Over the past 20 years, both charter schools and prekindergarten have taken on increasingly prominent roles in the schooling of America’s children. Charter schools in 43 states now serve more than 2.6 million students — roughly six percent of all students attending public schools. And more than two-thirds of four-year-olds attend some form of public or privately funded preschool, with 1.4 million of them enrolled in state-funded pre-k programs.
As separate reforms, charter schools and pre-k produce strong, positive results for high-need children. But what happens if we marry high-performing charter schools with high-quality pre-k? Could the combination of these two reforms produce a result better than the sum of its parts?
One of the main goals of creating and publishing the U.S. Education Innovation Index Prototype and Report was to stimulate evidence-based conversations about innovation in the education sector and push the field to consider more sophisticated tools, methods, and practices. Since its release three weeks ago at the Digital Promise Innovation Clusters convening in Providence, the index has been met with an overwhelmingly positive reception.
I’m grateful for the many fruitful one-on-one conversations that have pushed my thinking, raised interesting questions, and provoked new ideas.
Here are a few takeaways on the report itself:
People love radar charts. And I’m one of those people. In the case of the innovation index, radar charts were a logical choice for visualizing nine dimensions and a total score. Here they are again in all their glory.
Readers weren’t always clear on the intended audience or purpose. This concern came up often and hit close to home as someone who strives to produce work that is trusted, relevant, timely, and useful. One of the benefits of the prototype is that we can test the tool’s utility before expanding the scope of the project to more cities or an even more complicated theoretical framework. So far the primary audience for the index — funders, policy makers, superintendents, education leaders, and city leaders — have demonstrated interest in learning more about the thinking behind the index and how it can be applied to their work. Ultimately I hope it will influence high-stakes funding, policy, and strategic decisions.
The multidimensionality of innovation challenges assumptions. When I explain that we measured the innovativeness of education sectors in four cities — New Orleans, San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Kansas City, MO — inevitably, the next question I get is “how do they rank?” Instead of answering, I ask my conversant for his/her rankings. I’ve had this exchange dozens of times, and in almost every case, New Orleans topped the list because of the unique charter school environment. When I then explain that the index was sector agnostic — it doesn’t give preference to charter, district, or private schools — people immediately reconsider and put San Francisco in the number one slot. What this tells me is that many people associate innovation with one approach rather than treating it as the multidimensional concept that it is. This misperception has real policy and practice implications, and I hope the index provides nuance to the thinking of decision makers.
“Dynamism” and “district deviance” are intriguing but need more research. Two of the measures that I’m most excited about are also ones that have invited scrutiny and criticism: dynamism and district deviance. Dynamism is the entry and exit of schools, nonprofits, and businesses from a city’s education landscape. Too much dynamism can destabilize communities and economies. Too little can keep underperforming organizations operating at the expense of new and potentially better ones. In the private sector, healthy turnover rates are between five and 20 percent, depending on the industry. We don’t know what that number is for education yet, but it’s likely on the low end of the range. More research is needed. Our district deviance measure assumes that districts that spend their money differently compared to their peers and are trying new things, which is good. It’s a novel approach, but its accuracy is vulnerable if the assumptions don’t pan out. Again more research is needed.
Measure more cities! Everyone wants to see more cities measured with the index for one of two reasons. The first is that they want to know how their city is doing on our nine dimensions. The second is that they want to compare cities to each other. Both make my heart sing. Knowing how a specific city measures up is the first step to improving it. Knowing how it compares to others is the first step to facilitate knowledge transfer and innovation diffusion.
According to Digital Promise, “Education Innovation Clusters are local communities of practice that bring together educators, entrepreneurs, funders, researchers, and other community stakeholders (families, local government, non-profits) to support innovative teaching and learning in their region. By working together, these partners form a network that is uniquely positioned to design, launch, iterate on, and disseminate breakthrough learning practices and tools.”
The goal of the convening was to share best practices and address common challenges among clusters. One of those challenges is research and measurement of innovation efforts so I was there to share our recently released U.S. Education Innovation Index Prototype and Report (USEII).
I was thrilled to be invited because there are only a handful of people in the education sector who are diligently working to push the envelope of schools. This group of entrepreneurs, funders, school leaders, and accelerator leaders were refreshingly aware of the current everyday realities of students, teachers, and principals, but thinking five to ten years into the future.
There was another reason that I was excited about joining this convening. Clusters are prototypical innovation-supporting institutions, structures that specifically aim to increase and improve innovation activities. The clusters facilitate social connections, help practitioners solve problems, and serve as hubs for the diffusion of new ideas. Because of this research-backed lesson, cities that are part of one of Digital Promise’s innovation clusters score higher on the USEII than those that don’t. Convenings of cluster leaders like this one create a superstructure for the diffusion of knowledge within and between clusters. It’s one thing to research networks like this, it’s quite another to be swept up in the debate, discussion, and energy for education innovation.
Here are a few observations on the convening and what it signals for education innovation: Continue reading
School instability is one of the biggest educational issues facing youth who experience crises like homelessness, foster care placement, or incarceration. These youth often miss school frequently and switch schools repeatedly, and, subsequently, they face diminished long-term academic outcomes.
There are a number of things that schools and districts can do to facilitate attendance and consistency for students whose educations are severely disrupted — things like rerouting school buses, sharing data across agencies, implementing wraparound services, and utilizing competency-based education — but few truly solve the physical challenge of getting students to and from school every day.
Until now. RISE High will have several physical sites, an online learning system, and a mobile resource center. Students will have the option to attend any one of the school’s physical or virtual sites, helping ensure students can access the day’s lessons and/or tutoring regardless of where they may be. The physical sites will be co-located with service providers, and the mobile unit will be equipped with hygiene products, cell phone chargers, and Internet access to solve some of the basic — and often overlooked — challenges these students face.
But RISE High will do more for these students than just meet them where they are physically. Because it is one school, it eliminates many of the common barriers that highly transient students face. Students will be able to maintain consistent enrollment in a single school but attend multiple sites—rather than un-enroll and re-enroll in a new school with each move. Students will not risk losing credits due to course incompatibility between schools or districts. Instead, RISE High will provide each student with a personalized learning plan and allow them to earn credit upon mastery of a unit. This type of competency-based learning can be powerful for students whose life circumstances make it challenging to regularly attend a traditional school with seat-time requirements. And students will have a single record of their coursework rather than a complicated file cobbled together by many schools over time, which can help facilitate high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment.
RISE High has incredible potential to increase the continuity and consistency of the school experiences of youth whose educations have been severely disrupted. With greater consistency comes greater educational success, and, ultimately, more promising life outcomes.