Understanding Educational Innovation, Stagnation

Published January 1, 2006

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

To help explain why it is difficult for charter schools to make innovative improvements in the delivery of education, let us consider vignettes of two charter schools, both starting their fourth year of operation.

School A is in a precarious position. Started by an uncertified, incompetent administrator, it has received numerous negative audit findings and has received low performance ratings from the state department of education. State-mandated academic standards were not being taught. Many of the original faculty members were unqualified, though that is being remedied. Building code violations were a problem throughout its first several years.

The school was chronically late turning in its data to the state. Discipline problems were chronic at the school; on one occasion, an unlicensed volunteer teacher tried to choke a student in the classroom. At one point, the school had to be supervised by the local district because it lacked a qualified administrator. The second administrator quit after only one semester.

Although it is now led by an experienced, professional, properly licensed administrator, given the school’s history of chronic problems it is not surprising the school district questions the charter’s ongoing independence and has filed a complaint against it with the state department of education. The school may yet be shut down, as the district believes it ought to be.

Culture of Learning

School B is arguably one of the greatest charter school success stories in the nation. Started by an experienced administrator whose innovative pedagogy had been recognized by leading national experts in learnable intelligence and brain-based learning, as well as a MacArthur Genius Award-winning educator, the school has been dramatically successful at creating a culture of learning in one of the most academically backward regions of the country.

In its second year of operation, the school took students who had never taken an Advanced Placement test at their previous school and become one of the top 200 public high schools in the country based on Newsweek‘s Challenge Index.

In its third year of operation, the school moved into the top 100 in the nation. The state AP organization organized a week-long summer AP training program so the administrator and faculty could share their expertise with other teachers across the state. SAT scores increased at a rate double the national average. The federal department of education awarded the school a large grant to replicate its physical education program in charter schools across the state. Several foundations rewarded the school with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for its obvious successes.

Most of the students love the school and love learning there. Teachers move from across the country to teach there. Parents moved from across the country to send their children to this school.

Students from a broad spectrum of learning abilities–including highly gifted students and autistic ones–flourish at the school, and 20 percent of its students commute almost an hour each direction through a dangerous mountain canyon to get to it each day. Residents of nearby towns have expressed an interest in having this school replicate itself so their children can benefit from its unique program.

Difference of Perspectives

Believe it or not, School A and School B are the same school, seen first through the eyes of the state and second through the eyes of its supporters. This defines the challenge facing those who would like to see charter schools lead innovation and thereby improve education for all students.

The facts listed in both accounts are accurate, but each perspective focuses on the set of facts that support it. In order to learn how we can improve education for all students, we need to understand how such dramatically different interpretations of one educational program can both be true, and thereby learn how to solve the real problems involved in creating innovative educational models by means of school choice.

In his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), James Scott describes the manner in which government entities view the world. Scott does not blame individual human beings who happen to work for the government for viewing the world in this manner. Instead, he systematically demonstrates how the incentives facing those who work in government tend to create a distorted view of reality.

In addition, the book makes a compelling case that it is unlikely individual acts of courage or imagination will overcome the limitations of seeing like a state for any extended period of time. Individuals in government who do not “see like the state” are not likely to remain in government for long or if they do, their individual acts of “supra-state” vision are likely to be undermined by colleagues who do “see like a state.”

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