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  • Writer's pictureRachel Langan

Incremental Change Didn’t Save Blockbuster. It Won’t Save Education, Either

. . . the only option for schools with large populations of struggling students is wholescale, systemic reform. Absent that, it is unlikely that school leaders will be able to close the opportunity gap or innovate in ways that will prepare students for the future.

Broken public school systems need wholescale change if they are going to prepare students for the skills they will need by 2035.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the current education ecosystem is its inability to envision what the future holds for our students and to make systemic changes now to prepare them for that future. Shackled to a monolithic, change-resistant system, school and district leaders continue to make incremental and piecemeal changes to a broken system expecting to get different outcomes.

In an analogous way, almost all public-school systems are like Blockbusters in the late 1990s — unwilling to assess the impact of technological advances and consider how they might need to revisit their design principles. In the end, if an organization does not move purposefully toward some likely future, then any path forward will do, and it is likely to be the path they are currently on.

The workplace’s 2035 needs

Numerous studies and analyses already point to a fundamentally different workplace and different skills that will be required by 2035. Employers are already signaling that they need workers with “durable skills” such as critical thinking, communication, being able to work in teams and learning how to learn.

We do not know exactly how artificial intelligence will change the workplace by 2035, but we already know its impact over the last decade and can extrapolate forward. Similarly, we are witnessing in real-time the expansion of the “gig economy,” which will change the workforce in both positive and negative ways.

Indeed, there seems to be a growing symbiotic relationship between artificial intelligence and the gig economy. As artificial intelligence becomes more ubiquitous, forcing workers out of “left-brain” jobs, companies have greater labor options and can take advantage of outsourcing low-skilled tasks to the gig economy. Amazon’s Flex and DSP delivery programs presage this type of shift in the labor market and a trend that is likely to grow quickly.

Even if future workplace and workforce changes are more incremental and benign, graduates clearly need additional and different skills and competencies to be successful in the future. Reading and fundamental math skills will remain important, but they will no longer be sufficient.

Graduates with year 2035 skills and competencies will be in the best position to compete for higher-skill jobs. And as always, if schools do not help students gain these skills, then better-resourced families will have a competitive advantage.

My biggest fear is that poor and other disadvantaged students will neither gain reading proficiency nor be taught the 2035 skills. If social mobility continues to decline, the two achievement gaps — the traditional reading and math gap and the year 2035 competencies gap — will be “locked in” for the next 50 years.

“Wholescale” reform

The time for bold reform and desperate measures has come and gone — probably around the turn of the century. Now the only option for schools with large populations of struggling students is wholescale, systemic reform. Absent that, it is unlikely that school leaders will be able to close the opportunity gap or innovate in ways that will prepare students for the future.

If every system is designed to get the results it is getting, then we need a fundamentally different system to get different outcomes. But one cannot develop a new system through incremental changes to the old, failing system.

No number of refinements of the gears and mechanism on an analog watch can make it a digital device. No amount of change to the Blockbuster “system” of renting movies through brick-and-mortar outlets was going to make it an online system. Similarly, educators cannot continue to make incremental changes to the current way of operating and become a different system.

Millions of dollars are spent on after-school tutoring, new and improved professional development, one-on-one laptop initiatives, tweaks to the salary schedule, smaller class sizes, stronger teacher prep programs and more interventionists. But none are systemic changes, and none will make more than a marginal difference.

Add to that an army of educators, vendors, consultants and advocacy organizations who are vested in the status quo and one can easily see why reform has not been systemic. This is why the current, broken, system will continue to move forward like the walking dead.

No, the only way to transform education is through wholescale change.

For change to be truly systemic, one has to change the design principles and ways of operating in order to achieve different outcomes. Imagine, for example, if schools were intentionally designed to help students learn how to learn and learn how to think. What if that same school outlined the specific year 2035 competencies students should acquire, such as problem-solving, working in teams, critical thinking, information literacy and communications, and was held accountable for achieving those outcomes?

Imagine if schools not only taught reading, math and science, but also required different “experiences” that students would have to complete in order to move from the early grades to the middle grades and then to the higher grades. And what if those experiences could be completed outside of school and with experts who are not teachers? Imagine if schools paid a professional wage in a teacher’s first year and also eliminated all non-instructional tasks from the teacher role. What if the teacher in such a school did not have to make lesson plans, make copies, grade papers, handle discipline or do any work after 4:00 p.m.?

None of these specific examples can be accomplished piecemeal, but all of them can be accomplished at the same time if a school or district underwent a wholescale systemic change. The schools in the Third Future Schools network in Texas have proven that it is possible and are quickly expanding “proof points” for other schools and districts to emulate.

Districts need a split-screen approach

While changing a school or small network system is certainly possible, it is next to impossible to transform a district. There are just too many interrelated and financially connected parts — too many vested interests and too many political barriers. Still, there is one approach that takes advantage of the nimbleness of innovative schools, while adhering to the traditional incremental approach that public education is used to and prefers.

For any existing district or network of schools with more than a handful of schools, the best strategy for implementing systemic change is a combination of the “split-screen” approach, authored by Ted Kolderie, and the “proof point” strategy.

Using a split-screen strategy, a district would not attempt to make systemic changes district-wide. Rather, it would implement transformative changes in one or two schools while continuing to make incremental improvements in the rest of the district. Once the schools operating with the new system principles achieve the outcomes and succeed, they will become proof points to allow the district to implement systemic change in even more schools over a period of time.

Wholescale, systemic change is happening in a relatively small percentage of schools in the country, and we are out of time. But hope springs eternal and a small number of leaders could still change the public education system before the opportunity gap is locked in. We could change the course of public education and better prepare students for success if:

  • District and school leaders outline year 2035 competencies and the outcomes they believe schools should attain.

  • District and school leaders use the split-screen and proof-point strategy to begin wholescale, systemic transformation.

  • State legislators expand support for schools attempting wholescale systemic change (such as the SB 1882 partnership legislation passed in Texas in 2017).

  • State legislators provide parents with greater ability to choose schools that focus on year 2035 competencies.

The profession has been talking about changing the system for quite some time. Time’s up — we have to act now. With a nod to the movie Interstellar: we know it is not impossible, but in any case, it’s necessary!

Mike Miles is founder and CEO of Third Future Schools and former superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District

The Catalyst is a nonpartisan quarterly journal from The Bush Institute that operates from the belief that ideas matter. They shape public policies, spur action, and lead to results. Each issue presents compelling essays that address a central question or theme. Along with Bush Institute directors and fellows, The Catalyst convenes leading experts and writers, as well as new and rising voices, to address each topic.

By Mike Miles January 26, 2023


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