Systemic Change

Blogger extraordinaire Matt Yglesias made an important point about educational attainment yesterday:

There are two different possible takes on [the fact that spending and student achievement are not correlational in American school systems]. One is that there’s something wrong with the way many of our school districts are run and that it makes sense to experiment with a range of different approaches. Another is that the obvious demographic controls are inadequate, and the real differences here aren’t driven by anything that happens in the classroom but by some hidden student characteristics… If you look at how upper middle class professionals raise their own kids, it’s clear that they think it matters what happens in a child’s educational experience. And I think they’re right. But if they’re right, then the implication of this is that many American school districts need to change things up in significant ways.

I think it’s obvious that I agree with this, and it’s important to note the “significant ways” part of the argument.  I constantly hear folks talking about scaling education reform activities, whether in reference to the expansion of the best charter schools or increasing the number of the most effective teachers in high-poverty areas.

Scaling, though, isn’t just about doing more of those things (i.e. having 200 Uncommon Schools or KIPP Schools vs. having 100 Uncommon or KIPP Schools).  It’s partly that.  But I would argue that more of the solution is figuring out how to attain the same results that those strategies produce, but doing it more predictably and across many more schools, classrooms, and students.

Here’s an imperfect analogue.  Right now, I could buy a Chevy Volt electric car for like $40,000.  Let’s take for granted that this is a much more energy-efficient and natural resource-friendly mode of transportation than my used Volvo.  But it would be dismissed as ludicrous for anyone to suggest that we really need every American family to possess a $40K Chevy Volt.  Rather, this early-stage consumer model will lead to competition, supply-chain streamlining, and industry-wide efficiencies that will provide a variety of options at lower prices that will facilitate much greater market penetration for electric vehicles writ large.  Eventually there will be a $10K car from a company we’ve never heard of that’s way better than anything that’s available now.

That’s what I mean when I say “systemic change.”  Early stage innovations provide a pathway for increased quality across a system or industry or discipline.  School systems – in their current form – seem incapable of scaling good solutions.  The practices, policies, and politics that drive that inability need to change.

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