Education Needs Moonshots… and Funders to Pay for Them

Photo of NASA astronaut on the moon

Photo via NASA

Everything you know about teaching, schools, governance, funding, accountability, advocacy, and credentialing is now in question. Under the microscope. Being parsed, decoupled, reconfigured, increased, decreased, or simply thrown on the trash heap for future education historians to pick up and examine.

Behind this creative destruction is ReSchool Colorado, a small group at the Donnell-Kay Foundation in Denver completely rethinking what a state-wide education system is and what it could look like.

I was introduced to ReSchool through an invitation from the Donnell-Kay Foundation to spend two days in Denver with a diverse group of educators, researchers, business and system leaders to rethink education governance top to bottom. [The Donnell-Kay Foundation does not currently fund Bellwether’s work.]

Just when I was beginning to worry that we were simply indulging in an interesting but impractical thought experiment, I was delighted to learn that ReSchool intends to support prototypes for some of their ideas and systems in 2016 to prove the hypothesis that starting over is a better strategy than fixing the current moribund system. As a result, ReSchool is pushing in a lot of different directions to cast a vision for a state-wide cradle through career education system that is more equitable, effective, and efficient. The audaciousness of the effort puts ReSchool alongside the Minerva Project, perhaps the only other moonshot in education today.

Big, forward-thinking projects like these are important. In a philanthropic gestalt dominated by strategic giving, we need more channels to create audacious ideas and ambitious initiatives to rival the enormous harm that the opportunity gap is doing to our kids and society.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation should be commended for creating one such channel, but the education sector needs other funders to get beyond the two deeply embedded beliefs that keep them limited in number and impact.

  • Any use of funds that doesn’t directly impact kids is wasteful.
  • Anyone not working to improve the situation for students in school right now isn’t doing real work.

But looking at ReSchool as a lost opportunity to invest talent or money in something more immediate is exactly the short-sighted and narrow view that chains the education sector to incremental improvements.

Investments in efforts like ReSchool exist in a different category than expanding a successful school model or expanding a high-quality teacher pipeline. Although they may yield some lessons in the short-turn, moonshots provide benefits far beyond immediate impact. They exist to generate novel solutions outside of the rigid constraints within which most of us work. They clear the way for innovators to innovate the way icebreakers create a channel where there wasn’t one before so ships can follow. They take on controversial topics head on so practitioners don’t have to. They familiarize people to foreign ideas so barriers are minimized when they’re ready for implementation.

Investments in immediate interventions are important and I’m not proposing funders abandon them. Instead, I think the sector would benefit from fostering new lines of thinking unencumbered by incrementalism and convention.

To do this, we need forward-thinking funders with a high tolerance for risk, strong leadership, smart design, and sustained fortitude to battle the inertia of conventional thinking. ReSchool Colorado shows us that this is possible.

6 thoughts on “Education Needs Moonshots… and Funders to Pay for Them

  1. Jason Weeby Post author

    Thanks, James. I hadn’t head of the Saxifrage School. I love the concept. I’ll keep my eye on it.

  2. Rebecca Leech

    I’m a very divergent thinker and love solutions that rethink old ways, but recent reforms that have espoused to create “new lines of thinking unencumbered by incrementalism and convention.” have often been doublespeak for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are lots of good things going on in our schools, teachers who are leading innovation, and solutions that are working for many students. If we don’t use the experience of real teachers and others of those in the trenches, we will hit against the same walls as the other reformers. Everyone seems to think that they have solutions and just need some money thrown at them, but real innovation begins with solid research into what has already been tried and the reasons for past failures or successes, along with the wisdom of those who have come before.

    1. Jason Weeby Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Rebecca. I wholeheartedly agree that we should build on what’s proven to work in schools and classrooms. There’s a much needed place for research-based incremental improvements and I don’t propose that that approach should go away (as evidenced by the sentence before the line you quote). We need both kinds of investments. Most funding today goes to improvement of our current systems and institutions. There’s a lot less support for moonshots; I’m calling for more.

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