In discussions about how to achieve excellence in public education, a recurring theme centers on the need to create a culture of innovation. But innovation requires thinking outside of the so-called box, and the box that is the public school system is solidly fortified by centuries of tradition.
Students arrive at an appointed place and time, find desks in classrooms and study under standardized curricula. They take home report cards with the same letter grades used when their great-great-grandparents were in school. Referred to as a “factory model,” the fundamental structure of American education has proven difficult to break down, but there are examples of it happening and with interesting results.
High Tech High, a private school in San Diego, offers a case in point. The school is the subject of a documentary that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival called “Most Likely to Succeed.” The film explores a range of innovative departures from traditional assembly line learning formulas. The school emphasizes skills like collaboration, time management and problem solving over the memorization of specific subject matter. Students and teachers are not held to the rigid accountability of standardized testing, though students end up faring quite well under those standards when the tests are applied.
There are numerous other examples of this “new wave” in education theory being applied in schools, both public and private, throughout the country. The question is whether they are the vanguard of a movement that will result in a radical turn in the evolution of our schooling systems. The answer depends on just how much the overseers of public education truly want to encourage innovation.
The Utah Legislature is now about the business of deciding how to invest new money in the state’s schools. Gov. Gary Herbert, in his State of the State address, promised additional investment, but he also spoke to the need for state and local control over what and how students are taught.
What policy leaders and lawmakers need to assess is how much control they are willing to give up in order to grant sufficient latitude to teachers and administrators to take risks in designing study plans and class structures.
If the education system is to evolve into a new model more accommodating to the needs of a 21st century economy, lawmakers and education leaders need to keep their eyes and minds open to opportunities for inventiveness and experimentation. They need to accept the fact that innovation rarely comes from the top down and can’t thrive in a system that remains boxed in by tradition.