers] in a role where they can be as successful as we need them to be?  . . . Why is it that every education reform conversation we’ve had over the past 25 years assumes one teacher [and] 28 kids in a box?  Now pay teachers more. Now try merit pay. Now a better curriculum. [Until recently] we had not ever questioned this one underlying assumption about how schools operate.”

Making the link between school structure, and the ways in which technology might complement the teachers’ roles, helping them work more effectively, he asked the audience: “How many of you took planes to Boston?? How many of you would have taken a plane if you’d heard, before you got [on board], ‘If you happen to have a good pilot, your plane will get there safely.’?

“We’re making planes that complement the work of pilots, to help reduce the variability in pilot quality,” he said. “We need the same types of tools in education.”

Another highlight was Sanford’s commentary about the fundamental purpose of our schools. Schools shoulder some of the responsibility for equipping children with the social skills they need to function in society, he noted. If we rely too heavily on individualized education paths that utilize technology to teach, “Who will teach [students] how to get along with one another, and to do their best, and to be kind to one another? That can’t be done by us looking every few years at the newest fad that we can afford.”

Crossing the implied “lines of battle,” he said: “I think innovation is essential. I’m advocating for innovation and continuous improvement.” But, he noted, “in order for schools to improve, fundamentally what we do above all else is help our teachers develop the skills they need.”

This work by The Bridgespan Group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Bridgespan's Terms of Use page.

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