Navigating Unchartered Waters

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iStock 000005192110XSmall 150x150 Navigating Unchartered Waters“Innovation never comes from the established institutions.” This statement, coming from Eric Schmidt, who served as the chief executive of Google from 2001 until 2011, makes us sit up and take notice. While Google has certainly impacted the way we interact with the world and with each other, we wonder who will make that impact on the way we teach and the way we learn?

With a focus on the content of their individual mission statements (or charters), charter schools try to become that innovative force acting just outside of ‘established’ educational institutions. The popularity of such schools speaks volumes of the need for such innovation and the belief of many parents that if change is going to happen, it is most likely going to happen outside the public school system. Most, it seems, agree with Mr. Schmidt.

In last week’s blog I spoke of the limited success of charter schools when that success was measured by achievement on standardized tests. Charter school students are held to the same standard learning outcomes expected of public school students, and, by and large, do not seem to fare better when compared to their public school peers. Should one thus conclude that charter schools have failed?

School success, as is the case with student achievement, should never be measured by one yardstick alone. If the only purpose in creating charter schools was to improve standardized test scores, then I would consider them to be (again, by and large) a failure. However, what the charter school community wants, and what the public needs from such schools is not a new way to reach the old standard, but a new look at the standards themselves. And, therein lies the catch. The justified need for all schools to reach agreed upon educational goals, keeps every school within the ‘established institutions’ range and thus inhibits real innovation.

In the business world innovation happens because there is money to be made, a lot of money. Just ask Mr. Schmidt at Google. Risks are encouraged because the reward is so great. But in education, we fear change because we fear the risk involved. If you mess up the new and improved product you just start over again; the same cannot be said for the education of a child. So we hold fast to the old ways, begrudgingly allowing for adjustments but rarely adopting significant reform. We allow for some change in charter schools but continue to demand much of the same.

The solution? How about letting go? The plain, somewhat sarcastic, truth is that we are not doing such a great job educating our children to justify the fears mentioned above. The public and charter school communities must agree upon criteria to create ‘unestablished (sic) institutions’ that can responsibly experiment with extensive educational reform. Together we must find ways to allow for the navigation of unchartered waters. Only then will we be able to realize the same level of incredible progress we witness in almost every other arena of our modern society. If you don’t believe me, just Google it.

One Response to Navigating Unchartered Waters

  1. Jerry Wyant says:

    “The justified need for all schools to reach agreed upon educational goals, keeps every school within the ‘established institutions’ range and thus inhibits real innovation.”

    I’m trying to break down this statement in my mind, to determine what it really means. I am drawing a complete blank. It looks like a lot of rhetoric, with very little real meaning. For one thing, we do not have any “agreed upon education goals.” We have standardized testing, with the results being used for decision-making, but this hardly falls under the category of “agreed upon education goals.”

    I have written several economic essays regarding the false claims that the education system can be improved if only it were designed like the business world, with the profit motive being the guiding incentive for real improvements (reform). Here is one of my essays:

    This uses basic economic principles, including a look at the underlying assumptions behind the theories that are being used to justify reforming the education system to look like the business model. The statement “In the business world innovation happens because there is money to be made, a lot of money” works because the innovation that works is consistent with the goal of the business, which is to maximize profits. Risk, and reward. This is a good thing for the economy, assuming that the benefits and the costs are matched up; the benefits and costs are clearly understood; and those who receive the benefits are those who take the risks and pay the costs. That is the underlying principle behind a capitalistic economy. Efficiency through self-interest.

    In education, you can never match the benefits with the costs, even if the goals are clearly defined (which they are not, unfortunately). Too many conflicts are involved, unless you want a system where only the privileged receive an education. But the main reason why the business model will not work is that the goal of the business (maximum profits) is not ever going to be consistent with any goals that people can agree upon for education. What specific outcomes do people want for the overall education system? Unless you define educational goals very narrowly in terms of “satisfying the needs of the business community”, in other words, thinking of the education system as only a job factory, then how can you ever match up the goal of maximum profit with any specific outcome that the education system is capable of producing?

    The specific outcomes of the education system, all of them that could fall under the category of “agreed upon education goals”, would have to be matched up with a method that generates a profit. Each one of them, individually. There is no magical mechanism that would automatically equate the profit motive with achieving the goals of the education system. Such a mechanism would be required for the business model to work. Those who propose such a model use faith in certain theories in economics, but avoid the mechanism that would be required to make these theories work in the real world. And they avoid the underlying assumptions behind the theories. They just point to the theories, as if they are given facts. Economic theories and models ALWAYS involve underlying assumptions that are required to make them work. This means that the theories and models alone do not form a valid argument. Unless the mechanics of the model, including the assumptions, are specified in the argument, the argument is nothing more than rhetoric.

    Here is another essay that I wrote some time last year on this very subject:

    I know of several reasons why a system that includes carefully-designed charter schools as part of the overall system can be part of a successful reform. The profit motive is not one of them. I agree with one thing in this essay: Over-reliance on standardized test scores also should not be part of any reform. The quote at the beginning of this essay: “Innovation never comes from the established institutions” says volumes about the business climate that we live in; as an economist, I have also written about that subject. It says a lot about the business climate, but it says very little about the education system. In my view, successful innovation in education can only be achieved by using the “road map” that is explained in that last link, the one directly above this paragraph.

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