Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Leveraging small dollars for big improvements in public education

There are a lot of efforts going on to improve public education in Houston and Texas (and even that's an understatement). I think just about everybody realizes at this point that a solid education is absolutely critical to success in a globalized economy, and that the long-term economic health of our city is directly related to the health of our schools. Even the Greater Houston Partnership realizes that success with its ambitious new 10-year strategic plan will be directly dependent on having an educated workforce to attract and create the 600,000 new jobs and $60 billion in new capital investment they're targeting.

My impression is that all of these efforts are having a net positive impact, but progress seems to be incremental and slow. I've spent some time trying to think of an affordable program that might have a big impact relatively quickly. And no, I'm not going to wade into the voucher battle - but I will say this: a lot of kids are not being well served by their existing schools, and we need bottom-up entrepreneurial innovation to come up with schools that serve them better. We're pushing top-down programs as hard as they can be pushed - we need a new angle. State charter schools are part of the answer, and some are doing great things, but they are so few that their net impact is limited. We need a broader approach that works through the existing public school districts.

The solution is groups of teachers, parents, administrators, academics, charities, and others who identify underserved student populations and then entrepreneurially open voluntary sub-schools within existing school buildings with an innovative curriculum custom-tailored to that specific set of students. One-size-fits-all schools are just not working for large numbers of students. It's just like the private free market: you identify an underserved market, and target it with a new product or service that meets their specific needs. Successful models would be replicated as needed across the district and metro. These innovative sub-schools may or may not be structured as district charter schools - an allowable entity under state law.

Here are just some of the variables that an innovative school might control:
  • Curriculum, instructional methods, and homework
  • School day and year length
  • Class sizes, lengths and schedules
  • Contracts with parents
  • Gender separation
  • Uniforms
  • Language
  • Admission criteria
  • Graduation requirements
  • Assessments/testing (beyond those required by state law)
  • After-school programs (required and/or voluntary)
  • Community partnerships
Some additional benefits of this approach:
  • Create opportunities to really engage and excite teachers
  • Bring entrepreneurial energy to public education
  • Reduce turnover
  • Pull good solutions from teachers and school leaders rather than push our solutions on them
  • Voluntary sub-schools have more flexibility for experimentation than converting entire schools on an obligatory basis (i.e. parents can choose whether or not their kids participate in the innovative sub-school)
“Last spring Public Agenda polled America’s schoolteachers. Amid the standard questions was a new one: “How interested would you be in working in a charter school run and managed by teachers?” Sixty-five percent of teachers with less than five years experience were very or somewhat interested. Fifty-eight percent of all teachers said the same. Even 50 percent of those with more than 20 years of experience felt the same way.”

-“System Change Goes to School”, a report by Curtis Johnson and Neal Peirce of the Citistates Group for ‘CEOs for Cities’, April 2004

So how to we get all this amazing innovative entrepreneurship to happen? That's the best part: we don't have to figure that out, the school district superintendents do. My proposal is inspired by the Broad Prize that HISD won a few years ago, as well as the MacArthur Genius Grants and X Prize for space travel: what if we offered a substantial annual prize to the local superintendent of the school district that best implemented this type of program? The "Innovative Schools Prize". I'm thinking something like $250K, with half for them personally and half to split among key administrators and teachers of the program at their discretion. That's large enough to really get their attention. We want a strong incentive for superintendents to push through their bureaucracies and develop robust and long-lasting innovative schools programs in their ISDs. The key word there is "program" - not a one-off school, but a sustainable program that nurtures many of these kinds of schools.

Here are some judging criteria we might use for awarding the prize:
  • Process for identifying underperforming and at-risk student demographics
  • Process for incubating innovative school ideas from concept to proposal to approval to implementation
  • Quantity and quality of innovative school proposals they receive, approve, and implement
  • Scope of control and accountability given to innovators
  • Parental involvement and choice
  • Measured outcomes
  • Size of challenges addressed and success levels
  • Program sustainability/longevity
  • Learning from their projects and others (lessons learned, best practices, continuous improvement, emulation of other successful models)
  • Outreach/openness/sharing of information on both successes and failures with other districts
So that's the pitch. The missing piece is a charitable sponsor of the prize. I think the Greater Houston Partnership would be perfect, but it's well within the budget of any number of businesses or charities. Any takers out there?

(Thanks to those at EFHC that helped develop this proposal. You know who you are.)

Update: Coinicidental Chronicle article this morning on HISD's International Academy, one of the their specialized small schools, with mentions of other alternative charters and specialized schools in HISD.


At 1:21 PM, September 20, 2006, Blogger Max Concrete said...

You are definitely on the right track in terms finding some way to bring entrepreneurism and productivity-enhancing management to education.

The problem with government-controlled public education is that there are few, if any, forces to improve productivity. Typically no merit pay, bonuses, or dismissal of underperformers. Many mechanisms actually work to promote mediocrity. Teachers unions want more money with no accountability (ie no TAKS) and Democrat politicians are more than happy to pander to them. See the recent Businessweek cover story featuring Bill Gates and the failure of his multi-billion dollar education initiative ("The Education of Bill Gates").

It seems strange that Governor Perry is hellbent on privatizing government programs with good productivity and low transaction costs (transportation), while largely ignoring underperforming functions where private-industry style management could yield huge productivity gains.


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