by Carrie Markel
“I think if I get this right, some of you may get furious and walk out,” said Andy Smarick at the reED kick-off and thought experiment on November 14 at Google Fiber. The room was filled with Kansas City business leaders, foundation stakeholders, and educators & parents from across the city, public and charter.
Any Google search of Smarick’s name could make more than just the audience members in the room furious. His thesis: urban school districts have failed and they must be downsized, if not completely eliminated, as operating systems of public education.
His argument was enough to draw a sold-out crowd to the Friday night thought experiment, where Smarick attempted to not only convince all present that the district was defunct, but to push participants to build a prototype of a new system with multiple school operators and authorizers. But something strange happened. Contrary to a “furious” room with participants walking out in frustration or anger, audience members engaged deeply in Smarick’s research, questioning and probing to learn more about the scale and scope of urban school districts’ failure, locally and nationally.
For instance, while the data that only ⅓ of 3rd graders read proficiently citywide was not new to most participants, Smarick demonstrated that the rigor of Missouri’s tests is only average, or slightly below average, other state tests according to the NAEP. This means Missouri’s test scores could be inflated by over 20% and reading proficiency levels are even lower than previously stated given this inflation. Despite this bleak analysis, one audience member remarked afterward that it was beneficial “seeing the data that supports the things we have all known for awhile,” while even Smarick commented that the body language from reED’s audience was more receptive than many other crowds he has given similar presentations to.
Whether or not audience members agreed with Smarick or supported his research, what became clear in feedback to The Lean Lab and in exchanges afterward was that Kansas City is hungry for more of these conversations. Many who attended the thought experiment felt that “continued dialogue and discussion around education reform” and “more time for small group discussions” was necessary, especially when many also wanted to know what was next after the event. In a city weary of attempts like capital campaigns, longer school days, magnet schools, and full-day kindergarten to turn around failing schools, one participant even mentioned that “lots of the ideas listed after the thought experience [sic] were good ideas, but really just more of the same [...] not sure how you ignite some actual plans for change, but that’s what I left reED still wanting.”
That’s where Saturday came into play. Several attendees from Friday night also attended Saturday’s innovation workshop where they tackled a diverse array of problems, from minority-student access to college, to creating new charter school authorizers. After a full day of constructing solutions using a human-centered approach, Saturday’s ideas were perhaps more varied and complex given the longer amount of time for participants to collaborate and push their solutions beyond the school models they already knew. Only then were ideas such as reverse-pitches from colleges to students and university-sponsored, nonprofit charter authorizers hypothesized.
The Lean Lab acknowledges that the ability to discuss our cities attempts at education reform and new theories for change is not a new opportunity, nor eliminating the district as a school operator not as polarizing or infuriating an idea as previously thought. However, the opportunity to actually build from these discussions and events is a rare one, and one that we welcome and invite you to. On The Lean Lab’s end, we plan to foster a greater commitment to facilitating group discussions that offer steps and paths forward so that the conversation does not end at the door.
So let’s reconvene. Have questions, ideas, unspoken thoughts from reED? Join us December 18, 4-7 PM for a Happy Hour Hackathon dedicated to building on the ideas from reED, and truly turn them into reality at Startup Weekend EDU, January 23-25. We can’t wait to see you.