Finding the Innovation from Within
As part of my preparation to become a teacher, I completed my student-teaching in a large, comprehensive high school in inner-city New Haven—the type of school that, at the time, was plagued by low test scores, high drop-out rates, and like many schools that fit these categories, was, (and still is) the object of generation upon generation of well-meaning reforms.
My supervising teacher, “the Doc,” as he was called, was an avuncular former civil rights activist and academic whose social studies classroom was one of the few beacons of light in an otherwise troubled school. Doc’s classroom was alive with inquiry and innovation; he made history come to life through simulations, role plays, and debates. During lunch time, kids gravitated to Doc’s classroom where he set up chess boards and allowed the children to be themselves and let down their guard. In Doc’s classroom every student was known individually– an island of educational innovation and student-centered learning in a school that seemed to consistently be churning from other people’s ideas on how to improve urban education. Looking back, Doc’s classroom, in an era before standards, NCLB, and LMS systems, met all of the criteria that we currently consider to be personalized learning.
My time in the Doc’s classroom has stayed with me throughout my career in urban education reform, first as a high school teacher and school leader in New York City, then as a senior district reformer in Los Angeles, and finally, as a national funder of innovation in education.
In education, like in many realms of life, familiarity can breed contempt; we often look far away–to other industries, to other countries, or to outside experts — for solutions when often the greatest (and simplest) solutions are right within our grasp. In New Haven, the Doc had lots of ideas on how to personalize education but rather than embrace his ideas, he closed the door on the larger system and practiced his magic in isolation. The system at the time had no way to scale his innovation and learn from his success.
Innovation in education is happening every day in our schools, across the country, on both the classroom and school levels. Our teachers and educators are the ones who have the greatest ideas on how to improve our schools. Rather than look elsewhere for new ideas, we in the funding community need to figure out ways how to support, scale, and sustain the innovations that go on behind closed doors in our local schools. Finding innovation from within does not mean, however, that educators should be closed to new ideas or that we do not need additional training and supports. It means doing the hard work of marrying existing excellent practice with new ideas, new approaches, and new professional methods—a process that can be messy, but, that, ultimately will lead to the type of innovation that has staying power while other reform fads wax and wane.
This week, Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) has announced a fund to create such a marriage between external and internal innovation: Six community-based education organizations across the U.S. have been selected to participate in a new $25 million effort launched by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), intended to establish regional hubs of K-12 innovation. The Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools––a first-of-its-kind national initiative that supports “breakthrough” schools to accelerate student progress––will grant funding to local educators whose approaches incorporate leading principles of personalized, blended, and competency-based learning.
All six partner organizations were selected through competitive, national application processes by NGLC and the initiative’s funders: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Funding models vary across the sites, but each regional partner will be investing between $1.8M and $3M in local design teams to generate new or conversion schools, with a mix of national and in some regions, locally-raised funding. Some partners are working closely with single, big city school districts; others are working with multiple districts and larger regions.
The six partner organizations include:
- CityBridge Foundation, Washington, D.C.;
- The Colorado Education Initiative, representing a coalition of three Colorado school districts and the Colorado Department of Education;
- LEAP Innovations, Chicago, Ill.;
- New Schools for New Orleans; in partnership with the Louisiana Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board, Educate Now!, and 4.0 Schools.
- New England Secondary School Consortium, coordinated by the Great Schools Partnership; and the
- Rogers Family Foundation, Oakland, Calif.
The new NGLC Regionals fund will help to support and celebrate local educators. So, if you know a brilliant educator in one of these six regions, be in touch with that person. We are eager to find the innovation from within.