I know not everybody is excited about these sorts of things. "Why give these guys a platform?" Well, first of all, these guys already have access to huger (and friendlier) platforms than this blog. Second, I'm a big believer that pretty much anything can be discussed-- after all, listening to words does not oblige one to either agree with or act in harmony with those words. But as long as someone is willing to have a conversation in good faith, I'm willing to have that conversation (I define good faith as saying what you actually mean, hearing what the other person is actually trying to say, and trying to understand rather than score points). At a minimum, you can gain a better understanding of what it is the other person sees (I take it as axiomic that people mostly don't do things, even terrible things, because they are stupid and evil. Mostly.) and at a maximum you may find some points of agreement.
I'll follow the standard back and forth approach here, letting each of us take our turn. Beyond that, there isn't much of a plan. We've agreed to start out with the general question of what a good/better/best school would look like. If you're unfamiliar with Melhorn, he's as reformy as they come on the nominally-left-leaning side of things (and he's got a book to plug). And if you're only familiar with him from twitter-- well, that medium does not exactly bring out his charming and diplomatic side. You're welcome to get your two cents in in the comments section; I will get mine in in the next post, and we will see if there are any points on which a hard-driving reformster and a c-list public ed supporting blogger can agree.
The Public School Every Parent Should Know About
“Your son will have to repeat this grade"
For my mom, as for any parent, those words were scary. My kindergarten teacher explained further that I needed to repeat the grade because I had failed the subject of “chair sitting.”
Although my mom was a public school teacher herself, she decided I needed something different than the neighborhood elementary school. My parents scraped together the money for three years of tuition at a private Montessori school. Montessori was better suited to my needs at the time: upon my return to public schools, I was a full grade ahead of my chronological peers rather than a full grade behind. In other words, the three years I spent at Montessori made a difference of two full grade levels upon my return to public school.
My school days were not so unusual
This scholarship helps explain parental behavior. Parents want children to have amazing opportunities, which is why taxpayers spend roughly $600 billion per year on K-12 public schools. Those who can afford to, however, also spend billions out of their own pockets for tutors, afterschool activities, summer camps, and sometimes even private schools. For parents who live near high-performing public schools, sending their child to private school means walking away from tens of thousands of dollars per year that they have already paid in taxes – yet it happens frequently. Even in prosperous suburbs with high-performing traditional public schools, parents worry about rote learning, inapt content, unhealthy food, and uneven teacher quality. In less prosperous areas, for families with fewer financial resources, or for parents whose children have special needs, the system can feel like a brutal and hostile bureaucracy.
The new public schools: tailored to the needs of all children
That is why all parents should know about a new kind of public school. At these public schools, the technology, curriculum, and pedagogy differ from what we saw when we were students. Even the cafeteria is different: students eat whole foods instead of mass-produced tater tots stuffed with sugars and trans fats. Tablet computers deliver customized content, such as books and multi-player games, automatically adapted to each child’s level and their style of learning. These tablets automatically measure student progress. With this ongoing monitoring, the kids never have to stop to take standardized tests; instead, the kids’ growth is constantly measured and communicated with both teachers and parents. These measurements serve as mere inputs to sophisticated assessment systems that adapt to each student and classroom and provide actionable feedback for both students and teachers. Computers also handle paperwork for the class, freeing teachers to focus on synthesis, mentoring, and individual engagement. Kids of vastly different backgrounds and abilities work together developing their full potential. The most effective teachers engage across many classrooms, communicating via technology to thousands of children.
Just as fascinating as the classroom innovations are the economics. The school costs the same as any other public school (nationally, the average cost per pupil was $12,401 for the 2011-2012 school year). Their purchasing agents resist the lobbying of textbook, computer, and agribusiness lobbyists. They obtain nearly free content from the public domain. They use bulk purchasing and their public mission to obtain steep discounts for hardware and supplies. The find that they can purchase healthy food, often locally grown, within existing budgets. Additionally, mobile computing allows classrooms to go outside. Students spend so much time outdoors that they use real estate only occasionally – for athletics, performances, and certain kinds of hands-on learning. Overhead costs have plummeted, much as middle management costs were cut in the private sector decades ago. All of these cost savings are re-invested in recruiting, training, and compensating teachers, helping attract and retain amazing talent.
Where you can find these new public schools
The biggest reason parents should know about these new public schools is that they don’t exist yet—at least, not entirely. In a chapter of the book Educational Entrepreneurship Today, released this month by Harvard Education Press, I describe how innovation has been blocked in traditional public schools, but how that is starting to change. Along with several other authors, the book goes into considerable detail about how venture capitalists, venture philanthropists, teacher leaders, and public officials can achieve amazing public schools of the type I just described.
We are already seeing the early stages of this kind of change. My Progressive Policy Institute colleague David Osborne has recently described how teacher-led schools have innovated to better meet student needs. In San Jose, California, the teachers union worked with the local district leadership to combine rigorous standards with student-specific safety nets; the result raised college attendance rates despite demographic challenges. More broadly, the teachers’ unions have started to invest in seed ideas that might lead to big changes. These efforts are not limited to cities and suburbs; for instance, a rural high school in Indiana has started to embrace “blended learning” that combines great teaching and digital empowerment. The private sector is also playing a key role. Businesses are sprouting up to empower teachers: a former New York City public school teacher built a marketplace for lesson plans called TeachersPayTeachers, which has paid millions of dollars to teachers who have come up with outstanding ideas. More broadly, “teacherpreneurs” are finding ways to lead broad changes in the profession without leaving the classroom.
As with all public sector services, however, change requires public demand. Parents who want these innovative new schools must be full partners in supporting teachers and political leaders in innovation. They can do this by accepting risks, paying taxes, engaging thoughtfully, and setting high expectations. More and more, Americans are realizing that we have the tools, the resources, and the teachers to give our children the best school system in the world.
Dmitri Mehlhorn is one of the authors in Educational Entrepreneurship Today (Harvard Education Press, 2016). He is a Senior Fellow with the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy; a Senior Fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute; and a founding member of Hope Street Group. He writes frequently on public policy topics, including with platforms such as The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Education Post, The 74 Million, and Dropout Nation. He is a husband and father, and a seed-stage investor with the venture group Vidinovo (which has no current or historic investments in K-12 education or technology).