Why you should care

Because an education disruption is overdue.

A railroad bridge had become a rusty eyesore in Marion, Iowa, and a local firm was on the hunt for a new design. So Martin Gardner Architecture turned to high school students. A group of budding architects from Iowa BIG, which brings in students from seven Cedar Rapids area high schools to spend part of their day on intensive, real-world projects, designed a new bridge and presented the proposal to the city council, which is still considering multiple designs.

The juniors and seniors who participate in what Troy Miller, BIG’s director of strategic partnerships, calls the program’s “community crowdsourced” curriculum report more confidence in their communications and real-world problem-solving abilities. The 2-year-old program is one of a growing number across the country embracing a startup mentality as schools try to build a bridge to the careers of the future. More and more administrators have “innovation” in their job titles. At Education Reimagined, a Washington-based think tank, the term “student” is out and “learner” is in to describe a never-ending process. Businesses large and small are getting involved as partners.

College isn’t the end goal.

Stephen Spahn, chancellor, Dwight School

“Once we have an education system that supports adaptive, flexible learning spaces and places, we think it will spread like wildfire,” says Kelly Young of Education Reimagined, who notes that the past three years have seen huge growth in such environments. “It’s a matter of letting go [of] how we’ve done things and inventing the next generation of systems that recognize kids don’t need standardized education. They need flexible and adaptable education.”

A flexible model can conflict with measuring students based on standardized tests, and testing’s defenders say there’s no better way to measure students’ progress compared with a wide range of peers. “The jobs of the future aren’t going to be filling in bubble tests, but they do require reading and math skills,” says Chad Aldeman, principal at Bellwether Education Partners and a former U.S. Department of Education official.

Young says job titles and mission statements about innovation are a lot more common than the real thing. The most successful ones do more than get tablet computers in the classroom — they rethink instruction altogether. Nick Polyak, the superintendent of Leyden High Schools in Franklin Park, Illinois, took the board’s insertion of “innovation” into the district mission statement as license to take risks. Ninety percent of all tech-support tasks are now handled by high schoolers, he says. Students are encouraged to develop business plans for startups and use school facilities to videoconference with mentors in the business world. Polyak says it’s all being done with existing funds at a place where more than half of the students are from low-income households. Help often comes from the corporate world: Sprint, for example, is providing Wi-Fi hot spots for students who don’t have internet access at home.

The corporate influence has proved to be controversial. More than half of the nation’s schoolchildren now use Google in the classroom, from Gmail to Google Docs to Chromebooks. But from Chicago to Mississippi, lawyers and parents have raised concerns about how much data the search giant is mining from minors. Yet input from business can help educators build a creative and adaptable workforce. The most successful models, Young says, involve local businesses.

As part of the digital consortium of the AASA, the association of the nation’s public school superintendents, Polyak travels the country to learn from other innovative schools — still a rare find. There are “very, very limited public school examples of the startup,” he says. One of Polyak’s favorites is STREAM School, in Hamilton, Michigan, where seventh-graders spend half of their day outside the classroom, learning in nature.

The Dwight School in New York City made its name as an elite preparatory school for Harvard and Yale. Today, Chancellor Stephen Spahn is more worried about life prep. He’s in the process of hiring a chief innovation officer; and in late 2015, he launched a program called Spark Tank, in which students take an idea all the way from the sketch pad to the marketplace. “My view is when they walk out of high school, they should be able to walk into almost any industry in the world and be a productive member of any team,” Spahn says. “College isn’t the end goal.”

The biggest question is whether that mindset can work at scale. In Dallas, Billy Snow arrived this year as the chief of transformation and innovation for a district of 157,000 students, where he oversees the creation of new “transformation schools” and the reinvention of existing schools. The startups are not unlike charter schools, which have also grown in the Dallas area and are outside the school district’s jurisdiction. About 30,000 kids in the area attend charters, and another 50,000 attend private schools. Snow says the biggest task for the public school system in competing with charters is marketing, particularly in the southwestern part of the city where charters have blossomed. “There is a story they’re telling that is attractive to parents,” he says of charters.

So Snow is touting charter-like schools popping up across the district at a clip of about one per year. New school applicants can specialize in a foreign language, entrepreneurship or single-gender education, for example. This fall in a downtown high-rise, 100 students will begin at a high school with an architecture and urban planning focus. Students enter a lottery to attend the specialty schools, or they can attend neighborhood schools — which Snow says are starting to innovate as well. His job involves “being very creative and very much focused on giving kids the best product,” he says, sounding as much like an app creator as an educator.

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