Barriers to Innovation in Government-Run Schools

Published May 1, 2006

Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in a seven-part series showing why charter schools do not have the freedom needed to create significant educational improvements through innovation.

After a century of failed public school innovations (see Diane Ravitch’s Left Back: A Hundred Years of Failed School Reform), pressure is increasing for education reforms to be “research-based.” Although education professors–most of whom have pedagogically progressive instincts–don’t like to admit it, “direct instruction” is the most robustly validated pedagogical approach.

In some versions of direct instruction, every aspect of the lesson is scripted: The teacher stands in front of the room and reads line-by-line through a manual, and students recite the correct answers in unison. This updated version of the very traditional recitation technique of teaching is easily replicated (almost anyone can do it), and the results are predictable: When students repeat answers over and over and over again, they tend to remember them.

This approach, although effective at preparing students to memorize material on tests, is unlikely to produce students who are exceptionally capable of learning how to learn.

Not surprisingly, critics of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and direct instruction complain such approaches destroy creativity and independent thought. However, after 100 years of failed school reform, public school accountability is here to stay.

Teacher Commitment Essential

The Socratic Practice approach Michael Strong uses more closely resembles pedagogical approaches such as Whole Language reading and New Math, both of which have been robustly rejected by parents and research results alike. NCLB, a potent symbol of “seeing like a state” that passed through Congress with widespread bipartisan support, will increasingly force progressive, open-ended pedagogies out of the public school classroom and push public school pedagogy to more closely approximate direct instruction.

Moreno Valley High School (MVHS) in Angel Fire, New Mexico was a highly unusual but suitable place to implement Socratic Practice. In addition to Strong, who had defined the practice, two of the teachers, Brad Kloeckl and Barb Browning, were experienced teachers who had each been trained by Strong for at least a full semester, four days per week in their classrooms, 10 years earlier in Alaska. Thus, both the English and history departments were taught entirely by faculty with unusually deep training, both of whom were sufficiently committed to Socratic Practice to move from Alaska to New Mexico specifically to teach at MVHS.

During the school’s second year of operation, Lea Brock taught additional English and history classes. Brock had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Santa Fe and had spent a year teaching in Alaska with Kevin Holthaus, from whom Strong had learned his practice. In a world in which one or two days of in-service training is the norm, with two week-long summer training sessions an unusual phenomenon, the MVHS humanities team had all had at least a full year’s training in a very sophisticated pedagogy.

Administrators Determine Quality

Strong is highly aware of the difficulties of quality control in applying his Socratic Practice approach. As a public school consultant, he saw it was impossible to ensure quality control by merely offering consulting services. In the business world, quality control is ensured by distinctive certifications, by franchise arrangements with inspections, or through outright ownership (restaurant and retail store chains).

Prior to Strong’s departure in 2004, MVHS was writing grant proposals to create a Socratic Practice training center that would provide the full-year training required to staff new schools with comparable pedagogical expertise. With MVHS’s controversial track record, for now Strong is unable to continue developing teacher training programs or new schools with adequate quality controls in place.

Philanthropic foundations and the government expect solid “research-based” results in education these days. Entrepreneurs, by contrast, are often individuals who don’t require external validation in order to believe in their visions. And in the marketplace, as long as they can find customers who value their products, they don’t need research.

In his early days, simply based on his vision of the future of the oil industry, John D. Rockefeller famously encouraged his people to buy oil regardless of what the data said. Politicians and bureaucrats (including those bureaucrats who work for private foundations) cannot afford to take such risks.

Ever since Milton Friedman wrote the first article advocating school choice in the 1950s, the primary argument for the policy has been that it will encourage innovation in education. By and large, the national experience with charter schools has been disappointing in this respect. Although there has been some innovation in charter schools, and although charter schools disproportionately serve at-risk students, the vast majority of charter schools are more notable for their conventionality than an innovative nature.

Create Markets

One of the arguments Friedman made was that school choice would support innovation by allowing parents and students who preferred one style of pedagogy over another to attend schools specializing in that pedagogy. From this perspective, the bifurcation of opinion regarding MVHS is natural, good, and to be expected. Product differentiation and specialization occur in a market precisely because consumers have different tastes and preferences.

Friedrich Hayek, whose views on “the creative powers of a free civilization” influenced Friedman’s understanding of the innovative powers of free markets, was known for his idea of “spontaneous order.” One aspect of that idea is that in a free market, entrepreneurs find ways of giving customers what they want more effectively than the government can. This allows for greater innovation because small, specialized niches can arise in markets, whereas governments have to pass legislation that applies to everyone in the same way.

Some of these small, specialized niches will grow, and their products will become increasingly sophisticated; indeed, this progression from small niche to dominant player in the marketplace is a fundamental dynamic of innovation. Thus a market that can allow for the possibility of an MVHS that strongly satisfies some consumers while appearing to be a poor product to others is precisely the kind of place that might lead to substantive innovations on a broader scale.

Michael Strong ([email protected]) is CEO and chief visionary officer of FLOW, Inc., a group working to achieve peace, prosperity, happiness, and sustainability in 50 years.