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Removing Barriers to Innovation Is the First Step in Creating an Environment in Which Innovation Can Flourish
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“Greenfield” is a term that investors, engineers, and builders use to refer to an area where there are unobstructed, wide-open opportunities to invent or build. It is not a term one hears often in K-12 education. This is no surprise. For all their virtues, our nation’s schools are not noted for their embrace of creative problem solvers. Educators labor in bureaucratic, rule-driven systems that can trace their practices to the legacy of early 20th-century factory management.
Dynamic educators push through frustrations and do end runs around bureaucracies to get the resources and staff they need. Far too many educators can relate to stories like that of Larry Rosenstock, who worked in the Cambridge, Mass., schools for 11 years before departing to launch the acclaimed High Tech High charter school in San Diego. Rosenstock’s tales from Cambridge can sound like fodder for The Office. “It’s a 353-year-old public high school, and every time somebody did something stupid, they added new rules,” he sighs. “They don’t takeaway rules, they just add new rules, so it gets to a point where there’s no oxygen left.”
When Rosenstock left to found High Tech High in 2000, he knew it would require financing real estate, obtaining authorization, fundraising, meeting regulations, and dozens of other stepping stones. Still,Rosenstock says, “I spent 20 years doing turnaround artistry, and I spent the past decade doing new school creation. There might be some complications and risks to new school creation, but as complicated and challenging as it may be, it is way easier than trying to turn around a pre-existing school.”
Rosenstock believes that “schools are ossified by culture, employment agreements, [and] expectations” and that those seeking new solutions find themselves stymied by contracts, cautious administrators, and rafts of rules. Young educators learn early on to keep their heads down and to shut their classroom doors. The green-field challenge is to create a world more welcoming to dynamic, talented, hard-working educators.
Greenfield schooling presumes that the greatest challenge to improving teaching and learning is not identifying or mastering this or that “best practice,” but instead is the creaky system in which those practices unfold. Today’s regulations, organizations, and routines make it nearly impossible to implement measures with fidelity, at scale,for a sustained period.
One tiny but telling illustration of the challenges was Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s experience promoting a pilot initiative to facilitate parental involvement. She sought to make information on student performance–including attendance data–more readily accessible to parents. Rhee wanted teachers to begin taking attendance on laptops, so that the data would be instantly downloaded and available online the same day (previously, it took a week or more). The problem: The collective bargaining agreement obligated teachers to take attendance but prohibited the district from requiring teachers to do data entry, and the union deemed taking attendance on laptops to constitute data entry. Multiply that tiny incident by a thousand daily obstacles, and one sees how daunting it is to reengineer a district barnacled with contracts, protocols, dated systems, and an ingrained culture.
The task is to create environments that invite high-quality providers to surface and that provide the infrastructure necessary for them to succeed at scale. This can unfold inside or outside traditional districts. For example, when Joel Klein became chancellor of the New York City schools, he declared his intention to make the system the “Silicon Valley of charter schooling” by attracting the nation’s best charter schools, making it easier for charters to obtain buildings, and funding charters more like district schools. Dacia Toll, president of the Achievement First charter school network, has said that these moves, “Allowed Achievement First to be bigger after four years in New York than after 10 in Connecticut.”
What to Do
A greenfield approach requires entrepreneurs to devise a solution for one problem that faces teachers, or schools. It does not require every entrepreneur to create a new, miracle lab school that can do everything or serve every need its students might have. No one suggested that Amazon should only be taken seriously if it opened a chain of brick-and-mortar stores and sought to do everything Barnes & Noble already did but better. Yet, in K-12 schooling, reformers, policy makers, and funders consistently imply that devising a great niche service is not enough–the constant expectation is that entrepreneurs should seek to do everything and launch a new “whole-school” model.
Some reformers are fascinated by high-powered charter schools in urban communities. This enthusiasm is natural, as schools like Achievement First and YES Prep are posting impressive results. However, observers often skip past the fact that these schools generally succeed by hiring extraordinary teachers, extending the school day, and creating disciplined cultures. In other words, these schools do what good schools have always aspired to do, but do more of it and do it better.This “more, better” approach emphasizes conventional, expensive means and tends to favor reformers who augment rather than reinvent familiar school models. At the same time, it tilts the playing field against providers pioneering wholly new–and perhaps dramatically better–ways of addressing challenges.
The expectation that every reformer will create a new, miracle school makes it harder to specialize and requires entrepreneurs to do things that they may not be good at. Even if they have expertise in designing curricula for middle school math, would-be entrepreneurs find themselves pushed to launch new schools and to tackle everything from facilities to information systems. However, school builders are just one element of a vibrant ecosystem. Other, more specialized new providers can ease the burdens on schools and boost the likelihood of dramatic, replicable advances in teaching and learning.
Creating room for new ventures to take root is essential. School choice and charter schooling can be vital for that effort. But such measures provide only a start. Education lacks the dense networks of talent, funding, and research that characterize fields like biotechnology and software; it is more like a barren garden where few new seedlings thrive. Cultivating these ventures requires providing the chicken wire, fertilizer, and bamboo stakes that can help tender saplings take root and flourish. Let’s consider some instructive efforts.
The first step is knocking down obstacles–both those that are formal and visible and those that are more subtle and easier to overlook–that can stifle the emergence and growth of problem-solving ventures.
Formal barriers are laws or rules that make it difficult or impossible to launch and expand new ventures. These include statutes that prohibit or limit the number of charter schools, restrict alternative licensure of teachers and administrators, or require lengthy and extensive textbook approval processes that only industry giants can navigate or afford. Informal barriers are the political, operational, and cultural routines that make it difficult for new ventures to gain a foothold or pioneer new practices. Most ventures face both kinds of obstacles. The extent and variety of barriers force entrepreneurs to compromise their models and slow their efforts to win allies and appease enemies.
Because successful entrepreneurial efforts become brand names while unsuccessful ones fade away, we can forget how difficult it is even for providers who have come to be widely admired. Teach for America almost died on the vine in the mid-1990s due to political hostility and nervous funders. The KIPP Academies might never have gotten started. New Leaders for New Schools is a principal recruitment and training venture that today operates in close to a dozen cities and is a wash in recognition and support. Yet, as a young organization, New Leaders struggled mightily just to convince districts to hire its graduates.
Many of today’s barriers are not the result of conscious design but the consequence of policies, rules, and practices that have accreted over time. Procurement practices insensitive to cost-effectiveness or budgeting rules that make it tough for districts to reconfigure staffing create barriers that may owe more to inertia than anything else.
A crucial, but often overlooked, barrier is the tendency of district leaders to regard staff time and salaries as sunk costs. Districts typically do not eliminate teaching or staff positions, even if an innovation allows nine employees to accomplish what used to take 10. The result: School and district leaders rarely regard labor-saving technologies or services as cost-effective. Tim Daly, CEO of the New Teacher Project (TNTP), a New York-based venture that helps districts address human resource challenges, explains that frequently,
A district would tell us that they loved our work, but that we were too expensive. We’d ask what they meant by “too expensive.” They’d say that our teachers were $5,000 to $6,000 per head, and that their Human Resources department could recruit teachers for $100 or $150 per head. . . . This calculation was based solely on two expenses: fees paid to attend job fairs and ads placed in newspapers. It didn’t include any of the costs for staff salaries or benefits, or office space used by the recruiters, or technology infrastructure,or placement costs, or mentoring, etc. They just added up the most readily-tallied costs and divided by the number of teachers hired.
District officials too often overlook the fact that, used right, TNTP could allow districts to downsize their own hiring operation and shift those dollars elsewhere. Management that fails to promote potential cost efficiencies loses an enormous opportunity when trying to convince school systems to buy a product meant to radically improve performance. Rather than ask whether a tutoring program would allow a district to reduce the number of paraprofessionals or whether a more sophisticated diagnostic tool might allow talented elementary teachers to handle more students, district and state officials seemingly operate from the premise that technology and service providers must “supplement but not supplant” personnel.
Essential to greenfield is not only clearing away formal barriers,but providing resources and helping new problem solvers negotiate informal barriers and critical relationships.
David Harris is CEO of The Mind Trust in Indianapolis. Founded in 2006, The Mind Trust is a nonprofit that promotes education entrepreneurship. Harris explains, “When we launched The Mind Trust, the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) superintendent, Dr. Eugene White, was an enthusiastic supporter. . . . But the district administration had little experience working with entrepreneurial partners” and early initiatives were bogged down by bureaucracy, foot-dragging, and confusion about how to proceed.
It soon became clear that IPS needed an internal champion of these innovations who could act on Superintendent White’s behalf and move the initiatives forward. Harris recalls, “We recruited and paid for a former superintendent to assume this role. . . . The Mind Trust continues to pay the cost of the special assistant’s services. And that made all the difference.”
New ventures face hurdles, and Harris explains that The Mind Trust(TMT) helps knock those down. He says, “We brought Diploma Plus to town, an organization that runs very successful schools for over-age, undercredited students. One of the reasons Diploma Plus is so successful is that it designs its schools to work for its student population’s specific needs. But this means changing schedules, allowing for early-release time for working students, and using different kinds of teachers–all of which run up against traditional state and district rules.” So TMT worked with the state board of education to craft the necessary waivers.
Harris says, “We know our city so well that we are able to make all kinds of connections and matches. . . . We’ve made countless introductions that have opened doors for our ventures to find board members and advisers, raise money, and create all kinds of partnerships.” For instance, TMT connected Earl Martin Phalen with the superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township, which resulted in the district piloting Phalen’s Summer Advantage USA program. TMT also connected Phalen to key officials at the Indiana Department of Education, resulting in a million-dollar state investment.
Finally, TMT has invested $4 million in its initiatives and helped them raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from other national and local funders. Ultimately, though, the money is only one piece of the puzzle. Harris says, “The Mind Trust’s strong ties to the philanthropic, business, and political communities of Indianapolis allow us to support our partners and Fellows in myriad non financial ways too. . . .[and] building this support, mobilizing a whole community of local champions, and connecting them with the entrepreneurs is what will ensure that our short-term investments pay long-term dividends.”
Greenfield enterprises require providers to devise new ways to tap and use instructional talent. Eric Schwarz launched the Boston-based Citizen Schools in 1995 with the aim of increasing instructional time, quality, and relevance by providing hands-on learning projects led by local professionals. Today, the program serves 4,400 students at 44 sites.
Schwarz explained how the program’s adjunct “Citizen Teachers” can spark student engagement and learning: “In many of the schools where we partner. . . . full-time teachers are now almost entirely focused on basic math and reading instruction because kids are so far behind in these topics. Kids might take science just twice a week, and usually in large classrooms with limited lab facilities and insufficient time to perform experiments or to learn about and apply the scientific method. Citizen Schools recruits chemists and engineers and rocket scientists–literally–and gives kids a chance to take 90-minute classes in the applied sciences, where the kids get to build and launch rockets, design video games, [and] examine cells under a microscope.”
Citizen Schools mostly operates after school, but it has also partnered with some schools to offer a longer school day (three hours longer) for all kids. In those cases, the school deputizes Citizen Schools so that Citizen Teachers lead core instruction in some classes.
“Ultimately, Citizen Teachers–particular in the arts and sciences–could bring a lot to schools, whether they show up to teach at three in the afternoon as they do now or at nine in the morning,” Schwarz said. “They could co-teach with full-time teachers, adding real-world flair and providing a great professional development experience. Or they could lead pull-out classes and apprenticeships, focusing on small groups of kids struggling with traditional instruction or, alternatively, focusing on the highest performing kids who need an extra challenge.” Exploiting these opportunities, however, requires reducing statutory and contractual barriers.
Pruning in Action
In the past decade, we’ve come to think about K-12 quality control almost entirely as a question of test-based, one-size-fits-all state accountability systems. Creating room for problem-solvers–whether terrific foreign language instruction or management streamlining–requires additional, more supple metrics, like those routinely collected in other sectors. And it requires a ruthless, creative commitment to quality control that transcends bureaucratic NCLB-style monitoring.
Matt Candler left the KIPP Academies in 2004 to become chief operating officer with the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence. With $40 million at its disposal, he explains, the center, “would not protect weak schools. In fact, we pleaded for school leaders to self-police and put pressure on one another” (Candler 2008: 149-150).
“I wanted to build a team of seasoned and accomplished educators. . . . to get control of the pipeline and put KIPP-like practices in place, both in terms of picking quality operators and getting them ready for opening day,” Candler writes (2008: 149-150). He aimed to make the center “attractive enough to all applicants to have them want to work with us” and then to cherry pick “the very best of that group.” Twice a year, the center hosted free sessions to explain the basics of starting charter schools. Those efforts helped screen possible applicants and identified strong prospective school founders.
The quality-control strategy had three key components. The first was to first seek strong candidates; the second was doing early, initial quality screening; and the third was to support and nurture new ventures. After the information session, interested applicants would fill out a simple technical assistance application. If approved, they were eligible for $10,000 worth of free start-up advice.
Candler explained that the center encouraged the most promising candidates to apply for a larger, more intensive, $35,000 planning grant. “We were willing to lose the $35,000 investment in a school if during that grant period we learned a school was not up to the challenge. . . . $35,000 was a small price to pay to keep a bad school off the street.” Once schools were approved, they applied for $50,000 start-up grants, and the founding team was introduced to similarly situated “teammates,” providing a network of mutual support as they tackled the operational and instructional challenges of launching a new school, he writes (2008:149-150). “We asked schools to use part of their start-up grant to hire operations directors early in the year,” he writes. This enabled the schools to avoid logistical headaches that plague so many charters and to focus from day one on delivering high-quality instruction.
Realizing the Potential of Greenfield
Entrepreneurs must embrace outcomes and judge their success on the extent to which they promote new efficiencies, address unmet needs, or perform consistently at high levels.
It is not enough, however, for greenfield ventures to simply be good. They must also be inclined to replicate and grow. While it is extraordinarily challenging to successfully launch even a single school or specialized service, green fielders measure themselves against a much more demanding standard: whether they can scale their innovation to deliver transformative educational improvement.
Finally, transformative ventures must be cost-effective. Entrepreneurs who succeed through a “more, better” strategy can make a valuable contribution, but their impact is inevitably limited. In the same way, schools that rely on scarce talent or extraordinary support hit ceilings when those resources grow scarce. The most compelling entrepreneurial ventures are those that find ways to deliver average or above-average results for less money and with less manpower.
In practice, would-be reformers disproportionately embrace boutique “whole-school” and “more, better” ventures, even when these will likely be difficult to scale. In considering the potential impact of a given venture, there are at least three key factors to weigh. First, how fearsome are the political and institutional barriers? What are the formal and informal obstacles that must be overcome?
Second, are there metrics that can gauge the appropriate outcomes? Those innovations that fit most cleanly into the metrics at hand (for example, 3rd-grade to 8th-grade reading and math scores) have enjoyed an enormous leg up in recent years. Encouraging other kinds of ventures requires additional metrics.
Finally, how replicable is the core innovation? Computer simulations, web-based tutorials, or tightly scripted programs may be easier to replicate than a school or service that depends heavily on talent.
Best practices are great. But they need to be embedded in organizations that are passionate about executing them right. That is rarely possible in the systems we’ve inherited. We must create the conditions for an array of problem solvers to take root and to grow, so that best practices can deliver as intended. And that is the greenfield challenge.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of Education and Policy Studies at AEI.
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