I recently took part in an experimental NextGen startup weekend aimed at designing a new model of schools. The participants worked in teams to come up with structural innovations to move schools beyond our current factory-like structure. A few of us, though, chewed on a nagging question throughout the weekend: All this talk of innovation sounded great, but what about schools that aren’t charters with direct access to Silicon Valley?
Imagine a regular public school district that’s intrigued by this potential but is a bit overwhelmed by all the talk of “blended learning,” “synchronous feedback loops” and other fancy phrases. Maybe they’ve seen a few of creativity expert Ken Robinson’s TED Talks on Changing Education Paradigms or been fascinated by the potential of technology in education or just generally frustrated with our existing one-size-fits-all model.
So what if we placed small teams of Silicon Valley-caliber talent in school districts to support their innovations? Call it the “NextGen Schools Fellowship” after the weekend, and recruit interdisciplinary teams of teachers, analysts, designers, engineers and other ridiculously talented folks around the stated goal of catalyzing the creation of new school models.
Consider a few ideas that bubbled up over the weekend that might make sense in a given school or district:
- What if middle and high school classes started at 10 instead of 8 to reflect adolescents’ biorhythms? Extracurricular activities could go before, rather than after, school to fit with parents’ work schedules.
- What if class sizes varied dramatically? Imagine large 100+ person lectures for part of the day, freeing up teachers to hold small, intimate seminars with fewer than 12 students at other times.
- What if school didn’t mean sitting inside a building? Team Magic School Bus had the fun idea of turning school into a set of buses that would take students on explorations into the community.
- What if we brought the community to school? The third-place team had the creative idea of mixing a school site with a tech co-working space so students could organically learn from the professionals around them. Yet the basic model of opening schools for longer hours and creating purposeful opportunities for the neighborhood to spend time there extends well beyond tech startups.
- What if we created formal pathways for guest teachers? Just like we have guest lectures in colleges by practitioners from the field, imagine someone like Father Greg Boyle from Homeboy Industries teaching a class, say once a week.
- What if we made it OK to have a gap year during high school? Imagine a program to place disillusioned students in internships for a year to give them the opportunity to gain practical experience and explore what they want to get out of school.
- What if school was epic? The winning team crafted a rich narrative for a middle school that assigned the students to Hogwarts-style houses. Imagine if we ingrained those points about identity and the power of story across a district.
- What if students decided what their school day looks like? A college-bound senior graduating from a public high school in California goes from a world in which they have 30 hours of instruction at rigid times to a world where they have 12 hours of instruction with large amounts of latitude when that occurs — all in the matter of months.
Many of these ideas are not new. The value comes from providing an integrated perspective for how these sorts of structures might reflect the local needs of a district or school. Like Silicon Valley, the talent would be recruited globally and placed in a specific district to support their unique needs and desire for innovation.
More broadly, these “what if” ideas by and large don’t require extra resources (and may actually save some) but rather repurpose existing resources according to the new structures. The big barrier is in the transition, which is where the NextGen School Fellows come in. To use a chemistry analogy, the fellows provide the activation energy needed to catalyze the reaction.
Moreover, having talented innovators work with those local constraints has the potential to be transformative because those are the barriers any structural innovation faces in reaching the vast swath of public schools.
The basic premise of the fellowship would be to place interdisciplinary teams at districts interested in structural innovation for one year. In broad strokes, during the spring they would listen, learn and engage the local community. Over the summer the team would work with the district to implement the structural innovation. And then, in the fall, they ensure it sticks and work to spin off a local community support nonprofit like the Los Angeles Education Partnership to keep the momentum going.
In addition to the fellows, the nonprofit would have a hub of analytical support to evaluate the innovations and share best practices with other districts interested in innovation.
The model is simple, straightforward and proven. Code for America does something very similar with technologists and cities. Their funding structure relies on payments from cities for the fellows’ services and then donor support to cover other expenses.
The key difference here from existing education fellowships like Education Pioneers is the focus on innovating new school models rather than improving an existing model. And while there exist consulting firms that will bring their model into your classroom, school or district, many districts probably already have some ideas and programs in place and want to build from their unique situation rather than just implement someone else’s model.
There’s broad recognition that schools need to adapt to the world we live in. Yet if we’re going to move away from a one-size-fits-all model, our solution cannot be one-size-fits-all either. Each school district needs its own unique bridge to the possibility of school innovation. The NextGen Schools Fellows can catalyze the construction of those bridges.
Patrick Atwater is co-founder of Stag Hunt Enterprises, a publishing startup pioneering political economy insights. He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Education Partnership and as a mentor in College Bound.