October 18, 2019; Chalkbeat
Karin Goldmark, a top administrator for New York City’s Department of Education, the nation’s largest public school system, opened her recent comments to an audience of educators with a question that has been in front of educators, philanthropists, and policymakers for decades: “How do we ensure that schools prepare students to thrive in a big, challenging future?”
Her audience had come to learn about Imagine Schools NYC, the newest education improvement scheme in a district that has tried many others over the years. It is a competitive entrepreneurial program that seeks the question’s answer by creating innovative new schools. With a prize pool of $32 million to award, funded by the City and two philanthropic partners—the Emerson Project and the Robin Hood Foundation—Imagine Schools wants to open 20 new model schools over the next two school years.
This new initiative asks New York’s educational leaders to ignore what can be learned from very expensive previous attempts to accomplish the same objective in service of seeking dramatic, radical changes. In a N.Y. Daily News op-ed published just after the program’s public announcement, Richard Carranza, NYC School Chancellor, encouraged “New Yorkers in all five boroughs to form ‘design teams,’ where they will develop concept proposals for new or existing schools. These will include unique concepts and ideas specific to what the community believes will most effectively serve their children.” He offered no understanding of what the District has learned. Rather than use the results of earlier efforts, successful and unsuccessful, to drive the next steps, the new initiative values “outside the box” innovation over incremental improvement and further investment in fact-driven measures. Powered by the vision of their philanthropic supporters, steady progress is seen as less valuable than disruptive change.
With the Emerson Collective serving as a major funder, this approach is not surprising. The social benefit LLC launched its XQ: The Super School Project with an initial commitment of $100 million and will invest $10 million in bringing their approach to New York. They have concluded, as described on their website, that public schools have changed little over the years and are frozen in a failed approach: “Our education system is still nested in that century-old idea while students are shepherded through similar courses, preparing them for a time long since passed.”
Using their financial muscle, Emerson has been able to have this flawed conclusion, one that creates their theory of change, radically change systems that affect the lives of many children, families, and communities. As Chalkbeat noted, in reporting the comments of Jack Schneider, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, “The truth is that the schools have been constantly evolving over time, in ways large and small.”
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A century ago, teachers were largely untrained and oversaw very large classes in which rote memorization was the rule. Students brought their own books from home and the curriculum varied from school to school. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common and classical languages still maintained a strong foothold. Students of color, when educated, were largely denied equal access, and special education did not exist. It was a different world.
Emerson and its partner are providing no guidance to those entering the competition about what has shown to be promising. For example, XQ has already funded 19 new high schools in communities across the country. Their results have varied: some models struggled to move from concept to operating program; some moved forward with mixed results, and others closed quickly after only a year or two of serving students. If this large investment is meant to create breakthroughs, prior experience seems essential—yet, here, it’s unwelcome.
New York City, too, is ignoring its history of philanthropic partnership. With encouragement and funding from the Gates Foundation, New York embraced a “small schools” strategy that worked to transform large high schools into smaller institutions that could offer focused, personalized instruction. Investment of $175 million over several years brought mixed results. Earlier this year, New York’s policymakers ended a $773 million improvement program they had created because it was not showing quick enough results.
Educators already know that conditions outside the classroom do much to determine how students learn. Lucia Orduz, principal at the Bronx’s PS 42, who came to the Imagine launch meeting, told Chalkbeat that “almost all of her students come from low-income families, and students are eligible for eyeglasses and free dental checks through the community schools program. Orduz wondered if the competition might help her expand those efforts.” Whether her approach would be radical enough remains to be seen as the competition unfolds.
Is the goal to improve education, or to live within the bias of innovation? We know that basic investments in teachers, schools, and communities are needed. Supporting systems that recognize the value of prior efforts as guides to what comes next may be sound practice, but don’t appear as the results of genius valued by entrepreneurial minds.—Martin Levine