Today's Puzzle: What Do We Know?

Do you think we mostly know "what works" in education? Or

do you think we mostly do NOT know what works?

I.e., do we know what to do, but lack the willpower, or resources, or something? If you, Dear Reader, were "czar of everything" in American K-12, do you think you could get a much better result than what we have today? Then you're in the first camp.

If you think something like this -- "Gee, we now do a lot of things that defy common sense. I know those are dumb. However, even if you cleared out that underbrush, the low-hanging fruit of stupid things, I still wouldn't be clear on how we'd get to a place where kids are doing much, much better than they are today" -- well then you're in the second camp.

Many of my friends and colleagues who work in K-12 believe the first. I'm not sure if it's the majority. But I'd guess it is.

I'm in the second camp.

A couple weeks ago, Match hosted Roland Fryer to lead a Friday night conversation. He's pictured above with my colleague Stig. Here are some snacks we served. The fancy kind. No Doritos or little hot dogs. So I abstained.

Roland discussed his work at EdLabs. He leans towards the "mostly we do NOT know what works" view of K-12. So his team is tackling a whole bunch of edu-puzzles. A lot of his ideas try to get "outside the normal box." That is, to achieve breakthroughs, you need to try out unusual ideas.

He made an observation that resonated. In medicine, if you try an unusual idea, and it doesn't work, you kind of shrug, you know it was a longshot, you move on. In venture capital, if you try 10 companies, you're assuming most will fail, you're hoping one hits big. In K-12, if you try an unusual idea, the professional culture is often that people "hang their heads" when it doesn't work. The idea of failure as a necessary way to achieve breakthroughs is not part of the typical K-12 culture. Roland: "Whereas my view is, hey we just learned something."

One of the attendees was former Tufts president Larry Bacow. He's now "president-in-residence" over at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and he now lives a few blocks away from the Match high school. Larry is pictured here, over what I believe is the shoulder of Antonio Gutierrez, a Match grad and a Union College grad who now works with Alan on our work in Lawrence.

He said something along these lines, and I'm paraphrasing:

It strikes me that higher ed is in some ways the opposite of K-12 in this country. Our higher ed is often described as the envy of the world; that is not true of K-12. Also, our higher ed has enormous variation, customer choice, and money following the customer. Our K-12 system is the opposite. I wonder if there's a link between the success of higher ed and the structure of higher ed....

I followed up with him to ask if it were okay to post his remarks. He agreed, and added:

You understood precisely what I said. But there was more. Higher ed succeeds because there is competition for students, faculty, staff, resources and mind share. This competition breeds innovation across the sector. Students are mobile (as are all the other resources) so both innovation and success are rewarded. By contrast, in much of the rest of the world higher ed is centralized with little competition as in the US. As a result, you see little curricular innovation and excellence is not rewarded.

Now let's look at K-12 in the US and abroad. In the US, we decentralize funding of K-12 education largely to the municipality given our dependence on the property tax to fund K-12 education. Students are not mobile (unless their families have the resources to move to a better school district. The fact that many do for precisely this reason underscores the value that people place on good schools.) We wind up with huge disparities in the quality of education based strictly on the wealth of school districts.

By contrast, in the rest of the world, funding of K-12 education is centralized and curriculum is also standardized. You have higher levels of achievement in part because resources are more flatly distributed across students geographically. Moreover, because of the concentration of funding, you can actually support curricular innovation and experimentation if you choose to do so which is tough to do at the district level in a disaggregated system with large local funding disparities.

This is the first time I have written any of this down. I don't profess to be an expert on k-12 education. These are musings and only that. Please feel free to correct any misperceptions that I have.

I thought it was provocative. If I understand, Bacow is saying our K-12 is the worst of both worlds: decentralization without the bottom-up innovation benefits that come from true competition, and without the top-down R&D benefits that can come from centralization.

EdLabs has a bunch of interesting stuff going on. They're trying out some Lemov train-the-trainer in Texas. They're working with teachers and the principal at a Denver school on an unusual high-dosage tutoring model. Roland's got a fascinating paper coming in a few weeks from Harlem Childrens Zone; it will get some attention.