Is there a developing consensus that “conventional strategies” may not be working?

December 9, 2012 • Ted Kolderie

Through the good efforts of Tim McDonald, an E|E associate now studying at the Kennedy School of Government, I spent November 28-30 in some unexpectedly useful conversations at Harvard.

Tim had arranged sessions about ‘public services redesign’ with students at the Harvard Kennedy School, at the Graduate School of Education, and with David Ellwood, the dean of the Kennedy School (with whose father, Paul, I’d worked on health-policy questions in Minnesota years back).

Bob Schwartz, now again in the faculty of Harvard Graduate School of Education, got me connected with their project on “The Futures of School Reform” and with Jal Mehta, its director. A report/book with that title has just been published.

The contributors to this book are among the seemingly growing number of thinkers willing now to be candid that conventional strategies are not moving this country very far or very quickly toward the better learning it needs.

So I found an interest I hadn’t expected in the Education Evolving proposal to open education to real innovation . . . to arrange the K-12 system the way successful systems are arranged. I did a class session about this with Professor Mehta’s doctoral students.

Lars Johnson and I then spent some time with Professor Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School. Lars asked: What is most important in getting innovation to happen, if an opening is created? Clay answered: Making it possible for the innovation to appeal to some new and different ‘quality’; to meet some unrecognized need; to provide what’s not ‘on offer’ at the moment.

I came away from the six or eight discussions with a clearer appreciation of the way the education policy discussion tends to deal in absolutes. People seem to react to a new idea as if you’d proposed it as a re-form for the whole system. We’ll have to make clear that when we suggest something be tried we are not suggesting it is The Right Way for everyone. Bob Schwartz thinks in terms of “multiple pathways”, but that is unusual in the policy discussion.