Overcoming the challenges facing innovative learning models in K–12 education: Lessons from Teach to One
American Enterprise Institute
- K–12 innovation has a fundamental paradox: Meaningful improvements to student outcomes require learning models that challenge the basic constructs of how classrooms operate—and yet, the more new education models do so, the harder they become for schools to adopt.
- America’s K–12 schools tend to resist efforts to redesign the classroom due to underlying forces, including inflexible accountability policies, inadequate investment in developing innovative learning models, bureaucratic inertia, and balky procurement processes.
- Creating space for innovation in accountability policy, catalyzing investment to develop promising models, expanding ways to support early adopters of new learning models, and removing barriers to procurement are key to giving new models a chance to deliver for America’s kids.
Over the past seven years, I’ve been leading a nonprofit organization called New Classrooms Innovation Partners that works to develop a more modern and impactful classroom experience. We’ve developed an innovative learning model called “Teach to One: Math” that integrates live, collaborative, and independent learning in ways that enable personalized instruction for each student, each day.
In developing this model, we’ve learned how crucial it is to integrate academic expertise, operational prowess, and technological know-how into the model’s design. We’ve also learned that no matter how strong the design, it’s equally essential to work with enthusiastic school partners that serve as early adopters.
Finding partner schools interested in profound changes to the classroom experience has not always been easy. Our team has met with hundreds of administrators, principals, teachers, funders, policymakers, and key influencers all across the country. While many of those interactions led to highly successful implementations, more conversations ended with some version of “this is exactly the kind of innovation that schools need, but we aren’t quite ready for it.”
Part of the reason some schools and districts are slow to adopt Teach to One is assuredly on us. We don’t spend much on marketing, have only a handful of representatives across the country, and have a set of staffing and scheduling parameters that, while crucial for driving outcomes, don’t necessarily fit within the existing structures of how some schools operate. Beyond that, “innovative learning models” usually aren’t one of the line items to check off when planning a school budget, so it’s often hard for schools to allocate funding for an initiative as intensive as ours (particularly given the professional development required to retrain school-based staff). Innovation is often viewed as nice to have in a world where even the must-haves struggle getting the dollars they need.
But let’s assume for a moment that we had the marketing budget of a textbook publisher, few operational barriers to implementation, and a bargain-basement price point. Even then, the forces for keeping school as is would—more often than not—still win the day.
This report is about illuminating these forces and exploring how they might be addressed. My goal is to take you behind the scenes into the conversations we’ve had with state departments of education and district administrators, with school principals and teams of teachers, with leading technology companies and educational publishers, and with successful investors and prominent philanthropists. These experiences have helped us understand a fundamental paradox with K–12 innovation: Driving dramatic gains in student outcomes will require new learning models that challenge some of the basic constructs for how classrooms operate, and yet the more new models challenge these constructs, the harder they become for schools to adopt.
The fact that our nation’s K–12 system is so resistant to novel approaches that redesign the classroom itself is the result of several underlying forces that have built up over time, including (1) an assessment and accountability system that demands a uniform instructional path for all students, (2) inadequate investment in the development of innovative learning models, (3) bureaucratic inertia that reinforces the status quo, and (4) stifling procurement processes.
But before we get into all this, it’s important to understand what I mean by the term “innovative learning model” and how it really differs from a traditional learning model (fully acknowledging that reflexive eye-rolling often accompanies new education terms that are often just dressed-up versions of past terms).
Let’s start with how schools generally work today: If your daughter happened to be one of roughly four million US seventh graders who began school this fall, she most likely attended her first math class with 28 or so same-age students and her assigned math teacher. Her teacher, trained in the seventh-grade curriculum (one would hope), assigned to her a seventh-grade textbook that included dozens of lessons that span your state’s seventh-grade curriculum standards. Over the school year, your daughter will generally experience the same daily lessons as everyone else in her class, receive the same homework to complete, and take the same tests and quizzes. It’s probably not too different from how you learned seventh-grade math.
Now, here’s how your daughter would experience math if her school implemented Teach to One: At the beginning of the school year, she would take a diagnostic assessment that would ultimately help generate a personalized annual curriculum that’s right for her. It could include filling key learning gaps from prior grades, any of the seventh-grade standards, and even more sophisticated eighth-grade concepts. Over the school year, she would experience that curriculum through a variety of instructional approaches—from teachers, in collaboration with her peers, and independently. And each day, she would take a quick online exit slip that feeds a sophisticated scheduling engine, enabling her teachers to continually regroup students so they can work with similarly situated peers on lessons most likely to enable acceleration.
It is important to distinguish innovative learning models, such as Teach to One, from the myriad of software products that schools and districts use. Those products can help, and we embed many of them in our model. But by themselves, many of these products are often used as tools that make the traditional classroom paradigm more efficient. Innovative learning models challenge the paradigm itself. They are an alternative to the standardized, age-based models of instruction that assume a one-size-fits-all curriculum is best for all students.
Our innovative learning model is certainly not the only way of reimagining the classroom. There are limitless ways of challenging what educational historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban termed the “grammar of school”—those aspects of our educational system so deeply embedded and accepted that one would hardly recognize a school as a “real school” without them.1 Its basic tenets—one teacher, an 800-square-foot room, and 28 or so same-age students all moving through a standardized curriculum—have been around longer than the telephone, automobile, and periodic table.
Indeed, the current grammar of school serves some students well, but its shortcomings are abundantly clear. Age-based student cohorts are administratively convenient, but they don’t reflect the reality that students begin the school year at significantly different academic starting points. Textbooks are relatively inexpensive and portable, but they can be an unengaging medium for students. Teachers are the most important factor that goes into a student’s academic success, but the job itself can be so taxing that many of the best teachers can easily burn out.
Most importantly, the current grammar seems to work for only 30–40 percent of students across the country—those who graduate each year ready for college or a career. Given these systemic shortcomings, why aren’t more districts and schools aggressively looking for innovative solutions?
- David D. Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).