Government’s Distrust of Innovation Disserves Children

Published June 1, 2006

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

Innovative products are rarely of high quality when they are first produced. The literature on technological innovation speaks of “early adopters” as those customers who are eager to try new, unproven products. Not all products that succeed with their “early adopters” eventually obtain a larger customer base, but some do. But the period during which a product satisfies an early adopter niche is often a period in which the product quality develops considerably.

In a sense, those early adopter customers are partners in the product development process–they provide feedback and a testing ground for new products for the formative years in a product life cycle.

In keeping with this common product development cycle, Moreno Valley High School (MVHS)–a charter school in Angel Fire, New Mexico–had a devoted following among early adopters. In the world of technology, this customer base would have allowed ongoing research and development, leading to ever-improved performance and marketing, which in turn would have allowed the entrepreneurs involved to create a better product that would then reach more people (possibly at an ever-decreasing cost). But the charter school world is not the technology world.

Political Compromise

The charter school movement came into being as a school choice compromise. An increasing number of former public school supporters had concluded the public school system was incapable of innovating. Those same people were reluctant to support school vouchers, fearing religious schools and for-profit schools alike, and they liked the local community democratic approach of public charter schools. Many school choice supporters have supported the charter school movement as better than no choice at all.

And yet as so often happens with political compromises, as so often happens when policies are seen through the eyes of the state, the original rationale and justification for school choice have become lost in the charter school movement.

With school choice as originally envisioned, parental choices themselves constitute the accountability mechanism. As with all markets, producers must satisfy consumers in order to stay in business. “Quality” is defined as “that which consumers want.” An inferior education would not last in the educational marketplace, because competing schools would strive to provide a better product at a lower price.

Different Expectations

But different customers might have different perceptions of what counts as “quality.” Some computer customers prefer Mac OS, while others prefer Windows.

In MVHS’s case, those parents and students who prefer a school at which curriculum is covered didactically may choose other schools (and have). Those parents who prefer a twenty-first century interpretation of a classical liberal arts curriculum, which is what MVHS amounts to, are free to choose it. One-fifth of the MVHS student body travels two hours per day in order to attend, and several parents have deliberately relocated to Angel Fire in order to enroll their children there. MVHS is meeting the needs of at least some customers in the marketplace and therefore has been a success.

But it was not a success when seen through the eyes of the state. In addition to the various failures to conform to state requirements that occurred in the first few years, additional legislation has created increased pressures to conform. When MVHS opened in 2002, charter school administrators were not required to be licensed by the state. Indeed, the MVHS charter, as approved by the state board of education, explicitly stated the MVHS board reserved the right to set administrator qualifications as it saw fit.

But in 2003, Democrat Bill Richardson, who had campaigned as an education reform candidate, replaced the libertarian-inclined Republican governor, Gary Johnson. Shortly after Richardson entered office, he successfully backed an extensive education reform bill, which, among other things, required all charter school personnel to be licensed.

MVHS founder Michael Strong was not a licensed administrator. In order even to enter an administrative licensure program in New Mexico, one had to have seven years’ experience as a licensed public school teacher. Strong had never been a licensed teacher. There was no way for him to fulfill the required conditions, and he was thus forced to resign as of June 30, 2004.

Conformist Approach

His immediate successor lasted one semester, and the district took over MVHS briefly while it searched for a suitably qualified administrator. Fortunately, a highly experienced public school principal joined the school in the winter of 2005.

For those who were uncomfortable with Strong’s various innovations and somewhat chaotic leadership, the new administrator is a welcome presence. For those teachers and families who joined the school specifically out of an attraction to Strong’s pedagogy, it remains to be seen whether the new administrator will be able to continue shepherding the school in the same direction.

Although MVHS won a grant to disseminate its physical education program to other charter schools, the Socratic Practice component of the program may succumb to pressures to conform. The most uncompromisingly Socratic teacher at MVHS chose not to return for the fall of 2005, due to concerns that the school was becoming more conventional. In the absence of Strong’s aggressive advocacy and implementation expertise, it would be reasonable to expect the program to become more conventional, especially in light of the fact that Strong’s predilections for hiring uncertified personnel and for encouraging faculty not to cover standards might be regarded as illegal if not merely unprofessional.

A responsible, professional, certified administrator leading a precarious and oft-attacked charter school with a history of failing to conform to state requirements in many respects would not continue emphasizing the non-conforming aspects of the program.

And yet insofar as charter schools were conceived as a means for educational innovators to improve education, the MVHS story is a case study in the failure of charter schools to fulfill their mission as innovators. Although there was interest from Taos, Santa Fe, Silver City, and elsewhere across New Mexico in replicating MVHS, once Strong left the school those efforts collapsed. MVHS had been actively seeking grants to support replication prior to his departure. An obvious benefit of replication from the perspective of the MVHS board itself was that it would allow Strong to focus on vision and pedagogical leadership, his strengths, while funding a more hands-on administrator to focus on the day-to-day tasks Strong did not particularly care to focus on.

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