First Person

Voices: Creating teacher-led innovation

Alexander Ooms says Colorado is finally following the lead of other states and embracing a start-up mentality as it tackles education reform. 

edseeds logo
EdSeeds is a new program aimed at sparking creativity and risk-taking in school reform.

On the surface, Colorado has all the right ingredients for K-12 innovation: a fertile ecosystem of talented educators, an engaged philanthropic community, supportive legislation and policy and the open and collaborative culture of the West. However these promising ingredients have yielded little of substance. Why is this so?

Back in 2008, the Colorado legislature passed the Innovation Schools Act. At the time, there was  great optimism that the energy of education reform combined with the ability to remove various constraints would produce a wave of innovative new approaches. Five years on, and it has not been so: the act itself is notable mainly for its unfulfilled promise, and the schools that came into being under the act have shown little to no change. A formal evaluation from November of 2011 summed it up thus:

…interviews at the seven Innovation schools suggested that at least on the surface, the majority of these schools had not made significant departures from their practice prior […] To a large extent, Innovation schools are very similar to DPS schools in terms of the curricula they use, their calendars, and their instructional time.

What went wrong?  I believe that, in large part, Colorado’s innovation has been focused on the wrong scale, initiated by the wrong people and pursued at the wrong time:

  • Currently, the focus of innovation has usually been entire schools. But new schools take several years to start, are difficult to change quickly and the complex problems inherent in a large system can be a stifling environment for innovation to thrive. Instead, innovation is best fostered at the classroom level, and should start by solving specific and discrete problems.
  • Too many innovation attempts are pushed from the top down instead of growing from the bottom up. Innovation is most likely to originate from teachers. Teachers – not the legislators, administrators and policy wonks who usually try to dictate change – know classroom challenges firsthand. Teachers are closest to students, best able to formulate and test ideas and most likely to observe real change.
  • The traditional school day is not a fertile ground for innovation. Most schools have a low tolerance for trying new things and many teachers work within a number of constraints: a set routine and curricula, a linear series of goals and metrics and 25 or more kids at once. New ideas are more likely to flourish if initially tried in smaller groups outside the traditional school setting – summer programs, after school or during weekends.

These are not particularly novel ideas. The concept of design thinking and the emergence of places like Stanford’s d.school, combined with the lean startup movement have been redefining the idea of innovation in other industries for some time.  The ability to develop new products – and sometimes new companies – in a matter of weeks has taken root within technology accelerators, such as Boulder’s TechStars or Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator.

Education is just now beginning to notice. In several pockets across the country, such as 4.0 schools in New Orleans, the K12 Lab in Palo Alto, Socratic Labs in NYC or the national effort of Startup Weekend Education, these and similar ideas are taking root.

Long thought of as an education pioneer, Colorado has been late to this effort. But that is beginning to change. An EdTech Meetup group is increasingly active. Last year, a program called DesignEDU convened educators and other professionals from across the state to engage in a series of design programs over two days. This spring, I’ve been involved with the introduction of EdSeeds, a program initiated at the Donnell-Kay Foundation in partnership with the Colorado Education Association that works with small teams of educators on specific classroom challenges. (Hopefully other organizations will post about their programs in the comments below).

I am more discouraged about the prospects for traditional district reform than at any time over the previous decade. But the constellation of the small but intense lights of these growing innovation efforts make me more hopeful about real and substantive change in education than I have ever been. Most innovation is a slow and unsteady process – the first modern airplane flight went all of 120 feet and only came after various experiments with printing presses, bicycles and motors. There will be many false starts along the way. But we have started the journey, and probably the best thing about it is that we don’t know where it will take us.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.