Education: Bringing Innovation to Scale
In April, McKinsey & Co. released a study on the lamentable state of American education. Despite an endorsement from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the report received only modest coverage, perhaps because people already have internalized the general idea that our public education system is operating at less than top speed, to put it mildly. But the report is worth a second look for two reasons. First, it monetizes the costs of the “achievement gap”–the spread in educational outcomes between different groups of students. The results were stunning. The international gap, between U.S. student performance and the academic achievement of the top performing education systems in the world (like Singapore and Finland), costs the country between $1.3 and $2.3 trillion annually, while the domestic gap, between low-income kids and their higher-income peers, costs the country between $400 billion and $670 billion each year.
The report also looked at test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the national test sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card”) and laid bare some of the appalling gaps between students in different states and districts. To pick a particularly grim example, in 2007 middle- and upper-class white fourth graders in New Jersey scored five years ahead of low-income black children in Washington, D.C. Put another way, by the time they had received five years of formal schooling, low-income kids in Washington had fallen five years behind the standards we would want all American kids to attain.
The McKinsey report is only the latest in a string of dismal findings. So why are so many people in the education field today feeling so optimistic about the future? The answer is innovation. A wealth of objective evidence gathered from individual classrooms, schools, and even districts and states show that better results are being delivered to many low-income kids thanks to successful local innovations. Indeed, in many high-poverty schools, we increasingly see differentiated results for similarly situated kids. While the average American public school experience looks largely the same as it did 50 years ago, individual teachers and schools trying innovative programs and measuring outcomes abound.
Some of this is borne out in McKinsey’s study. African American and Latino students in Texas, for example, scored two grade levels higher than African-American and Latino students in California, and low-income students in New York City scored two grade levels higher than low-income kids in Washington, D.C. These results come on the heels of significant efforts in Texas and New York City to increase non-traditional teachers in classrooms, measure student results more aggressively, increase public school options for kids, and generally veer from more traditional educational delivery. Such results explode the myth that demographics is destiny. It is doubtlessly true that the conditions of poverty (lack of access to high-quality pre-school, poor nutrition and health care, deplorable housing conditions) are both a predictor and cause of poor academic achievement. But it’s increasingly clear that there are best practices in the field–many developed through a boon in innovation–and that our task now is to identify and expand the practices that work to a statewide or nationwide level.
There has never been a more innovative time in modern American education, particularly in high-poverty school districts. In Washington, D.C. the public charter school KIPP DC: KEY Academy, founded by Teach for America alum Susan Schaeffler, requires students to be in class for an extended day (7:30 am to 5 pm), week (two Saturdays a month), and year (mandatory summer school). Through inspired teaching, a focus preparing children for college, and constant access to teachers who carry cell phones so that they can be reached with homework questions at any time, KIPP students make impressive gains in learning, despite coming from the same high-need communities as those students in Washington’s dismal public school system. KEY Academy students enter as fifth graders scoring at the 24th percentile in reading and the 26th percentile in math but jump to the 65th percentile in reading and the 91st percentile in math by the end of eighth grade.
Or take Donna, Texas, home of IDEA Public Schools. Founded as a tiny after-school program by Teach for America alums Tom Torkelson and Joanne Gonzalez, IDEA is now a self-governed cluster of 10 public charter schools, serving kids in the Rio Grande Valley in two of the poorest counties in America. The only school in the region to offer the rigorous InterBaccalaureate program, which is mandatory for all kids in the school, IDEA College Prep graduated its first high school senior class in 2007. To date, 100 percent of its graduates are enrolled in college–in a region in which only 13 percent of adults have college degrees. IDEA focuses relentlessly from elementary school forward on college graduation, and by the time a student graduates from high school, he or she will have visited more than 25 four-year colleges. Last year, IDEA was named the 19th best high school in America by U.S. News & World Report–a meteoric rise for a school that didn’t exist a decade ago.
These schools, and many others across the country, show that well-conceived and well-executed innovations can help students in the poorest parts of the country achieve at a high level on an absolute scale. The schools were invented by motivated young entrepreneurs and facilitated by local laws and regulations allowing the creation of new schools. True innovation in education now requires proving that successful models can be brought to scale to serve tens, even hundreds of thousands of students. But this kind of scale and impact can come only at a cost to the status quo; true innovation requires not only expanding programs that are proven to work, but decreasing or eliminating those things that do not work. And therein lies the rub.
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