Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Transformative Promise of "Greenfield" Schooling: Removing Barriers to Innovation Is the First Step in Creating an Environment in Which Innovation Can Flourish

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Transformative Promise of "Greenfield" Schooling: Removing Barriers to Innovation Is the First Step in Creating an Environment in Which Innovation Can Flourish

Article excerpt

"Greenfield" is a term that investors, engineers, and builders use to refer to an area where there are unobstructed, wide-open opportunities to invent or build. It is not a term one hears often in K-12 education. This is no surprise. For all their virtues, our nation's schools are not noted for their embrace of creative problem solvers. Educators labor in bureaucratic, rule-driven systems that can trace their practices to the legacy of early 20th-century factory management.

Dynamic educators push through frustrations and do end runs around bureaucracies to get the resources and staff they need. Far too many educators can relate to stories like that of Larry Rosenstock, who worked in the Cambridge, Mass., schools for 11 years before departing to launch the acclaimed High Tech High charter school in San Diego. Rosenstock's tales from Cambridge can sound like fodder for The Office. "It's a 353-year-old public high school, and every time somebody did something stupid, they added new rules," he sighs. "They don't take away rules, they just add new rules, so it gets to a point where there's no oxygen left."

When Rosenstock left to found High Tech High in 2000, he knew it would require financing real estate, obtaining authorization, fundraising, meeting regulations, and dozens of other stepping stones. Still, Rosenstock says, "I spent 20 years doing turnaround artistry, and I spent the past decade doing new school creation. There might be some complications and risks to new school creation, but as complicated and challenging as it may be, it is way easier than trying to turn around a pre-existing school."

Rosenstock believes that "schools are ossified by culture, employment agreements, [and] expectations" and that those seeking new solutions find themselves stymied by contracts, cautious administrators, and rafts of rules. Young educators learn early on to keep their heads down and to shut their classroom doors. The green-field challenge is to create a world more welcoming to dynamic, talented, hard-working educators.

Greenfield schooling presumes that the greatest challenge to improving teaching and learning is not identifying or mastering this or that "best practice," but instead is the creaky system in which those practices unfold. Today's regulations, organizations, and routines make it nearly impossible to implement measures with fidelity, at scale, for a sustained period.

One tiny but telling illustration of the challenges was Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee's experience promoting a pilot initiative to facilitate parental involvement. She sought to make information on student performance--including attendance data--more readily accessible to parents. Rhee wanted teachers to begin taking attendance on laptops, so that the data would be instantly downloaded and available online the same day (previously, it took a week or more). The problem: The collective bargaining agreement obligated teachers to take attendance but prohibited the district from requiring teachers to do data entry, and the union deemed taking attendance on laptops to constitute data entry. Multiply that tiny incident by a thousand daily obstacles, and one sees how daunting it is to reengineer a district barnacled with contracts, protocols, dated systems, and an ingrained culture.

The task is to create environments that invite high-quality providers to surface and that provide the infrastructure necessary for them to succeed at scale. This can unfold inside or outside traditional districts. For example, when Joel Klein became chancellor of the New York City schools, he declared his intention to make the system the "Silicon Valley of charter schooling" by attracting the nation's best charter schools, making it easier for charters to obtain buildings, and funding charters more like district schools. Dacia Toll, president of the Achievement First charter school network, has said that these moves, "Allowed Achievement First to be bigger after four years in New York than after 10 in Connecticut. …

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